Newry – Portadown Canal Paddle

Is this the first time in 74 yrs that the entire Newry Canal has been kayaked!!

Newry – Portadown Canal

On a bitterly cold Monday morning in January three of us from Banbridge Kayak Club met in a car park to begin our attempt to be the first people for 74 years that we knew of to complete a trip along the entire Newry Canal. There was myself (George Bryans), Dennis Rice and Tony Megraw. Shortly afterwards we were joined by Clifford and Wilson from Banbridge Camera Club to record our efforts and verify that we had made the whole journey. The records say that the last vessel to travel the length of the canal was a pleasure yacht in 1937. None of us own a pleasure yacht instead we have our trusty kayaks which effectively allow us to ‘access all areas’ waterwise.
As part of our preparation for this we had walked the canal towpath to see if it was feasible to paddle along the disused canal and we seen that it would pose a challenge but it was possible. We’re normally to be found in the Irish Sea and in the past Denny and I have paddled our kayaks across to Scotland and the Isle of Man so this was certainly going to be something different. It would need to be done in the winter when the weeds and rushes were not choking the canal and we would need a few days of rain to get the water levels up. The Newry Canal is the oldest summit canal in the UK. It was built between 1731 and 1742 to link Lough Neagh to the Irish Sea primarily to allow coal to be transported from Coalisland to the wider markets. I didn’t even know what a summit canal was until we attended a meeting of the Canal Development Committee in Scarva Visitor Centre last year. I was informed that it is a canal which gets its water supply topped up by a summit lake, also known as a feeder lake. Newry Canal has a summit level about 24 metres above sea level so locks had to be constructed to permit boats to rise and drop between Lough Neagh and the Irish Sea. It had 14 locks in all along its 20 mile route.
We had met up with Banbridge Councillor John Hanna who is one of many people who have a passion to get this canal back into regular use. He gave us his full backing and promised any support that we might need. John arranged for us to be able to borrow the keys to the various gates along the towpath so that Clifford and Wilson (aka The Paparazzi) could drive ahead and find some scenic locations to set up their cameras.
The hard weather in December had helped cut back the weeds and we had had a good spell of heavy rain in the preceeding days so it was time to get down and dirty (literally). Acton Lake (Lough Shark) is the summit lake so this was our starting point. From here the canal flowed both ways – north down to the River Bann which leads to Lough Neagh, and south back down to Newry. Rather than fight the flow we were going to go with it and split our journey into two legs. As there were longer stretches of clear paddling from Acton to Portadown we had brought our sea-kayaks for this first leg.
The first few miles were hard going because of the weeds, it wasn’t so much paddling as pushing our way through reed beds. We were restricted to single file with the first person leaving a trail for the others to follow. When there was sufficient width we changed positions to allow a rotation system which gave each of us a chance to lead and then to follow. The first person also had to cut through branches of fallen trees which partially blocked our path, for this Denny had brought some secateurs and loppers. Our first portage was at Terryhoogan, here we had to pull the boats up a steep slope covered in brambles, carry the boats around the derelict lock and across the road and put in again down another steep slope also covered in brambles.
We were now into a very shallow, stony section which didn’t do the hulls of our boats any good as we scraped along. At this point it struck me how varied kayaking can be, usually we were surrounded on all side by miles of open water yet here I couldn’t see more than a few feet either side of me. We cleared a path through a section of branches which barred our way and then we squeezed underneath a low footbridge, it was more like an obstacle course than a canal. It was around here Denny realised he had dropped his loppers somewhere so we were relying on the secateurs for clearing any further branches.
Thankfully we were into a straighter, clearer section now where we could paddle properly. Shortly we hit our first traffic jam of the day when a dozen or so swans swam in front of us. We couldn’t overtake them as each time we got close to them they flew a few hundred yards and swam slowly until we caught up with them again. They played this game until we reached another barrier in the canal. Here someone had filled in the canal with stones to form a bridge across it, they had put in two pipes to allow the water to flow through. Neither us nor the swans could go through because there were only a few inches to spare between the water level and the top of the pipes. The swans reached this obstruction first and were trapped between it and ourselves. As we tentatively paddled closer a few of them took off towards us and easily made it, the others decided to play a game of chicken and see how long they could leave it before they had to join their wary friends. When this group eventually tried to take off over our heads they had barely enough ‘runway’ space and seemed to be on a collision course with us. All of them managed to avoid Tony and Denny (you would too if you seen them) but one struck me on the left shoulder as I tried to duck down out of his way. Neither of us suffered serious damage and the swan made good his escape. Now we were at our second and last portage of the day, this one was particularly muddy but at least there were no brambles to tear at us.
These last few miles gave us an opportunity to make good use of the sea kayaks and travel along at a good pace. We stopped for a late lunch at Moneypenny’s Lock and then paddled into the River Bann and down to Portadown before the light started to fade and the temperature drop further.
For the second leg of our journey from Acton Lake to Newry we decided to use our river kayaks as, being much shorter, they would be handier for the increased number of portages on this section. Again we pushed through reed beds and branches but the increased manoeveurability of these boats helped us enormously, and when we had to portage it was much easier to re-enter the water by sliding down the banks in our boats. If we had tried this in our sea kayaks we would have speared the bottom of the canal. The only downside came when we entered a stretch of clear water, you just can’t get the same paddling speed when comparing them to the sea boats but that is the trade off. At one of the locks our passage was barred by a tree trunk which had wedged itself at the entrance but we were able to haul ourselves up on to it and drop down the other side. At another lock the drop in water level was only about three feet so we were able to stay in the boats and run right through this one.
There were quite a few cyclists and walkers who clearly were not used to seeing anyone in the canal and a lot of them stopped to chat and give us words of encouragement.
Getting closer to Newry you can see where the canal has had some restoration work and this is a welcome sight, if only it can be extended along the length of the canal.
As we neared the end of our journey our faithful photographers were there to capture the end of the first navigation in many years of this once busy canal.
There are a committed number of people in the Newry – Portadown Branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland who volunteer their time and hard work to clear up the litter and rubbish dumped along its route and who would love to see the Canal reopened. I have been told that the Newry Canal towpath is the second most used amenity in Northern Ireland by number of visitors (there were approx. 90,000 visitors recorded by hidden automatic sensors last year). In these times of cost-cutting it is unlikely that funding will be made available to get the canal the reconstruction work that it needs but if more people use the canal and its towpath who knows what could happen in the future?.

George Bryans

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