When you turn off the N78 Kilkenny – Castlecomer road at the junction for Jenkinstown Park, you will see the entrance to the car park of Ballyrafton woods immediately on your left. If you look straight ahead, you can see the tower bridge in the background. Where does it get the name tower bridge if there is no tower to be seen? Well! On the far side of this bridge was the original entrance to Jenkinstown Park, complete with a tower gate and resident gateman.
The Bryan family who were the owners of Jenkinstown Park took over Ballyrafton woods around 1820 from their friend The Earl of Ormonde. It was through this entrance that the Bryan’s would have returned in their carriages from long journeys to Dublin and further afield.
Sometime after 1935, the Land Commission purchased this property subsequently dividing the land between local farmers. The woods became part of the Forestry Division, eventually coming under the stewardship of Coillte.
I should mention that you can still walk under the arch of the tower gate today at the main entrance to St. Kieran’s College in Kilkenny where it was transferred to in the 1940s.
Here at the car park, there are picnic areas and plenty of space to run about. Nature envelopes you straight away into the shade and shelter of the mature oak and beech trees all around you.
You can head towards the river or start your walk at the path leading away from the steps in the car park. Whichever way you go, it must be said that this loop is really not suitable for buggies or wheelchairs as there are steep drops down on the riverside of the walk.
The Irish Sessile Oak trees growing here would have been much valued for their long, straight timbers for shipbuilding. I wonder when these trees were planted, was there an economic plan for harvesting and selling or did they consider that one day this woods would be a much valued local amenity?
It was while walking along this path that I heard the woodpecker for the first time. Mary Durkin from the Kilkenny branch of Birdwatch Ireland organises visits to this woods to hear the woodpecker in the springtime. I am looking forward to a time when we can regroup and try to actually spot this little bird!
There are varying slopes down to the river but again, be warned – these can be steep and sometimes I wonder if making your way back up is more tricky than inching your way down!
The main path through the woods remains relatively level but the roots of trees and drop down on one side mean you do need to be careful of where you step. This loop is quite small in that it really only takes about 15 minutes. It is the type of place to visit if you love to be immersed in nature. The concentration of wildlife means you will always see something new; these days the rooks and ravens high up in the branches seem to be especially busy swooping from tree to tree. Clusters of acorns are dropping off the branches as a result and you may find yourself ducking and diving to avoid these nature bombs!
As you follow the loop back to the car park, you will see this gated entrance and stile across the road. Through here is another small loop, again about 15 minutes that seems a world away from the busy main road on the opposite side of the wall. These gates are protected and date back from the c.1840s-c.1860s. Local people remember the same wall and entrance gates where the car park and picnic area are now.
Through the stile, you can walk straight ahead and then veer to the left to walk back along the river. This section really is in its prime in the springtime with the bluebells carpeting the woodland floor and the ferns unfolding little by little every day. Squirrels will tease your dogs as they race up a tree trunk before our four-legged friends can even jump through the briars and the ivy; local knowledge really stands them in good stead in these moments!
As you come back towards the road you will get a better look at the tower bridge. Some days the river Dinan will be gliding underneath the bridge almost glass-like with stillness and other days it will be a torrent of urgent energy as it hurtles along to join the river Nore closer to Kilkenny.
Next to the bridge is another stile that we can slip through to get back onto the road. These days, we may call this the tower bridge after the tower gate that was built in the mid-1800s but the bridge itself is here a little longer than that – more than 350 years longer!
Joe Rice from Conahy Heritage Society pointed out that this engraving is raised out of the stone, as opposed to the stone engravings today that are etched into stone. This style would have taken considerable skill to perfect.
St. Colman’s Heritage Association published a book on the history of Conahy in 1998 and recorded the inscription above:
“PARICIVS DOWLYE, SVIS, EXPENSIS, HYNC, PONTEM EXTRVXITT, ANNO, DNI 1647, AETERNAM, ILLT, VXORT, AC, LIBERIS, REQUIEM, PRECARE, VIATOR”
If you, like me did not study Latin, then mercifully they also included a translation…
“Patrick Dowlye erected this bridge at his own expense A.D. 1647. Pray for eternal rest for him, for his wife and for his children”.
A walk in a woods is a tonic at any time of the year, but for me, Ballyrafton seems to look especially well as the sun sets on sunny autumn days.
Another great favourite walk is just over the border in Laois…