Travel: Paradise unlocked on the waterline: Ann Hills boarded a motor cruiser for the 40-mile journey along the reopened Shannon-Erne Waterway

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The Independent Travel
The main roads on the border between Northern Ireland and the republic are dotted with heavily protected military outposts. But these disappear in the lush countryside where Co Cavan meets Fermanagh.

'Tis somewhere near here,' said a fisherman, sheltering under a green umbrella downstream of Ballyconnell. The border was there, right enough, on the navigation chart, part of it dotted down a creek too tight for a canoe. There were no signs. The munching cows on the banks looked identical.

We were sailing in a cabin cruiser along part of the newly reopened Shannon- Erne Waterway, a pounds 30m cross- border project about 40 miles long. This stretch of water is still known as the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell canal, its original name when it was built in the mid-19th-century famine years as a trade route between the River Shannon and the Erne loughs.

A mere eight boats paid their dues before technical problems and competition from rail and road led to its demise. The canal closed in 1869 and became a clogged ditch. Villages turned their back on the disappointment until this year, when it became a water highway once more.

Joint backing by both British and Irish governments, and European funding, have opened up an idyllic, unspoilt landscape to boating enthusiasts. New weirs, fish passes and moorings have been installed and 16 original locks rebuilt. The reason for this activity is simple. The canal forms part of Europe's longest leisure waterpark, stretching 500 miles from the southern reaches of the River Shannon to the far point of Lower Lough Erne, at the border village of Belleek.

Weeks could be spent exploring the network of rivers, still waters and lakes vast enough to have waves. There are also myriad islands and isolated jetties with barely room for two boats to tie up side by side. But our trip was only for two days, just long enough to travel the new link from Carrick on Shannon to Belturbet - 16 hours.

Peter, the engineer at the boatyard, briefed us on our 32ft cruiser. My companion, John, talked knowingly about oil as I filled the fridge (provisions included a side of smoked wild salmon) and mused on how knowledge of boats invariably divides the sexes. Technical instruction over, we set sail.

An hour after leaving the hub of Carrick on Shannon, the river narrowed. The left fork went to Leitrim. Ahead, a red-and-white navigation signal on a pole taller than a set of traffic lights indicated the start of the canal.

'You are number 102,' said the official Waterway ranger, selling smart cards at lock number 16 (the first, or last, depending on where you start). The cards, which cost pounds 10, work the locks and open the moorings' washing facilities - hi-tech showers that seem distinctly eccentric in a rural setting. Even the washbasins are programmed to perform a series of tricks: an electric light comes on as taps emit a stream of soapy water, followed by a gush of hot air.

The press-button gadgetry seems a far cry from the craftsmanship of the Victorian stonemasons who lined up the stone walls of the locks to within fractions of an inch. Will smart cards last 150 years like the masons' work? 'We've only had a few teething problems,' said an engineer, opening another box of tricks. A 'call intercom' button on the control post is supposed to summon a ranger, who will give advice on his radio or swiftly arrive in a Waterways van.

Help, in any case, is never far away. At one stage a farmer and his quartet of children came to our rescue at a lock. A Shirley Temple lookalike calmly studied the lock's control panel and detected the fault, a top gate not quite closed.

The waterway itself was joyous and varied, with bends and minor diversions: a farmstead by the bank, brick-and- stone bridges, and lakes with only a solitary fisherman sitting in a rowing boat too distant to capture on camera.

The German tourists are the keenest anglers and often have up to three dinghies towed along behind their cruisers, which occasionally led to complaints. We encountered one German couple who managed to jam a dinghy in a lock and later, in the next, put their bow under the lock gate, sending their boat topsy-turvy until the water was reversed and they were dislodged.

After passing through eight locks, a rise of perhaps 80ft, we spent the first night at Lough Scur. The mooring was large enough for us to squeeze in next to an odd- looking boat called Gertie.

She belonged to Des Foley, the publican at Gertie's Canal stop in Keshcarrigan, the village by the lough. If you are fortunate enough to visit, look out for decorative painted glass behind the bar, for the 'Victoria Grove, W8' nameplate (past home of the Princess of Wales, Mr Foley claimed) and drink Guinness laced with Irish blarney.

A year or so ago, he hauled an inconspicuous hull into a layby over the road and ordered carpenters to build a superstructure. 'I put in benches from Catholic and Protestant churches,' he explained, being fair to both sides. The odd-looking vessel (named, like the bar, after the previous publican) was filmed as she was hoisted on to Lough Scur, where she is now hired out for cruises.

Mr Foley promised to meet us early next morning, to show off Gertie. But he missed the appointed hour and we departed, only to find him a mile downstream at the next lock. 'A calf was born in the early hours,' he explained.

Our boat slipped through the gates, leaving Mr Foley standing as we descended. 'Moses is opening the water,' he said, stretching his arms wide as the press-button computerised controls opened the lower gate and water flooded out.

We stopped off at Ballinamore, where a neat little backwater provides a mooring just yards from the main street of the village. Here are the headquarters of the Shannon-Erne waterway itself. Terry McGovern, marketing manager, was in ebullient mood. Though others still wonder what effect the canal will have, he bubbles enthusiastically about its future. Meanwhile the entrepreneurs talk of expensive new marinas and the farmers and hoteliers take to the water.

'We've ordered four canal boats, which are being built in Cheshire,' Graham Thomas said. His family lives at Riversdale, halfway down the Erne. On their doorstep, across the water, is lock number four. A long, winding narrow section continues until the markers indicate the beginning of scenic Garadice Lough.

In Ballyconnell, we tied up and wandered into the near- deserted main street, where Brian Fee, shopkeeper and funeral director, said the town's preparations for canal business were lagging. 'The water has always been a dumping ground,' he said. But he hoped that new flagstones, lights and more moorings would soon present a more positive image.

We regretted that the pubs still looked drab, although a sparkling faced schoolboy enthused that 'the canal is bringing business'. But his elders need to turn the town around, to tidy up backyards and transform them into beer gardens, shops and invitations to explore.

Beyond Ballyconnell, the canal links with the Woodford River, where fine masonry in locks and bridges are further testimony to 19th- century skills. This stretch along the border features poetic names - Cloncooby and Corraquill, for example - that are in tune with the rich, unspoilt terrain.

No one is more a part of the setting than Joan Bullock, who sold a patch of her farmland for Aghalane mooring, beyond Corraquill lock. She is a remarkable naturalist who lives in a thatched cottage beside the River Woodford. The road beside it used to be the main Enniskillen- Belturbet highway, but after a spate of murders the bridge over the canal was blown up and now gives out by Mrs Bullock's cottage.

Her home has became a port of call on the road to nowhere, welcoming strangers who write their names and comments in her visitors' book. They sip tea, or something stronger, inspect her garden by the stream, and listen to her talk of birds, bats and butterflies.

Beyond here the tiny lakes are shallow until the Woodford opens into large Upper Lough Erne. There, on a miniature island, a goose stood on one leg on the battlements of a tower, and refused to budge (we wanted to see its takeoff). This is part of the magnificent Crom Estate, owned by the National Trust and the starting point for exploring the unsung inland seas of Northern Ireland.

Without time to continue, we turned towards Foalies Cut, for a final hour's sailing down to Belturbet. On our right, the Emerald Star's new pounds 2.5m marina came into view, and a few yards on a sign announced: 'End of navigation'.

For further information, maps and brochures, contact Shannon-Erne Waterway, Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, Ireland (010 353 78 44855; fax 78 44856).

(Photograph omitted)

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