Monmouthshire and Brecon
Brecknock and Abergavenny


What is now known as the Monmouth & Brecon Canal is actually a waterway made up of two completely separate canals. In fact, there is also a substantial branch line which, in effect, adds a third route to the area.

In December a meeting was held to discuss the building of a waterway from Newport to Pontnewynydd and a branch line from Malpas to Crumlin. A recently started canal to the west at Cardiff had encouraged local businessmen, especially those who owned ironworks in the distant valleys, to promote a similar canal of their own. Amongst the canal's promoters (and an eventual shareholder) was Josiah Wedgwood, the main man behind the Trent & Mersey Canal some 20 years earlier in far away Staffordshire.

An Act of Parliament was granted and work began. The Monmouthshire Canal was to have two lines; an 11 mile main line with over 40 locks and an 11 mile "Crumlin Branch" with over 30 locks.

The route had been surveyed by Thomas Dadford junior who preferred to build his locks grouped closely together in flights rather than build them at intervals all along the route.

The largest flight was created at Rogerstone on the Crumlin Branch where he bunched 14 locks together in one flight. There were no major difficulties in building the Monmouthshire Canal, it needed no major aqueducts and would sport just two short tunnels.

Tramway interchanges were to be built once the waterway was complete, these would link the canal to the many businesses, especially coal mines, up in the hills.

In August, while the Monmouthshire Canal was in its early stages of construction, newspapers reported that another canal was being planned to the north. This would be the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal and would head north from the River Usk near Pontypool, past Abergavenny to Gilwern. No connection with the Monmouthshire Canal was planned in the initial reports. In October, a meeting was held between the proprietors of the Monmouthshire Canal and the promoters of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal. The Monmouthshire promoters were very keen to ensure that the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal would not bypass their own route so they donated £3,000 towards the building of a connecting junction. They also agreed to supply water to the bottom pound of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal. Everyone was so enthusiastic that it was also decided that the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal's planned route should be extended to reach Brecon in the Welsh hills.

Like the Monmouthshire Canal, the Abergavenny line was also surveyed by Thomas Dadford junior. Once again, as a "friendly" business gesture, the survey was financed by the Monmouthshire Canal Company. Dadford's recommended line from Brecon to Pontypool was 33 miles long and the scheme was also to include 3 tramways which would connect the canal to local industries. The survey was accepted by the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny committee in November and they awaited their turn in Parliament.

In March, the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal received its Act of Parliament. However, starting work on the canal was soon put on hold when in Spring the majority of local banks fell into financial trouble. The Monmouthshire Bank at Chepstow was badly hit and this had great consequences for both of the new canals. Share prices dropped in an instant by 25%.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was finally started though it was not the waterway but the tramways which were first to be built. This greatly annoyed the Monmouthshire Canal company because they had done so much to aid the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal through its promotional days. The Monmouthshire company had decided to build their tramways last, feeling that gaining income from the waterway was more important. The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal company felt it was more important to grab the business from up in the hills & remote valleys as quickly as possible. Thus they built tramways which connected to the Usk Valley but not, as yet, to a canal. John Dadford (junior's brother) was appointed engineer on the first tramway on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny "Canal". It was built from the coal mines at Gelli Felen in the Clydach Valley to Glangrwyne. It was another 3 years before any work began on the actual waterway.

Most of the Monmouthshire Canal was completed and opened. With the use of over a dozen connecting tramways the route chiefly served the blast furnaces at Cwmcarn, Ebbw Vale, Nantyglo and Baenavon as well as many local coal mines. The canal cost around £220,000 to build including the construction of the tramways (some of which were over 20 miles long). Locks on the canal (like on most other Welsh canals - and railways in later years) were built to their own peculiar non-standard gauges. The Monmouthshire Canal locks were built 64 feet long by 9 feet wide, special boats were built to fit these strange dimensions (at a cost of £28 each). Fortuitously the earliest boats were actually built to slightly smaller dimensions which later turned out to be perfect for the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal's own peculiar dimensions.Unlike the English narrow boats with their bright green and red paint, the South Wales barges were generally grey and fairly dour.

