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Bridges at Llangattock
The canal basin at Brecon

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is a canal and a small network of canals running through, as the name suggests, Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire. For most of its 35 miles, the canal runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park; its present rural character and tranquillity belies its original purpose as an industrial corridor for coal and iron, which were brought to the canal by a network of tramways and/or railroads, many of which were built and owned by the canal company.

The "Mon and Brec" was originally two independent canals - the Monmouthshire Canal from Newport to Pontymoile Basin (including the Crumlin Arm) and the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal running from Pontymoile to Brecon. Both canals were abandoned in 1962, but the Brecknock and Abergavenny route and a small section of the Monmouthshire route have been reopened since 1970. Much of the rest of the original Monmouthshire Canal is the subject of a restoration plan, which includes the construction of a new marina at the Newport end of the canal.

The Monmouthshire Canal

The Monmouthshire Canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament, passed on 3 June 1792, which created the Company of Proprietors of the Monmouthshire Canal Navigation and empowered them to raise £120,000 by the issuing of shares, and a further £60,000 if required. The act stated that the canal would run from Pontnewynydd to the River Usk near Newport, and would include a branch from Crindau to Crumlin Bridge. The Company also had powers to construct railways from the canal to any coal mines, ironworks or limestone quarries which were within eight miles of it.[1]

Construction of the canal was supervised by Thomas Dadford, Jr,[2] and further Acts of Parliament were obtained as the work progressed. An Act of 4 July 1797 gave the Company powers to extend the navigation, which resulted in moving the Newport terminus southwards to Potter Street,[3] while a third Act of 26 June 1802 authorised specific railways, and allowed the Company to raise additional finance.[1]

The main line, which opened in February 1796, was 12½ miles long, and ran from Newport to Pontnewynydd, by way of Pontymoile, rising by 447 feet through 42 locks.

The 11-mile Crumlin Arm left the main line at Crindau, rising 358 feet through 32 locks to Crumlin, including the Cefn flight of Fourteen Locks. It was opened in 1799.[1]

In the late 1840s, a short extension joined the canal to Newport Docks, and thence to the River Usk.[2] Because the canal was isolated from other similar undertakings, Dadford was free to set the size of the locks, and they were designed to take boats with a maximum width of 9 feet 2 inches, a length of 63 feet and a draught of 3 feet.

On the main line, railway branches were constructed from near Pontypool to Blaen-Din Works and Trosnant Furnace. From Crumlin a railway was built to Beaufort Iron Works by the county boundary, which railway was 10 miles long and rose by 619 feet, and there were additional branches to Sorwy Furnace, Nantyglo Works, and the Sirhowy Railway at Risca.[1]

The Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal

The canal basin at Brecon

The Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal was first proposed in 1792, as a venture to link Brecon to the River Usk near Caerleon. The Monmouthshire proprietors invited their potential competitors to alter the plans to create a junction with the Monmouthshire Canal at Pontymoile near Pontypool[4] and share the navigation from there to Newport. An Act of Parliament was obtained on 28 March 1793, allowing the newly formed Canal Company to raise £100,000 in shares, with an additional £50,000 if required, and to construct railways to link the canal to mines, quarries and iron works.[1]

Initially work concentrated on the railways, and John Dadford oversaw the construction of lines from the collieries at Gellifelen to Llangrwyney Forge, and on to the Abergavenny to Brecon turnpike road. The line was opened in 1794, and later served the canal at Gilwern.[2]

It was not until 1795 that Thomas Dadford was appointed as the engineer for the canal itself and construction began in earnest at Penpedairheol near Crickhowell. Work began in 1796 and by late 1797, the canal was open from Gilwern to Llangynidr in Brecknockshire and much of the rest was in hand.[2] However costs, as usual, were higher than expected and, in 1799, the engineer, Dadford, stated that further money was needed to complete the section from Clydach to Brecon. Benjamin Outram was called in to inspect the work and to advise on substituting a railway between Gilwern and Pont-y-Moel. Outram recommended several improvements, in particular the partial rebuilding of the Ashford Tunnel. He was also somewhat critical of the existing railways.

