The au­thor spends a week as a vol­un­teer on the Swansea Canal, and finds out first-hand what the prospects are for open­ing up nav­i­ga­tion in this part of South Wales


Dep Ed Martin Ludgate spends a week with a work­ing party bat­tling to open up a nav­i­ga­tion and ex­plains the work that’s been done

So who’s the youngest here?” asks Wa­ter­way Re­cov­ery Group’s Swansea Canal camp leader Dave, launch­ing into his in­tro­duc­tory talk to his mixed group of vol­un­teers of all ages from stu­dents to re­tired folk. Emma, an 18-year-old tak­ing part in the week-long camp as part of her Duke of Ed­in­burgh’s Award, ap­pears to fit the bill.

Dave looks at her, shakes his head sadly, and says, “Not in your life­time”. This (as ex­pected) prompts com­ments from the var­i­ous WRG old hands along the lines of “They said that about the Hud­der­s­field Nar­row Canal.”

Dave makes it clear that his com­ment was very tongue-in-cheek. Like most canal restora­tions, it would be fool­ish to make any pre­dic­tions on whether and when the canal will re­open; but there will be many smaller suc­cesses along the way, and our week’s work hopes to con­trib­ute to these, as well as to the long-term goals.

But he’s got a fair point – this isn’t go­ing to be an easy or quick restora­tion. In the decades since the 16-mile route from Swansea Docks to Aber­craf was aban­doned in stages from 1928 to 1960, it’s suf­fered a great deal from later de­vel­op­ment on the route. Like most South Wales canals, it runs along a pop­u­lous val­ley where build­ing space is at a pre­mium: roughly speak­ing the top one-third has been lost to road im­prove­ment schemes; while the bot­tom one-third has disappeared un­der the ex­pan­sion of Swansea city. Even the sur­viv­ing six-mile cen­tral length was lopped into three chunks by the con­struc­tion of a coun­cil yard on the line near Cly­dach and the in­fill­ing of a half-mile sec­tion be­low Pon­tar­dawe.

Still, at least that avoids the usual ar­gu­ments about the rights and wrongs of be­gin­ning restora­tion work in the mid­dle of the canal, rather than try­ing to open up nav­i­ga­tion as an ex­ten­sion from the ex­ist­ing net­work (or in this case, from the Bris­tol Chan­nel).

There sim­ply wasn’t any op­tion. The early work of the Swansea Canal So­ci­ety in the 1980s and 1990s con­cen­trated on clear­ing the up­per part of this cen­tral sec­tion, above Pon­tar­dawe; since the re­ju­ve­na­tion of the So­ci­ety in re­cent years af­ter a quiet pe­riod, work has shifted to the mid­dle part be­low Pon­tar­dawe – and in par­tic­u­lar to the two Tre­banos Locks.

But all this canal restora­tion the­ory isn’t oc­cu­py­ing the minds of most of the vol­un­teers as we pile into the minibuses and head for the work­site on the first morn­ing: we’re more in­ter­ested in the job in hand. This is the fourth WRG week-long camp since work be­gan at Tre­banos, and the first to con­cen­trate on the up­per lock.

On the face of it, it doesn’t look in bad nick: the cham­ber walls still stand (al­beit with a cer­tain amount of veg­e­ta­tion grow­ing on them), and the over­flow by­wash has al­ready been re­stored. Sure, the bot­tom five feet or so have been filled with rub­ble, silt and de­tri­tus, but that ac­tu­ally makes our job slightly eas­ier: we can sim­ply lay sand­bags and boards on the in­fill to make a dry work­ing plat­form, rather than need­ing to scaf­fold out the cham­ber.

But once we get to work strip­ping out what re­mains of the old mor­tar ready for re-point­ing all the stonework joints of the en­tire lock, it’s clear that there’s plenty to keep us busy for the week. In some places it’s straight­for­ward, but else­where re­mov­ing the roots of plants and small saplings grow­ing in the walls leads to some dis­man­tling and re­in­stat­ing of sec­tions of wall – and one of the bot­tom gate re­cess walls needs a com­plete re­build.