Thomas Dadford junior was appointed as chief engineer on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal and work finally began for real.At first Dadford worked only as a part time engineer as he was still employed on the construction of the neighbouring Monmouthshire Canal.The first section of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal to be completed was the embankment and aqueduct over the River Clydach and by the end of the year a section in the centre of the route was opened from Gilwern to Llangynidr.

Meanwhile, the early success of the Monmouthshire Canal was turning the small town of Newport, at the southern terminus of the route, into one of Britain's busiest coal ports.

With the Monmouthshire Canal completed and running successfully, Thomas Dadford junior became the full time chief engineer on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal. This route was a lot more difficult to build than the Monmouthshire Canal - and a lot more costly. There were only to be 6 locks on the whole 33 miles but much of the route had to find its way through the hills half way up the side of the Usk Valley. This meant most of the route had to be built on a ledge on inaccessible wooded hillsides. Many small aqueducts were needed and embankments were often necessary to carry the route above villages down in the valley.

With money becoming very scarce, the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company had to make calls on its shareholders to raise additional cash to enable them to start the northern most section from Gilwern to Brecon.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal reached Brecon and this meant that the canal's main water supply could now be used. This was taken from the River Usk via a weir above Brecon. The water left the weir and actually passed right under the town to run into the canal at its terminus. By the time the company reached Brecon they were once again desperate for more cash. Some money began to come in with the shipment of coal along the newly opened sections but much more money needed to be raised if the canal was to avoid being stranded with no link to the Monmouthshire Canal at Pontypool. Work was suspended until further funds could be gained. It was probably at this stage that company realised their mistake in building the tramways first.

While the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal lay unfinished, during the first years of the 1800's the Monmouthshire Canal was twice extended at Newport, new wharves were built and an extra lock was added at Potter Street. However, while Newport grew and trade was high, profits for the canal company were poor and dividends for shareholders were either low or totally non-existent.

Canal companies in Wales were often more busy with their tramways than they were with their waterways. The canals were the main trunk of a network which could have hundreds of miles of tramways.During this year the Monmouthshire Canal company gained an Act allowing them to build a new tramway from Newport to Sirhowy, way up to the north of Ebbw Vale. The line included a 34-arched viaduct across a valley. As well as providing a direct link to the sea for coal, the tramway also help water supply and traffic delays on the heavily locked Crumlin Branch.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal gained a new Act of Parliament allowing it to raise more money to complete its line.

Work recommenced on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal with Thomas Cartwright now appointed as engineer. The route was extended south to Govilon Wharf but once again work had to stop when the money ran out.

Meanwhile, the success of the Monmouthshire Canal was causing congestion in Newport. The company decided to extend the route by a mile to Pillgwenlly (further down the Usk Estuary) and a boat weighing machine was added later to ease delays when gauging.

A local businessman named Richard Crawshay granted the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company a loan of £30,000 to be used to complete the canal and link it to the Monmouthshire Canal.

Work on the final stretch of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was started and the route's third engineer was appointed. This time William Crossley was in charge.

On February 7th the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal finally reached Pontypool and joined the Monmouthshire Canal 19 years after receiving its original Act. The total cost of the canal had been around £200,000. Unfortunately there was still one further delay before the route was opened throughout. The final aqueduct on the route, at Pontymoile in Pontypool, had to be demolished and rebuilt. This took another year to complete.

