Treasuring Ireland: The Heritage of Oldbridge and its Environs

4th June 2020
News Item

Meath has always had a strong reverence for heritage and the natural environment. This did not get much attention in J. Stirling Coyne’s The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland (1842) but Colonel William Burton who resided at Slane Castle and later adopted the family name Conyngham, founded the Hibernian Antiquarian Society in 1779 to promote Irish ancient buildings abroad.

The Meath Association of An Taisce every year operates a social events calendar whereby we visit heritage sites and classical architectural homes and gardens in Meath and other counties in order to enhance our knowledge of the natural and built past. This article focuses on the lower section of the Boyne Navigation around Oldbridge near Drogheda and its environs, including Townley.

The Boyne Navigation extends over a length of 31 km from Drogheda to Navan and includes use of the River Boyne and a series of short navigation canals, running parallel to the river, to bypass the numerous weirs along the route. The upper stretch of the navigation extends from Navan to Slane while the lower extends from Slane to the port of Drogheda. Construction of the navigation canals was the idea of Markes Plunkett who stated in 1710 “Meath could become by means of this navigation traffic as rich and prosperous as the Indies with trade and employment booming” (Stout, 2002). Construction of the canal commenced in 1748 at Oldbridge with the building of the Oldbridge Sealock and its completion was overseen by the engineer David Jebb. The original engineer David Steers died in 1750. Industries along the navigation prospered with the main cargoes being grain, flour and linen going downstream from the various mills, with coal, iron and building materials going upstream. David Jebb completed the series of canals to Slane by 1760 and later built a mill for himself there in 1766. A stone plaque today commemorates him at the recently restored Sealock.

The navigation from Slane to Navan took much longer to build and was not completed until the end of the 18th century. Much of the trade on the navigation gradually disappeared when a railway line from Navan to Drogheda was built in the second half of the 19th Century. In the early 1900s, however, the canal became a tourist attraction with the Boyne Valley Canal Tours Company which operated tours and even produced a guidebook in 1903. The tour company collapsed in 1913 and passed it on to the Spicer family; however the navigation fell into disrepair due to lack of traffic and funding to make it operational all the year round and independent of low summer water levels and high winter levels. Thanks to Rev. Canon Cyril Ellison, author of the The Waters of the Boyne and Blackwater, who became the first Chairperson of Meath An Taisce established in 1968 with the primary objective of acquiring ownership of the disused canal. This was achieved in 1969 when An Taisce acquired the sections of the Boyne Navigation then owned by the Spicers. The intention of An Taisce was to preserve and restore the canals and towpaths for public use. Eventually, with Heritage Funding and with the invaluable help of An Taisce members such as Geoffrey Clarke and volunteers from the Boyne Navigation Group of Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, the Sealock at Oldbridge was fully restored. This was followed by the restoration of the Guard Lock at the Horse Bridge in Oldbridge Estate in 2018 and by the restoration of the third lock at Staleen West in 2019. Navigation is now possible from Drogheda to Staleen a distance of some 10km.

Over a number of years An Taisce and IWAI Boyne Navigation have been in discussion with Meath County Council regarding making use of the canal towpaths to provide a Greenway for cyclists and pedestrians from Drogheda to Navan. The concept of the Boyne Greenway was born and in May 2014 the first stretch of Greenway was constructed. This extends from near the Bridge of Peace in Drogheda to the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre at Oldbridge House and passes by the restored Sealock. This has become a very much used walkway and is a very popular amenity with the people of Drogheda. Meath County Council have recently appointed consultants to draw up plans for the continuation of this Greenway from Oldbridge to Slane and Navan.

Oldbridge House built of ashlar limestone in the 1740s by the Coddington family was a three storey building with three bays and two single storey wings attached which nestled with its natural parklands to the south of the canal. George Darley is credited with the design - his other works include Dunboyne Castle and Dowth House. In 1832 Frederick Darley’s design added two storeys to the single side wings and with the surrounding buildings now forms a courtyard hosting the OPW’s Battle of the Boyne Visitors Centre. The estate was a substantial producer of food at its prime and, as it expanded, farm labourers’ cottages were added along with glass houses and an 18th century Octagonal walled gardens, which were restored and opened in 2014. Visitors to the house can avail of tours and view military displays and the cannons perched outside the main doorway.