Still, by the end of the first day we’ve stripped out most of one cham­ber wall, and on the sec­ond day we’re well into re-point­ing – us­ing a tra­di­tional lime mor­tar, sev­eral of our vol­un­teers hav­ing been trained in its use by heritage lime mor­tar spe­cial­ists Ty Mawr Com­pany at a re­cent WRG train­ing week­end. We’re joined on site not only by the lead­ers of SCS’s restora­tion team, but also by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Canal & River Trust (which is still re­spon­si­ble for most of the canal) in­clud­ing heritage spe­cial­ists and a Trustee. They all seem im­pressed by our work so far…

There’s less op­ti­mism the next morn­ing, as it dawns wet and mis­er­able. Try­ing to re-point mor­tar joints in these con­di­tions would be (as it were) point­less; the lead­ers quickly de­clare a day off, and most of us drive off to the Big Pit min­ing museum. The rain eases enough that on our re­turn trip, we stop to pic­nic by the Mon­mouthshire & Bre­con Canal - thus show­ing our new re­cruits what a re­stored canal looks like and how a lock works, and re­as­sur­ing all that an iso­lated Welsh canal can be a real suc­cess, what­ever the naysay­ers might think.

The weather couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent the next morn­ing: shorts and T-shirts are the or­der as we re­sume our work. We’re pleased to see that once the rain stopped the pre­vi­ous evening, one of the CRT chaps dropped in and added the fi­nal touch to the com­pleted re-point­ing: tap­ping the re­filled joints with a stiff brush to cre­ate a good fin­ish and push the mor­tar deeper into the joint.

Work con­tin­ues on re­pair­ing and re-point­ing the rest of the off­side wall, and mean­while a sec­ond job is un­der way

above the lock. We’re re­build­ing sec­tions of towpath wall with a com­bi­na­tion of con­crete-filled sand­bags at wa­ter level and a more tra­di­tional look­ing stone-built cap­ping.

The Canal So­ci­ety are im­pressed by our work so far (by the end of the day, we’ve done most of what they ex­pected to fin­ish in a whole week); but it’s also good to see our progress in the con­text of the restora­tion of the canal. Af­ter we knock off, we take trip down to Coed Gwilym Park, a mile down the canal, where the So­ci­ety runs a ca­noe hire op­er­a­tion, and most of us go for a pad­dle along the canal. This is a sec­tion where the so­ci­ety has ap­plied for fund­ing to dredge a length (even in ca­noes, we can vouch for the need for dredg­ing). This would, if suc­cess­ful, en­able it to bid to host the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion’s Na­tional Trail­boat Fes­ti­val in 2019 – and in the longer term, to plan a pub­lic trip-boat op­er­a­tion which would mean that ‘our’ lock would be re-gated and see regular use.

We also get to see the lower limit of this length of canal for now, where some 50 yards (in­clud­ing a lock) were cul­verted and the site used for a coun­cil yard. That’s no longer the ob­struc­tion it once was: the yard has closed, a towpath base is be­ing laid by SCS vol­un­teers prior to the path be­ing opened up (with Sus­trans sup­port, as it’s part of the Na­tional Cy­cle Net­work), ex­ca­va­tion of the canal chan­nel will fol­low, and even the lock won’t take too much work. It turns out that a splen­didly far-sighted chap who worked on fill­ing it in (and de­mol­ish­ing the top of the lock walls) 30-plus years ago to build the coun­cil yard, care­fully re-pointed what was left just in case it was needed again one day.

As Martin Davies from the Canal So­ci­ety ex­plains, this will link to­gether two lengths of canal which will to­tal around three miles. With the one other lock on this sec­tion at Cly­dach be­ing in con­sid­er­ably bet­ter con­di­tion (it even boasts one sur­viv­ing lock gate, which will act as a pat­tern for re­place­ments), there’s a re­al­is­tic chance of open­ing up these three miles from Pon­tar­dawe to be­low Cly­dach in the not too dis­tant fu­ture.

En­cour­aged by hav­ing boated (al­beit in shal­low craft) on our canal, the fol­low­ing day we com­plete the towpath wall re­build­ing work, make a good start on the sec­ond lock cham­ber wall, and jack sev­eral cop­ing stones back into po­si­tion on the first lock wall, now that we can do so safely with no­body work­ing un­der­neath.

