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img Jonathan and Camilla, Cambrian Cruisers, Ty Newydd, Pencelli, Brecon LD3 7LJ
Cambrian Cruisers Review

The wildflower-clad bankside acts as a colourful backcloth as a heron stands motionless in the shallows in the early morning sunshine. Then our attention is captured by a blue blur of a kingfisher heading for a branch ahead of our narrow boat. And is that really a red kite whirling overhead?

It takes some breathtaking wildlife moments to draw our gaze away from the views down through woodland into the lovely River Usk valley from what is a shallow watery bastion of peace and tranquillity.

Canals in Britain, when the weather picks up, generally have plenty of boat traffic. This requires intense concentration on throttle and rudder control in order to pass other craft in what is generally a confined passage. Little Olwen, our two-berth 42-footer, has been chugging along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at the recommended 2mph for ages, but there has been no sign of another craft for an hour. You begin to think the 33-mile waterway is your exclusive domain.

From its start point at Brecon, where the canal is fed by the waters of the Usk, down to the navigable limit just south of Pontypool, there is precious little in the way of commercialism to spoil what many might consider to be Britain’s most beautiful canal.

Some will probably have never heard of the Mon and Brec, as it’s commonly called, and I had to do some research to find its location just inside the Welsh border in one of the country’s lesser-known National Parks.

The scenic mountains of the Brecon Beacons can be glimpsed through the hillside trees of the canal but the eye, after emerging from wooded banks and cuttings, tends to be attracted downwards to the Usk as it carves its way through lush meadows.

5Aside from the series of wonderful vistas at every turn and the absence of dozens of other pleasure craft, the canal’s other big plus point is the limited number of locks – just half a dozen to negotiate with five of them likely to be encountered on one day’s travelling. The only other physical encounters are the five drawbridges, each requiring up to 100 turns of the windlass to raise, although the one at Talybont is electrically-operated, necessitating closure of the gates on the road to halt vehicles.

I was entrusted with control of our boat by my wife, while she quickly became an expert at opening lock paddles, operating lift bridges and precise timing when instructed to leap off at a suitable overnight stopping point. Nothing to it really, I commented, only to be met with withering looks!

There is one dark tunnel to pass through that is so low that all aboard have to crouch down to the height of the boat’s roof. The succession of over a hundred pretty low bridges also demands care to prevent head-clouting, especially when the tiller is mistakenly turned in the wrong direction!

Right – always something to catch your eye from the boat!

No canal, however under-used, would be complete with its waterside pubs and the Mon and Brec has plenty of good ones. In Talybont, where the school had to close because of insufficient children, there are four within a throw of the mooring rope – with meals offered at different ends of the price scale.

Like all canals, this one is steeped in industrial heritage, though it may be hard to visualise in its lovely setting as its skirts the mountainside that this was a major highway in the 1800s for transporting raw materials – coal, coke, iron ore, lime and limestone. Small communities like Gilwern, Govilon, Llanfoist and Llangattock once had bustling, noisy wharves. Now there is just birdsong and the occasional sound of a boat’s diesel engine. Tramroads that horses trudged up and down to bring down the minerals are today public footpaths offering access to the lofty points of the Brecon Beacons. The only presence of the past are the occasional Great Western Railway iron posts marking the canal boundary erected after the GWR’s takeover of the joint canal in 1880.

 

To the south is a very different Wales, shaped and scarred by the Industrial Revolution. The eight-mile long Brinore Tramroad terminating at Talybont, where lime and coal were loaded onto barges, is an example of a well-preserved monument to the ambitions of 19th Century Britain. The limekilns are clearly visible with an example of a tram displayed opposite – pulled by horse and descended by gravity along the tramroad. Limestone rock was discharged from the trams into the top of the coal-fired kilns with the fierce heat breaking it down into quicklime. The hot lime was dug out and loaded into barrels for shipment to be used for fertiliser and in the building trade.

But when the Brecon and Merthyr Railway opened, it spelt the beginning of the end for the canal’s working life and the waterway fell into decay…until British Waterways commenced restoration in 1968. The Sixties saw the first hire boats just as the railway was heading for closure. Two years later, with the reopening of the drawbridge at Talybont, the canal was once again open from end to end -and one in the eye for the railways that helped to ruin its commercial viability.

Reprinted from Best of British magazine July 2005 with permission of the author & magazine.
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