Oldbridge village was where 6,000 Jacobities were posted on the south side of the river Boyne to confront 26,000 Williamites in 1690. As there was no bridge across the Boyne then at Oldbridge the Williamite Dutch Blue Guards crossed the river here at low tide and eventually defeated the Jacobites at the historic Battle of the Boyne. Close to the entrance of Oldbridge House is the single span Obelisk steel truss bridge built c.1869 by Drogheda contractors which spans the river and bypasses the canal. The northern side of the bridge leads to King William’s Glen and the site of a former obelisk built in 1736 to commemorate William’s victory. It was blown up in 1923 for political reasons.

If one stays south of the bridge and walks the canal towpath heading towards Slane, a walk which Meath An Taisce members have taken in the past for biodiversity week and bat watch walks, you will encounter the various dry and wet grasslands, reed beds, mixed woodlands and rhododendrons, and an old stone boat house. The next lock up from the Sealock is the Guard Lock at the typical stone arch horse bridge and near it is one of a series of concrete pillboxes built around 1940 along the Boyne. They are about 3 metres in length and just short of 2 metres high with the entrance to the east. They are not the kind of structure one expects to find on a leafy canal bank walk among the wild parsley, reeds, and lilies.

Proceeding further along the canal, the derelict Glenmore House is reached. A long term ambition of Meath An Taisce has been to try and save this structure. It belonged to the Oldbridge Estate and had gardens, parklands and outbuildings. Twenty years ago it still had the roof intact and was salvageable, but sadly today the house and gardens have become derelict and overgrown. From its elevated site it had a wonderful view over the Boyne Valley and arched vaulted ceilings in the lower storey. One can only guess what still remains.

While walking the tow paths there are options to return to Oldbridge Estate and take the self-guided walks across the rolling hills. A view north brings in Francis Johnson’s magnificent Georgian Townley Hall, with its 60 acres and forests. It brings to mind Ledwidge’s poem as mentioned in Peter Harbison’s Treasures of the Boyne Valley.

‘Through lovely woods and sparkling streams I’ve wandered many a time. I love to scan those distant days And sadly I recall Each hour I sat near the red-breasted bird That piped in Townley Hall’

The wooded driveway of the house on the Slane to Navan road leads to an unembellished two storey house of seven bays with a single storey portico with fluted Doric columns. It was built in the late 1700s for the Blayney Townley-Balfour family who owned it for generations. It is certainly one of Francis’s Johnson’s finest designs. The simple exterior appearance of the square house sitting on a hill does not prepare one for the splendour and architectural delight of the interior. The neo-classical plaster craftsmanship of the stair hallway is stunning with its central, coffered rotunda and spiral, cantilever staircase which attracts visitors from all over the world. Although the house is considered two-storeyed it does have an attic concealed by the roof parapet and a basement kitchen which has fluted Doric columns. Meath An Taisce held its 50th anniversary here in 2018 along with the Ellison Awards, not to mention previous AGMs and it is a dream to walk down the staircase to the sound of violins playing. Townley Hall was purchased by Trinity College in the 1950s. Geologist and naturalist, Founder Member and former President of An Taisce, George Francis Mitchell of Trinity College then purchased the property to set up a study centre. He was renowned for integrating his studies in various fields such as botany and archaeology of the Irish natural environment along with funding several archaeological excavations including Knowth. The Hall was acquired by the School of Philosophy and Economic Sciences in the 1980s. The house and grounds are now private. However, Coillte manage the nearby Townley Hall Wood which was planted by the Balfour family over 150 years ago. Tree species are mainly broadleaf including oak, beech, ash, sycamore and some conifers such as European silver fir and Scots pine.

Finally, I wish to thank all our members and friends of An Taisce who have joined us on these memorable events and helped us continue our heritage and environmental activities.

If you would like to find out about our Meath and Louth Association photography competition, please click here!

Reference Stout, G. (2002) Newgrange and the Bend of the Boyne. Cork University Press, 233pp.

by Margaret Monaghan, Meath Association, An Taisce

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