Tourism in midlands set to bloom again

The Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Trails, which will extend to 100km, will put this beautiful, but neglected, region back on the visitor map

The Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Trails will offer two days of top-quality riding on properly built, sustainable trails.

The Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Trails will offer two days of top-quality riding on properly built, sustainable trails.

 

Bearing a magnificent appellation evoking – often very real images – of flower-fragrant hillsides, the centrally located Slieve Blooms would appear to have all the requisites for a marketing person’s dream. Yet, these mountains have remained neglected as a playground for outdoor pursuits; mostly bypassed by recreation seekers seduced by the call of Ireland’s west coast uplands.

The often-unsympathetic blanket bogs on the high plateau, the difficulty of uncovering conveniently looped circuits and the lack of investment in trail-building has all contributed to the Blooms resolutely punching below their considerable bulk in terms of visitor spend.

Cos Laois and Offaly, where the mountains are located, were, in 2016, ranked respectively 25 and 24 among 26 counties in terms of spending by overseas tourists.

Considering such unprepossessing figures, it was perhaps unsurprising that on my recent visit, many of the lovely villages at the foot of the range were in apparent decline. Previously thriving pubs, shops and filling stations had closed their doors for the last time as the almost irresistible pull of urban centres such as Tullamore and Portlaoise sucked the life out of these settlements.

This was in sharp contrast to my earlier stop-over in Kilmacthomas, Co Waterford, where a once-declining country village had been totally revitalised by the building of the Waterford to Dungarvan Greenway.

Things may, however, be set to change for the Slieve Bloom hinterland, with the opening of a new recreational project which it is hoped will have a similar economic impact to the Greenway. A series of new bike trails are now being constructed by Coilte with support from the local authorities in Laois and Offaly.

The new stone-built, single track, trails which will traverse the Slieve Blooms from north to south, are aimed at creating incremental visitor spending in the local area. The northern trailhead is planned for the picturesque Offaly village of Kinnity, while on the southern side the trailhead will be at Baunreagh in the Dulour Valley of Co Laois.

Visitor facilities

Looped mountain biking circuits are planned from both trailheads with a linking track over the mountain. Proposed visitor facilities include an information point, toilets, showers, and car parking near both trailheads, while a cafe is planned within existing buildings at Baunreagh. These visitor facilities will also provide a focal point, not only for bikers, but also for hikers and casual ramblers exploring the Blooms.

On April 27 last, the first sod was turned on the Slieve Bloom Mountain Bike Trails by local TD and Minister for Justice and Equality, Charlie Flanagan, who used the occasion to point out that the project “represents the biggest investment in tourism in Laois and Offaly in recent years. Outdoor recreation and adventure tourism is a key growth sector and has been identified as a priority for Irish tourism” he said.

Daithi de Forge is head of recreation at Coilte which, along with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, owns most of the Slieve Bloom plateau. He is very optimistic for the success of the new trails. “We are targeting a different market when compared to the very successful greenways which are aimed at leisure cyclists. The Slieve Bloom Bike Trails, which will extend to 100km when fully complete, are targeting mountain-biking enthusiasts. They represent one part of an overall objective to create the sufficient critical mass of biking trails that is necessary to attract enthusiasts from abroad.

“The Slieve Blooms will offer two days of top-quality riding on properly built, sustainable trails. An overnight stay in the area will be required and this should considerably increase the revenue footprint,” says de Forge.

And what of expected visitor numbers? “Initially we are targeting domestic and UK bikers, but as the critical mass of quality trails in Ireland increases we expect visitors will come from further afield. In the first year, when we will have 35km of cross-country cycling trails, we anticipate about 30,000 trail users. This figure is soon expected to reach 50,000.”

John Clendennen is a member of Offaly County Council since 2014. He hails from the village of Kinnity and is a passionate supporter of the bike trails initiative. When I spoke to him, he was busy organising a meeting in Kinnity aimed at building awareness of and support for the project among members of the local community.

‘Great enthusiasm’

“The idea of creating bike trails in the Slieve Blooms was first proposed about 10 years ago and it has taken a long time to see the idea come to fruition. Now that the trails are set to open next October, with tracks in both Laois and Offaly, great enthusiasm is building up locally. In Kinnity, we expect an increase in visitors which should lead to a greater demand for local services and subsequent investment in the area,” says Clendennen.

“The future for the village seems bright and we look forward to welcoming many mountain-biking enthusiasts from across the country and further afield.”

Certainly, his words seemed pertinent, for when I visited Kinnity there was little sign of the economic decline I had observed elsewhere. The route of the proposed bike trail from the village is entirely off-road and, therefore, parallels but does not use the R440 which leads east into the Slieve Blooms.

It was obvious work was advancing well as I headed uphill past Kinnity Forest carpark and then onwards through delightfully mixed woodlands. Approaching Letter Cross, the trees disappeared and there was a magnificent sense of spaciousness in the high Blooms with memorable views to the central plain of Ireland. Soon, I could see the route bikers would follow on the flanks of the magnificently titled Wolftrap Mountain before descending the Dulour Valley to the trailhead at Baunreagh.

Standing alone amid such austere beauty, it was difficult not to visualise the bike trails as an outstanding success, ensuring that the Slieve Bloom hinterlands will bloom again – this time as a sustainable activity-tourism destination.

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