As we drive our minibuses up and down the val­ley each day be­tween our work site and our ac­com­mo­da­tion (a Scout hall in Ystradg­yn­lais, not far from the site of the canal’s orig­i­nal up­per ter­mi­nus) we can’t help do­ing a bit of ‘canal spot­ting’.

There are vis­i­ble re­mains of locks by the road­side at Go­dre’r- Graig; an empty but im­pres­sive aqueduct over the Twrch stream near Ystalyfera; and so on.

Does the so­ci­ety hope to move on to restor­ing these lengths? Martin’s an­swer – per­haps sur­pris­ingly – is that in fact the miss­ing sec­tion from Cly­dach down into Swansea might see progress first.

The rea­son for this is the on­go­ing re­gen­er­a­tion of the for­mer Swansea docks, which are be­ing re­de­vel­oped with hous­ing, a col­lege cam­pus and more. The plan is that as part of this work, a new lock will be built to the west of the docks to cre­ate a con­nec­tion to the lower length of the River Tawe (which has al­ready been made non-tidal by the cre­ation of a bar­rage some years ago).

In ad­di­tion, a new con­nec­tion is planned to the east of the docks, link­ing them to the for­mer Ten­nant Canal – which in turn is pro­posed for restora­tion by the Neath & Ten­nant Canals Preser­va­tion Trust to link up with the Neath Canal, also un­der restora­tion.

If only a way can be found of by­pass­ing the de­stroyed lower part of the Swansea Canal and get­ting to Cly­dach, the length of canal which in­cludes ‘our’ lock could one day be part of a nav­i­ga­ble route com­bin­ing the Neath, Swansea and Ten­nant canals.

A pos­si­ble route for such a by­pass has now been iden­ti­fied, mak­ing use of the Fen­drod stream, the River Tawe, a lake and some new sec­tions of canal. A part­ner­ship in­volv­ing the IWA and all the lo­cal canal so­ci­eties is tak­ing this whole idea for con­nected wa­ter­ways for­ward un­der the name Swansea Bay In­land Wa­ter­way, which we fea­tured in de­tail in the Au­gust 2015 is­sue of Canal Boat.

If that can be achieved, then it would help make the case for a fi­nal ex­ten­sion of the Swansea Canal.

This would in­volve dig­ging out the half-mile filled in (but un­ob­structed) length which be­gins a lit­tle way up the val­ley from our work­site, deal­ing with a cou­ple of low­ered bridges in Pon­tar­dawe, link­ing up with ear­lier restora­tion work be­tween there and Ynys­meudwy, and (even if we have to ad­mit that the fi­nal length, much of which has disappeared un­der the main road, is un­likely to be re­stored) at least get­ting the canal back as far as Go­dre’r- Graig.

That would cre­ate a con­nected route to­talling 30-plus miles of nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter: not far short of what the Mon & Brec is now, and we’ve al­ready seen what a suc­cess that is.

Our last cou­ple of days on site see the sec­ond cham­ber wall al­most fin­ished – all but ‘a Tues­day’s worth of work’ as some­body puts it, re­fer­ring to the day lost due to bad weather. But as one of SCS’s vol­un­teers re­marks, “If it weren’t for the rain, there wouldn’t be any canals”.

The so­ci­ety are de­lighted with the week’s progress, and their own team will com­plete the work in the com­ing weeks. As we pack our tools away, the vol­un­teers head for home, and the minibuses de­part for their next tour of duty on an­other canal, we re­flect that there might well be boats through our lock within a few years, and that it might be part of a lo­cal net­work of wa­ter­ways within some­body’s life­time – per­haps even mine...

Re-point­ing the mor­tar joints at Tre­banos

So far it’s only deep enough for ca­noes...

Clear­ing out old mor­tar and veg­e­ta­tion from the lock wall

Putting fin­ish­ing touches on the towpath wall

Trail­boats here in 2019 - sub­ject to dredg­ing

Next for restora­tion: Cly­dach Lock sur­vives in fair con­di­tion

At­trac­tive length of canal near Pon­tar­dawe

For the fu­ture: the up­per lengths of canal be­yond Pan­tar­dawe

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