MOUNTAINS and canals would hardly be seen as going hand in hand, but one such waterway easing its way gently past one of Wales’ foremost mountain ranges would beg to differ.
The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, much of which flows within the stunning Brecon Beacons National Park, is actually a conjoined remnant of two separate canals built to serve the white heat of the industrial revolution.
Owned and operated by waterways agency Glandŵr Cymru, nowadays it is a well-appreciated leisure facility. Some 56km of it are still navigable, slipping placidly like a laid-back eel through the Usk Valley between Brecon and Pont-y-Moel on the outskirts of Pontypool. It passes through countless pretty towns and villages, including Brynich, Llangynidr and Crickhowell, that are well-deserving of a visit.
Topping them all is the highly picturesque Talybont-on-Usk, which can offer a shop, cafes and a number of pubs, and stands amidst excellent walking country. A popular well-marked walk sets off from the canal wharf along the bed of a former tramway, returning over a circular route via the Dyffryn Crawnon valley.
Another is the Henry Vaughan Walk through the village’s rural hinterland. It is named after the 17th century poet, nicknamed the Swan of the Usk, who was one of its more esteemed sons. You can read extracts from his poetry, and of his poet brother Thomas’, placed on posts along the easy 4.5km amble. Henry Vaughan famously wrote these lines, originally in Latin:
“Wales gave me birth, in the place
where Father Usk launches
down from the windswept mountains
to wander in broad valleys.”
Also a popular stopping-off point is the Goytre Wharf in Llanofer near Abergavenny, which is well worth a visit of its own accord. Here you’ll find a fascinating interpretation centre, with a gallery and coffee shop, plus woodland walks, canoe or bike hire, and an opportunity to appreciate the architectural wonders that are the old lime kilns. They are the reason behind the wharf’s very existence, built in the 18th century to churn out the lime mortar needed by agriculture and the then-booming construction industry alike. Limestone would be transported here to be converted into lime, and then transported onwards either along the canal or by horse-drawn tramway to the rural border areas.
Day-trips and longer breaks on the canal’s unhurried waters are a popular feature of visits to this area, particularly among those who have neither the lung-power nor the inclination to tackle some of the Beacon Beacons, Wales’ highest mountain range outside Snowdonia. However the views to the mountains from the canal, including of Pen y Fan (pronounced as Pen-uh-van), the highest mountain in southern Wales, are to die for.
Further south, it passes through the stunning pock-marked industrial landscape around Blaenafon that has been designated a World Heritage Site, which includes the Big Pit National Mining Museum.
Some come for extended breaks in five-star luxury canal boats such as those you can hire from Beacon Park Boats at Llangattock – more correctly known as Llangatwg – among other operators. Others prefer shorter trips on the water, such as those run from Brecon by Dragonfly Cruises.
But you don’t really have to venture onto the water to appreciate this stunning route and its multitude of wildlife. The towpath alongside the canal can also be walked or cycled, an easy or challenging route according to the individual’s whims. It forms the northern part of the popular Taff Trail Long Distance Footpath which runs from Brecon Basin – smack in the centre of the town of Brecon, next to the Theatr Brycheiniog arts centre – for all of 88km right into the centre of Cardiff.
There is little other remaining navigable evidence in the south of Wales, at present, of what would’ve been a substantial network in the heyday of canal transportation. One of them is the Swansea Canal, which last saw commercial traffic in 1931.
Although plans are afoot to re-open upwards of 50km right back into Swansea docks, at present just 8km is fully navigable, between Clydach and Ynysmeudwy. As a consequence boat trips are just occasionally organised by the hard-working volunteers of the Swansea Canal Society.
They do however hire canoes and kayaks every Sunday in summer from the Clydach Heritage Centre at Coed Gwilym Park in Clydach. The centre is usually open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons throughout the year. However, the canal still offers a stupendously attractive walking and cycling route along the Swansea Valley, teeming with wildlife both in the water and on its banks.
Meanwhile the Tennant Canal has not been at all navigable for a long time, last used in 1934. It is 13km in length and stands between Port Tennant, which is adjacent to the A483 some three kilometres outside Swansea city centre, and its junction with the Neath Canal at Aberdulais. It has surprisingly remained virtually intact due to it being used as a water source for local industry at Baglan Bay, and to supply Swansea docks.
However, it offers an amazing variety of wildlife and pleasant walking through a landscape that has largely recovered from the ravages of its highly industrialised past. It is supported by the Neath Tennant Canal Trust, together with the adjoining Neath Canal, along part of which the Trust occasionally organises boat trips.