A few hundred yards upstream from here was that part of the County River known as Sandy Bottom; this part of the river was a favourite swimming place for the Newry youth in the days before the opening of the local swimming pool.
Way back in the fifties the track on the canal towpath was also a much vaunted place for swimming, that is, in the days before the opening of the Bacon Factory. I remember as a young boy coming down here with my friends and watching with amazement as the older boys from the Barracks stood on the parapet of the bridge and dived into the canal. They would then swim across the canal and climb up upon the wall separating the canal from the County River. That wall was crowded with boys, all sitting there in the sun and having the best of craic.
Every now and then some of them would swim back over to us youngsters to make sure we were ok as we paddled our feet and splashed about in the much shallower Bessbrook River. Sometimes the boys sitting on the wall would go the other way and dive into the deeper County River and swim right up to the outlet where the river was diverted through Damolly Mill and back again.
We would have loved to have been able to perform some of those daring acts of aquatic skill, but my friends and I were too young and non-swimmers. All that we could manage was paddling our feet and splashing about in the shallow water.
There was a way however that enabled the younger kids to cross the canal so that they could get to sit on that wall along with the big boys. If we were to walk further on along the tow path until we came to the next lock on the canal – we called this lock McKnight’s Lock – there was at this place an old rickety wooden bridge across to the other side of the canal. If we could cross here then we could walk back down the opposite bank to join with the other lads on the wall.
There was one problem with this plan though! The bridge was a ‘toll’ bridge! There was a charge of tuppence levied against all who wished to cross. Most of the time we didn’t have this rather large amount of cash on our persons, so then we had to resort to that other method, namely, to surreptitiously sneak across.
Swimming in the canal and County River down at the track sometimes could be quite dangerous, especially at times of flood! I remember one young lad who drowned here. There were a few other near-misses. Sometimes boys were rescued only by the quick intervention of friends.
… final …