The canal was completed and opened to Talybont-on-Usk in late 1799 and through to Brecon in December 1800. Thomas Dadford died in 1801, and was replaced as engineer by Thomas Cartwright.[2] The Canal Company obtained another Act of Parliament on 3 May 1804, to authorise the raising of more capital,[1] and the section to Govilon, near Abergavenny was completed in 1805, but the company failed to raise the finance authorised by the 1804 act, and so construction stopped. The company then concentrated on running the canal and railways so far opened, and were running twenty boats by 1806, carrying coal and limestone as their main cargoes.[2]

By 1809 the Monmouthshire Canal was threatening litigation about the uncompleted connection from Gilwern. Help came from Richard Crawshay, the Merthyr Tydfil ironmaster and a major force on the Glamorganshire Canal, who provided a loan of £30,000. This sum enabled the canal company to appoint William Crosley to complete the work, which opened in February 1812.[2]

From the Pontymoile junction, the Brecknock and Abergavenny runs through Llanfoist near Abergavenny and Talybont, ending at a basin in Brecon. The canal is 33 miles long and is level for the first 23 miles to Llangynidr, where there are five locks.[4] Two miles below Brecon, the canal crosses the River Usk on an aqueduct at Brynich, and a final lock brings the total rise to 68 feet.[1] The River Usk provides the main water supply for the canal.[4] A weir near the Brecon Promenade controls the water levels on the river, and half a mile of underground culvert brings water through the town to the Theatre Basin.[5] Additional water is taken from a number of streams, where part of the flow is diverted into the canal and the rest flows under an aqueduct to reach the River Usk.[4]

The Tramroads

The were in the main constructed along narrow valleys, where the terrain prevented the easy construction of branches to serve the industries which were located along their routes, but they had the advantage that their enabling Acts of Parliament allowed tramways to be constructed, the land for which could be obtained by compulsory purchase, as if the tramway were part of the canal itself. This led to the development of an extensive network of tramways, to serve the many coal and ironstone mines which developed in the area. Dadford was an exponent of "edge rails", where flanged wheels ran on bar section rails, similar to modern railway practice, rather than wheels with no flanges running on "L" shaped tram-plates.[2]

After Dadford's demise, Benjamin Outram was consulted on a number of matters, and recommended that the railways should be converted from edge rails to tram plates. Many of them were converted in this way, but this alteration was not always successful, with users of the Crumlin Bridge to Beaufort Ironworks tramway complaining in 1802 that they had incurred considerable cost to make the transition, only to find that the new tramway was unusable due to poor construction. In 1806, the loaded weights of wagons were reduced, in an attempt to reduce the number of broken tramplates.[3] Ultimately, many of the tramways were converted to standard gauge railways, and so reverted to the flanged wheel system.

The canal acts obtained by the Monmouthshire Canal Company authorised tramways to Aberbeeg, Beaufort, Blaenavon, Blaendare, Nantyglo, Sirhowy and Trosnant.[2] In some cases, these were named specifically because they were longer than 8 miles and were not therefore covered by the general provisions of the original Act. At least 21 tramways are known to have connected to the Monmouthshire canal, with a further 13 connecting to the Brecknock and Abergavenny canal.[3] Some works were eventually connected to both canals. The Beaufort Ironworks was originally connected to Crumlin Bridge by the Ebbw Vale tramway, but the incentives for through trade which the Monmouthshire Company had offered to the Brecknock and Abergavenny Company meant that carriage was cheaper if the goods originated on the northern canal, and so a second tramway was constructed along the heads of the valleys to Gilwern.[2]

Llanhiledd Tramroad

In 1798, the canal company agreed with Sir Richard Salusbury to build a line connecting his collieries to the head of the canal at Crumlin and Llanhilleth. It was not until 1800, however, that Outram was asked to survey the line. The twin track tramway connected by means of an inclined plane to the existing line from the Beaufort Ironworks. Outram's designs were not followed to the letter, probably to save costs, and he expressed his dismay at this.

Monmouthshire Canal Tramway

In 1800, the owners of Sirhowy Ironworks were granted permission to exploit the minerals under Bedwellty Common and build a tramroad to join the canal, with the erection of a works (which was later Tredegar Ironworks).

The Monmouthshire Canal Company's 1802 Act sanctioned the construction of tramroads to places within 8 miles of the canal, and they therefore built 8 miles of tramroad from Newport to a point near Wattsville and Cwmfelinfach. The Sirhowy Tramroad from the Sirhowy Ironworks was built by the ironmasters, to a point one mile from the canal company section; the mile between crossed the land of Sir Charles Morgan, Baron Tredegar of Tredegar House, who agreed to build the connection across Tredegar Park, in return for the tolls for goods crossing his land. This section became known as the "golden mile",[6] because it proved to be quite lucrative for Sir Charles.