While the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company were pleased to see their canal up and running, the Monmouthshire company were not. Despite all the help the Monmouthshire Canal had given to its neighbour in the early days, they were now facing big profit losses due to the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company charging much lower tolls. At first the Monmouthshire company refused to lower its tolls in the vain hope that the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company would eventually have to put their prices up. When this did not happen and profits continued to suffer the Monmouthshire company were forced to drop their tolls to the same level as its new rival. Even then they only did so for any barges which used both waterways on the same journey. Over all, the Monmouthshire Canal was always a relatively expensive route to use.After dropping its tolls the Monmouthshire Canal's profits steadily grew and over the next few decades it was a fairly successful route reaching its peak by the early 1840's.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal's trade grew very slowly. Concerns over low profits resulted in attempts to attract more trade. As well as the low tolls mentioned above, a whole succession of tramways were built in the hope of encouraging more traffic. The company also struck up deals with iron companies in which they agreed to deliver iron ore to the foundries for free so long as the ironworks used the canal to carry away the finished products. They also gave toll reductions to long distance carriers and to companies who "guaranteed" trade. All this helped enormously and profits increased over the next few years. However, within 5 years trade began to decline again.

Profits were dropping so quickly that the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company had to cut staff wages. For a while profits began to grow again but this was short lived and the small up-turn actually proved to be the canal's last profitable years.

The Monmouthshire Canal was faring better than its neighbour during this time though not in any big way. Competition between the two canals was certainly doing nothing to help either of them.

Steam locomotives were introduced on the Newport to Sirhowy tramway. Rather than help the Monmouthshire Canal company's income this became the source of a number of problems in its early days. The heavy steam trains damaged the plateways and the poor horses who still pulled tram-trucks were terrified by the new engines! All the same, the Monmouthshire Canal was carrying a lot of coal and Newport was now the 3rd biggest coal exporting port in Britain.

Trade decline on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was becoming so worrying that shareholders began to talk of a merger with the Monmouthshire Canal. Meetings were held but agreements over dividends could not be settled and no amalgamation took place. All the same, the meeting did a lot for both companies and in the following years they worked a lot more closely. This enabled both to see a rise in profits.

Along came the railways, down went the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal's trade. The company toyed with the idea of completely selling out to the Welsh Midland Railway but luckily (for the canal's sake) the railway company was dissolved before any agreement had been made. The company then decided to look into the viability of turning its waterway into a railway themselves which would run along the entire route from Brecon to Pontypool. However, nothing came of this idea either.

Railway competition was not as great a worry for the Monmouthshire Canal. Well after the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal's profits had begun to suffer the Monmouthshire Canal was still doing well. Newport was still exporting more coal than Cardiff despite the building of the Taff Valley Railway into Cardiff city. All the same, the company could see the growing threat of the railways and eventually gained permission to convert its many tramways into railways, albeit with a maximum speed of 10mph. In the Act the company obtained rights allowing it to become the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company and they surveyed the whole of the canal main line with a view to building a railway in its place. However, the first few years after the tramways were converted were not a great success so the canal remained as a waterway.

After a number of years of poor trade and little done since becoming a "railway company" the Monmouthshire Canal's committee was completely replaced and the new committee acted very quickly.Straight away they closed down the northern-most two miles of the main line (sometimes called the Snatchwood Branch) from Pontnewynydd to Pontymoile Basin in Pontypool. Soon after this, they built the Newport & Pontypool Railway. The remaining part of the canal main line (also running from Newport to Pontypool) was kept open but it lost virtually all of its trade to the adjacent railway.

The closed stretch of the Monmouthshire Canal main line to the north of Pontypool, which had 11 locks on it, was obliterated when the railway was extended and built on its course. The Crumlin Branch of the canal was still kept open in full though it too suffered badly from railway competition.

Numerous schemes for sales and conversions were looked into by the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny company but the waterway continued to run under its original form despite the competition from the newly converted Monmouthshire company and from numerous other railways entering the area.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal still continued though trade declined year after year. This was hit even more when most of the local ironworks which used the canal closed down. The loss in trade had forced the company to go down the same road as most other canal companies - they decided to reduce their tolls. In most cases this never did much to aid profits and at best was only meant to try and keep existing trade from leaving the waterway. Inevitably, because tolls were cheaper, profits became even lower.

