Monmouthshire and Brecon Canals
End: Five Locks, Cwmbran
Distance: 51.5 km
Time: 2-3 days
Surface: Canal Towpaths
Download free, high-res walking map here: canalrivertrust.org.uk
It’s a mouthful, isn’t it, having to say Monmouthshire and Brecon canals all the time, which is why those who work on it every day prefer to call it, simply, the ‘Mon and Brec.’ But it wasn’t always the single waterway it is today. It began its life as two canals: the Monmouthshire Canal, authorized by an Act of Parliament in 1792 with its main line from Newport to Pontnewynydd (20 km long, 42 locks, rising 136.3 m) opening in 1796 and its Crumlin Arm (18 km, 32 locks, rising 109 m) following in 1799. The other canal, the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal, was opened in stages from 1797 to 1799 and was originally meant to join with the River Usk near Caerleon but instead was linked to the Monmouthshire Canal at Pontypool.
The canals, built by Navigators (Navvies) to transport iron, coal, stone and processed lime, began declining in profitability in the mid-1800s with the arrival of the railways, and sections routinely began to be abandoned. Commercial traffic ceased in 1933, and in 1962 they closed altogether. Restoration work to convert the canals to recreational waterways, however, soon commenced under the auspices of the newly formed British Waterways, with work on Brynich Lock near Brecon in 1968. After suffering all of the usual ravages associated with more than a century of decline, the canal reopened from Pontypool to Brecon in 1970. It has since evolved into one of the most spectacular and scenic canals to be found anywhere in Great Britain.
Walking (or mountain biking) the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canals towpath, almost all of which passes through Brecon Beacons National Park, is a delight as it winds its way from Brecon to Pontypool past farmlands and woodlands, hugging mountain slopes above the valley of the River Usk. Not being connected to the broader network of British canals means there is far less boat traffic on its slow waters which makes for a quieter, more intimate experience than one generally has on a British canal. The wildlife here is particularly impressive too, with the valley’s blanket of wildflowers and the canal being a magnet for birds such as kingfishers, herons, moorhens, swans and mallards. There are also several additional trails you can pick up along the way, like the Henry Vaughan Walk named in honor of the well-known 17th-century poet, that begins in the village of Talybont-on-Usk.
The walk proper, however, begins in Brecon and from Brecon Basin it’s about 4 km to the first lock at Brynich and from there to the five locks at Llangynidr these come as something of a surprise on this canal which is a contour canal, meaning banks of locks are a rarity. The next 37 km to Pontylnoile are lock-free – an impressive accomplishment in itself considering the contours of the hills – and often wind under gorgeous canopies of overhanging trees and pass through towns such as Pencelli, Talybont with its above-mentioned Henry Vaughan Walk and Crickhowell, with its Iron Age and Norman remains as well as the spectacular arched bridge over the River Usk, built in 1706 and added to in 1828-30 with thirteen arches on its upstream side, yet only twelve on its downstream!
Gilwern, once a hub of 19th-century industry, is next, with its old tramroads leading to 19th-century limestone quarries and yet more trail diversions, this time taking us to the open moorlands of Llangattock mountain, an undulating plateau that rises to a height of 530m and formed from coarse sandstones and pockmarked by shakeholes – sinkholes caused by percolating groundwater.
On a canal with a wealth of historic sites, one that should not be missed is Goytre Wharf with its wonderfully preserved lime kilns. At the time of the restoration of the canal in the 1960s, Goytre Wharf existed only as a moorage for a few local boats and a boat hire company. It still has its moorage basin, but now the range of vessels is far more eclectic since undergoing its own detailed restoration in 2000.
Walking the canal is more a stroll than a walk. Its industrial history slows you down, but so do its more basic diversions. There is the Royal Oak Pub in Pencelli, the Tipple ‘n’ Tiffin cafe at Brecon’s Theatr Brycheiniog, The White Hart Inn and The Star Inn in Talybont, and the lovely cafe and restaurant at Goytre Wharf. The waterway that was once an industrial corridor bringing raw materials from surrounding quarries along horse-drawn tramroads, incorporating aqueducts over Brynich and Gilwern and the 348-m Ashford Tunnel, is now a canal system built for walking, cycling, canoeing and boating, a delightful reinvention of one of Britain’s most isolated – and idyllic – canal systems.