The tramroad was constructed between 1802 and 1805[7] or 1806.[8] Branches would be built to the limestone quarries at Trefil (the Trefil Tramroad) and to the Union Ironworks at Rhymney. Two more branches, from Llanarth and Penllwyn to Nine Mile Point Colliery were added in 1824.[8] A major feature of the line was the 'Long Bridge' at Risca, 930 feet long with 33 arches each of 24-foot span averaging 28 feet high. The bridge was abandoned in 1853, in order to eliminate the sharp curves at either end, when part of the line was converted to standard gauge, and was demolished in 1905.[9] Conversion of the whole line to standard gauge was completed in 1863, and the Sirhowy Tramroad became the Sirhowy Railway Company in 1865.[8]

Decline and Re-opening

With their network of feeder railways, the canals were profitable. Coal traffic rose from 3,500 tons in 1796 to 150,000 tons in 1809,[10] but the arrival of the railways brought serious decline, and in the 1850s, several schemes to abandon the canals were proposed. The Monmouthshire Company, which had become the Monmouthshire Railway and Canal Company under an Act of Parliament obtained in 1845,[11] bought out the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal Company in 1865, but the move came too late, and the Monmouthshire Canal gradually closed, while the Brecon line was retained as a water feeder.[4] Control of the canals passed to the Great Western Railway in 1880, and they were consequently nationalised in 1948.[12]

The section of canal from Pontymoile to Pontnewynydd was converted into a railway in 1853, with the loss of 11 locks, and more significantly, much of the water supply to the lower canal.[2] Following the conversion, the next part of the canal to close was the section from Newport to the docks, which lasted until 1879. The rest of the Newport section, to the northern portal of Barrack Hill Tunnel, was closed in 1930, and the Cwmbran section followed in 1954.[13] The Crumlin branch was abandoned as a commercial waterway in 1930,[14] but was retained in water. In February 1946, a serious breach occurred at Abercarn, 2.5 miles from Crumlin, and although this section of the canal had not been used for 16 years, the breach was repaired. However, the branch was closed just three years later in 1949,[11] and the section from Pontywaun to Crumlin was filled in and used as the route for the A467 road in 1968/9. The rest of the canal was formally abandoned in 1962, but within two years, restoration had begun.[4] Funding for the restoration became available as a result of the National Parks legislation, for the canal was seen as a valuable amenity in an area of natural beauty. The canal was reopened to Pontymoile in 1970.[5]

The Brecon to Pontypool section was one of seven stretches of canal, formally designated as remainder waterways, which were re-classified by the in 1983: a total of 82 route miles were upgraded to 'Cruising Waterway Standard'.[13] The Cefn Flight of fourteen locks has been recognised as being of international significance, and is on Cadw's list of Scheduled Ancient Monuments.[14]

Restoration of the old Monmouthshire Canal began in 1994, when the Crown Bridge in Sebastopol was raised to give sufficient height for navigation again. The section to Five Locks was restored over the next two years, and was formally opened on 24 May 1997 by the Mayor of Torfaen.[2] A new basin at the top of the locks marks the end of the navigable section.

The next section to be opened for navigation was a 2-mile stretch running from Pentre Lane bridge, just above Tamplin Lock, down through Tyfynnon, Malpas and Gwasted locks to Malpas junction, and then up through Gwasted Lock on the Crumlin branch, to the bottom end of Waen Lock. Work started in January 2008, and was completed in time for the Welsh Waterways Festival held at the end of May 2010, and the Inland Waterways Association National Trailboat Festival held at the same time.

The Trust has begun work to restore the eight locks near Tŷ Coch. The project will also be used to train people in the skills needed to restore historic canals, and to enable lock gates to be made locally using traditional working methods.[15]

The canal today

The Coach & Horses at Cwmcrawnon

Towns and village on or near the canal include:

On the main arm

On the Crumlin Arm:

Access

Much of the canal towpath is easily walkable along the entire route.

The Taff Trail cycle route, follows the canal for a few miles from Brecon, but the path after that is not suitable for cyclists. National Cycle Network Routes 47 and 49 follow the canals between Cross Keys and Pontypool.

Outside links

References

Books

  • Edwards, Lewis A. (1985). Inland Waterways of Great Britain (6th Ed). Imray Laurie Norie & Wilson. ISBN 0-85288-081-2. 
  • Gladwin, D.D. J.M.; Gladwin, J.M. (1991). The Canals of the Welsh Valleys And Their Tramroads. Oakwood Press. ISBN 0-85361-412-1. 
  • McKnight, Hugh (1975). The Shell Book of Inland Waterways. David & Charles. 
  • Nicholson Guides (2006). Nicholson Guides Vol 4: Four Counties and the Welsh Canals. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-00-721112-0. 
  • Norris, John (2007). The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal (5th Ed.). privately published. ISBN 0-9517991-4-2. 
  • Ware, Michael E. (1989). Britain's Lost Waterways. Moorland Publishing Co Ltd. ISBN 0-86190-327-7.