Cycling is an activity that’s growing in popularity around Ireland, a way to get out and see the countryside from a different point of view and get some exercise in the process. And it’s also something that can be enjoyed in the heart of Kilkenny city, thanks in part to Kilkenny Cycling Tours.
The company rents out bikes to individuals and groups to make their own way around the city and county, but it also offers guided tours. So I set out with co-founder Jason Morrissey to see what all the fuss was about.
It was something I’d been meaning to do earlier in the summer but had been putting off because of all the rain, although Jason says the tours will go rain or shine, and in fact many of his Canadian customers – those from Vancouver, at least – say the rain in Kilkenny is less than what they would expect at home.
Setting out last Friday morning, however, the conditions were ideal for a cycle around the city: cool but dry, with some sunshine added in for good measure.
As he’s giving me a flavour of the tours and the other options on offer, our first mission is to call to Vicar Street so he can distribute bikes to a couple of tourists from Holland who are planning to cycle out to Kells for the day. They test out the bikes and Jason adjusts the brakes and saddles where needed, and then equips them with a map, a bike lock, high-vis vests, a puncture repair kit and a tyre pump just in case they need it along the way.
Sending them off on their merry way, for our own excursion we set out from the Peace Park, a scenic spot where Jason typically brings the tours so they can see several of Kilkenny’s medieval gems at once – from Kilkenny Castle to St Canice’s Cathedral, with St Mary’s Cathedral and other landmarks visible in between.
We then set off along the Nore, past the old swimming pool and down to John’s Quay. This is where Jason answers visitors’ question “And where are you from yourself?” by showing them exactly where: the house on John’s Quay where he grew up, and where his grandparents once lived.
He shares some local history of the 1947 flood – in which his grandparents were rescued from the first-storey window of their home – and the memorial plaque to Harry Shine, who devised a unique flood warning system for the city before the city’s flood relief scheme was put in place.
Pausing next to point out the story of the Carnegie Library, we go next over John’s Bridge and then to Canal Square and the pathway that runs along the river. Here, Jason notes some of the wildlife native to the area, some of the Kilkenny names who have made their way into the history books, and a bit about the history of the canal that was begun in the mid-18th century with the intention of connecting Kilkenny and Inistioge, and which was never finished.
We also take in the remnants of the mills that were once so central to the economic life of the county.
These tidbits are meant to give a flavour of the area rather than being a comprehensive historical tour, as are the introductions to the Black Abbey, Rothe House and St Canice’s Cathedral that come later on the tour. “I am not a historian but I do love history,” Jason explains. “It’s more about showing off the city.”
And while it is possible to book longer tours along the county’s cycling routes, the city tours are intended for a range of fitness levels and interests. It’s might be best described as a stroll that happens to be on a bike.
Lasting around two and a half hours, the tours can also be shaped to match the participants’ interests, Jason says. For people interested in the arts, he has brought them to the National Craft Gallery, for example, and for others who are religiously inclined he shows them more of the city’s ecclesiastical sites.
With a fleet of 40 bikes for children and adults, Kilkenny Cycling Tours also offers a “Bike and Hike” package involving a cycle from the city to Bennettsbridge along the Sion Road, and then following a chance to visit the village’s craft studios, a walk back to the city along the Nore.
The company is also preparing to launch a “Paddle and Pedal” deal, travelling in canoes and kayaks along the river to Bennettsbridge and then making the return journey on bikes.
It’s the peak time of year for the cycling tours, with Jason focusing on cycling safety instruction in the off-season. And even in our time out on the bikes he receives bookings from a Spanish group, a French group, a pair of families visiting Mount Juliet estate, and even a hen party, of which he says he has already catered for a few.
It’s all about offering a different experience.
Kilkenny Cycling Tours can be contacted at 086 8954961 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See www.kilkennycyclingtours.com for more information.