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
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).
Taking life easy on the canal at TalybontonUsk.
A dramatic rainbow over Crickhowell.
One of the colourful Road House Narrowboats which are available to hire.
Talybont’s White Hart Inn.