19 Bre­con

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The Mon­mouthshire and Bre­con Canal was de­scribed by the writer Robert Aick­man as one of the most pic­turesque canals in Bri­tain. A no­table boast in­deed, and one cer­tainly to be en­dorsed by fans of the “Mon and Brec” as it’s af­fec­tion­ately known. At present 35 miles of a nav­i­ga­ble canal runs for al­most all its course through the Bre­con Bea­cons Na­tional Park, an Area of Out­stand­ing Nat­u­ral Beauty. It fol­lows the tree- lined me­an­ders of the River Usk and its route mim­ics the con­tours of the hills as it heads south from Bre­con, through six vil­lages and two mar­ket towns of Crick­how­ell and Aber­gavenny, to its present des­ti­na­tion of Five Locks, Pont­newydd, Cwm­bran.

A re­cent sur­vey showed the canal to be the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tion within the Bre­con Bea­cons Na­tional Park. The canal is unique in be­ing the only one in Bri­tain not con­nected to the na­tional sys­tem, so con­ges­tion is never a prob­lem. Nigel Cur­tis, who runs Road House Nar­row­boats with his wife Sally, believes it’s an ideal canal for novices as it’s lim­ited in locks, but still has all the en­gi­neer­ing fea­tures you would ex­pect in a canal of this age in­clud­ing a stair­way of locks, em­bank­ments, cut­tings, a fourar­ched aqueduct, a 375- yard tun­nel, lift bridges and oth­ers which bear the rope marks from a former age.

Nigel thinks the ex­pe­ri­ence of boat­ing is “sec­ond to none”, trav­el­ling at two miles an hour down the canal. “It is the quick­est way to slow down in this hec­tic world,” he says. As well as go­ing

through stun­ning scenery, the boat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence gen­er­ates an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the wildlife in­clud­ing buz­zards, red kites, herons and drag­on­flies. For much of its length it’s lined with alder, oak, ash, sycamore, wil­low, sweet chest­nut and hawthorn. In the spring the banks come alive with prim­roses, blue­bells, vi­o­lets and celandine and the wa­ters teem with roach, dace, perch, gud­geon and pike.

The Mon and Brec started life as two sep­a­rate canals in the 18th cen­tury. The Mon­mouthshire Canal opened in 1799 and in­cluded a branch run­ning from Mal­pas to Crum­lin. The Brec­knock and Aber­gavenny Canal mean­while ran from Bre­con to Gil­w­ern. The two were fi­nally joined in 1812. It is hard to imag­ine to­day this tran­quil canal play­ing such a ma­jor in­dus­trial role as it did in the past. Horse- drawn tram­roads would have con­veyed coal, lime­stone, iron ore and iron from col­liery and quarry to town and kiln and from fur­nace to forge. At Bre­con, Taly­bont- on- Usk, Llan­gat­tock, Gil­w­ern, Govilon and Llan­foist, the wharves would have rung with the squeal of tram wheels, the clam­our of horses and the loud com­mo­tion of men work­ing to the in­dus­trial beat of their time.

Ru­mour has it that the iron used for the gates at Buck­ing­ham Palace was brought down from the Nan­ty­glo Iron­works and trans­ported on the canal. Re­mains of this her­itage can still be viewed

to­day along the canal in­clud­ing wharfs and lime kilns. In 2000, a sec­tion of the canal and the Blae­navon area were granted World Her­itage sta­tus. This in­cluded the fa­mous Blae­navon Iron­works which was the first to pro­duce steel us­ing a Besse­mer con­verter.

Vis­it­ing the canal can in­volve more than boat­ing. Keith Lee runs Bikes and Hikes from Taly­bont- onUsk and he ex­plained that vis­i­tors are us­ing the canal in many other ways. This in­cludes walk­ing, cy­cling, ca­noe­ing and even pony trekking in the neigh­bour­ing hills. Taly­bont is a good cen­tral hub for the up­per sec­tion of the canal, with nu­mer­ous walks, in­clud­ing an up­hill stroll to the nearby reser­voir and wa­ter­falls. The Taff Vale Trail ( cy­cling/ walk­ing) runs 55 miles from Bre­con to Cardiff Bay via Taly­bont.

Just down the vil­lage road is the White Hart Inn. Ac­cord­ing to the Cam­paign For Real Ale, 29 pubs are lost ev­ery week in the UK. The same can’t be true of the pubs along the Mon and Brec Canal which seem im­mune from this na­tional malaise. Daniel Eard­ley ( who is busy be­hind the bar) tells me: “The canal brings a sig­nif­i­cant amount of trade in.” The White Hart also caters for cy­clists and walk­ers and has a 20- bunk hos­tel as part of its ameni­ties. The ease of din­ing and re­fresh­ment stop-

overs is now part of the at­trac­tion to all those who use the canal. So­phie El­lis at the Coach & Horses, at Llang­y­nidr, es­ti­mates that at least 35 per cent of their trade comes from the boaters which cer­tainly helps keep many of these pic­turesque canal inns alive.

Travel on the Mon­mouthshire and Bre­con pro­vides am­ple time to visit places. Bre­con is a thriv­ing mar­ket town at the most north­ern end of the canal. Es­tab­lished in Nor­man times, it has nar­row streets, Ge­or­gian fa­cades, a 12th- cen­tury cathe­dral, a Reg­i­men­tal Mu­seum of the Royal Welsh, a cin­ema, in­de­pen­dent shops, bars, res­tau­rants and an in­door mar­ket.

The canal basin in Bre­con is a place to sit and re­lax from the fully re­fur­bished Water­front Bistro of the Theatr Brychein­iog, a former con­verted ware­house, which now serves a de­li­cious Taste of Wales Menu from lo­cally sourced pro­duce. If you’re not look­ing for a pre- show meal, then the Water­front Bar pro­vides light lunches, snacks, tea, cof­fee and ice cream. The Bre­con Jazz Fes­ti­val is held ( July – Au­gust) and an­other ma­jor event the

ROAD HOUSE NAR­ROW­BOATS

The per­fect leisurely way to see the coun­try­side.

Right: Re­stored locks at Ty Coch.Be­low: Lift bridge at Taly­bont- on- Usk ( left) and navigating the locks ( right).

BBNP

Tak­ing life easy on the canal at Taly­bon­tonUsk.

NIGEL FORSTER

A dra­matic rain­bow over Crick­how­ell.

One of the colour­ful Road House Nar­row­boats which are avail­able to hire.

Taly­bont’s White Hart Inn.

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