Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
Cruising down the peaceful waters of the beautiful Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal itís hard to imagine that two hundred years ago when it was first created it was an important and busy part of industrial life in South Wales. Where today the canal is used for leisurely days out on boats, walks beneath the tunnel of trees that line the banks and for fishing, the towpaths were once walked by hardworking horses pulling the boats along, and men worked hard in the wharfs along the canal loading and unloading various goods.
Though today the canal is more commonly known as the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, it was originally constructed as two separate canals. Acts of Parliament allowing the creation of the Monmouthshire Canal and the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal were passed in 1792 and 1793 respectively. The quality of the roads was poor at the time, and since a horse pulling a boat could transport sixty times as much weight as a horse pulling a cart, manmade waterways were the answer to effective transportation of coal, lime and iron around South Wales.
The Monmouthshire Canal was to run from Pontymoile down to Newport including forty-two locks with a branch off to Crumlin at Malpas including thirty two locks. The main canal reached Newport and its completion in 1796 while the Crumlin arm was not completed until 1799.
Meanwhile work had begun on the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal which was originally intended to run from Brecon down to the River Usk until it was suggested by the Monmouthshire Canal Company that the two canals meet at Pontymoile. This link was completed in 1812 creating a waterway running down all the way from Brecon to Newport. Unlike the Monmouthshire Canal the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal followed the way of the land far more and only contains six locks in total remaining on one level for twenty three miles. Two hundred years ago this meant there was less hold up in the transportation of goods, today it means more leisurely cruising along the canal. The canal also includes a tunnel at Ashford, a four arch aqueduct over the River Usk at Brynich and a single arched aqueduct at Gilwern.
Along with the canals nearly two hundred miles of tramroads were constructed to bring goods such as coal, iron and lime by horse-drawn trams from the pits, the ironworks and the quarries. Large amounts of coal would be held at Brecon wharf and since the use of the canal had cut the costs of transport they were able to cut the price of coal.
Limestone was brought in from large limestone quarries at Trefil and Llangattock to kilns alongside the canal. Lime was created by feeding small pieces of limestone with coal into the top of the kiln to be burned. It was then transported by boat for sale in various overseas markets. Since lime was dangerous to transport it was important that the kilns be placed as close to the canal as possible to minimise the distance it was transported. Many of the disused lime kilns can still be seen today along the canal at various spots such as at Goytre and Gilwern.
Another important good transported along the canal was iron. Iron ore was brought up from Newport to supply the forges and the ironworks such as the one at Clydach gorge, and the resulting wrought iron products were then once more transported back to the canal by tram road and returned down south.
Business was strong on both canals, though the Monmouthshire Canal could be said to have been more successful. In 1809 it carried 148,000 tons of coal which was almost five times as much as that carried on the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal which only carried 30,000 tons of coal a year at its peak in the 1920s. Despite the agreement made between the canals that toll rates on the Monmouthshire Canal would be no greater than that of the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal for goods travelling to and from that canal, the two were in competition. Ironmasters connected by tram road to the Monmouthshire Canal realised that they could take advantage of the cheaper toll rates by laying an alternative route to the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal. Iron was in high demand as it was needed to support the industrial revolution and its growing need for railways.
Ironically it was the very system of railways that had created so much demand for iron to be transported on the canal that ultimately brought about a decline in business. As new steam trains came in they took away much of the canal trade. From the 1940s the Monmouthshire Canal Company embraced the move towards the railway by developing existing tram roads along the canal into railways. In 1848 it changed its name to the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company. Eventually sections of the canal itself were drained to allow for their conversion into railways. In 1865 the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company bought the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal, and in 1880 the whole length of the canal that had once been a vital part of South Wales industry was bought by Great Western Railway. By 1933 the canal had fallen into disuse.
Thankfully the importance of this beautiful piece of Welsh history has not been allowed to remain forgotten. In the 1960s restoration work began by the British Waterways Board and the National Park and in 1970 the canal was reopened to the public for recreational use. Thirty-five miles of the full forty-two miles, the majority of which runs through the beautiful countryside of the Brecon Beacons National Park, have been open for canal trips, walking and fishing. Abounding with wildlife along its length, being home to herons, kingfishers, swans and damselflies and offering breathtaking views across the Welsh countryside as the trees lining the canal part to frame the scene at various intervals, itís not hard to see why this canal is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful waterways in Britain. And there will still be more to discover and enjoy in the future as the restoration work continues. It is intended that the canal is restored all the way down to Newport, and the Heritage Lottery Fund is currently paying for the restoration of the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal.
While the Brecon and Abergavenny stretch of the canal is praised for its beauty and wildlife, the Crumlin arm of the Monmouthshire Canal is better known for its impressive engineering. Though originally built with thirty-two locks along this stretch of canal in total, a 168ft drop around the Rogerstone area necessitates fourteen locks in only half a mile. The restoration of these locks is well underway though it may take some time before it is all completed. The Fourteen Locks Canal Centre located at Rogerstone was opened in 1976 and though it is not currently possible to navigate the canal by boat, it is a beautiful and interesting walk along the towpath.
Unfortunately some unexpected restoration work has had to take place since a breach in the banks near Gilwern occurred in October 2007 leading to the closure of sixteen miles of the main Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal from bridge 141 to 84. The canal has been drained, relined and over 100,000 fish safely removed from this stretch of water so that it can be restored fully in time for the beginning of the 2009 cruising season.
It is a testament to the importance of this waterway that such care is being taken to preserve the beauty that brings tourists and locals to its banks year after year, as well as the history which is of such great importance to South Wales.
Last but by no means least, is your cat going to be treated with care? A little loving attention may be invaluable to helping your cat settle in, allowing you to enjoy your own holiday with the peace of mind that they are happy and enjoying a holiday all of their own.