Trade was so low by now on the remaining stretches of the Monmouthshire Canal that outlay for maintenance had become far higher than income. Thus the canal was slowly becoming derelict while still in use.

With the continued decline of income on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal the company finally decided it was best to sell out to the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company. A deal was finalised in September and the canal was sold for £61,000. The Monmouthshire company were expected by many to convert the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal into a railway but this was never their intention. They had been eager to buy the canal ahead of any other potential railway company because they desperately needed the water supply for their own surviving stretches of canal. They were then able to make a healthy profit out of selling water to local industries.

Coal trade had hit an all time low on the Monmouthshire Canal so the company decided to close its once prosperous wharves in Newport and replace them with railway interchanges.

The Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire & Abergavenny canals finally lost their independence when the Great Western Railway took over the Monmouthshire Railway & Canal Company. The new owners had little interest in canals and the two Welsh waterways joined many others on GWR's stock list which were simply left to run down.

In Brecon the Brecknock Boat Company Wharf was closed and filled in. Later, just to the north, the terminus of the route (Brecon Basin) was also closed, filled in and eventually became used as an access road. This shortened the route by several hundred yards and made it very difficult to turn a boat at the end of the revised line.

By the turn of the century trade on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was reduced to one boat per week.

The Monmouthshire Canal's Crumlin Branch packet boat (passenger service) ended. For many decades it had taken people to and from Newport Market but trains and roads had now become a far more popular (and certainly quicker) method of transport.

Another of the Monmouthshire Canal's regular trades was lost when the brick carriers at Allt-yr-yn gave up taking their cargo from their brick works to the top of the 14 Cefn Locks at Rogerstone.

The last cargo was carried on the Crumlin Branch of the Monmouthshire Canal. Later in the year GWR closed a section of the canal in the centre of Newport, pushing its terminus further north to Town Lock near Mill Street.

The last commercial voyage on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was made at Llangynidr.

The last cargo was carried on the remaining stretch of the Monmouthshire Canal's main line.

The Government nationalised virtually all of Britain's waterways, the Monmouthshire Canal and Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal were grouped together as the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal and put under the authority of the British Transport Commission. When it was announced that the government were to close the whole canal a man named Ian Wright took a canoe down the Crumlin Branch. The law stated that no waterway could be closed if a "vessel" had "used" the route within the past 12 months! By this time, although mostly still intact, stretches of the former Monmouthshire Canal were unnavigable - even by canoe!However, this hardly mattered as far as potential leisure seekers were concerned because GWR had placed a ban on the use of motorised pleasure craft and on using any of the locks on either canal - the BTC kept this ban in place on the newly formed all-in-one canal.

The BTC's job was not to rescue all canals but to systematically get rid of those which were not fit for commercial use.The Crumlin Branch came under this category and was officially closed despite the previous years efforts of Ian Wright.

Despite the official closure, for some years R.H. Bowen had been running a pleasure boat business at Rogerstone on the Crumlin Branch near the top of the Cefn Flight. The craft were all rowing boats or canoes but the state of the un-maintained canal forced Mr. Bowen out of business.

The BTC closed down the section of the former Monmouthshire Canal main line from Pontypool to Cwmbran, by now the canal was in a poor state of repair and no boats were using it.

In the infamous BTC survey which classified all of Britain's waterways, the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal did not fair well. It was classified as a Remainder Canal which basically meant it was to be left to rot and eventually was to be completely wiped out.

The whole of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal was officially abandoned. By this time enthusiasm for rescuing old waterways was growing all over the country. In the Midlands the Stratford Canal was already being restored and in Monmouthshire local people were beginning to show interest in their decaying (if not dead) waterway.

The British Waterways Board was created and, although they were officially no different to the BTC in terms of rescuing defunct canals, their take-over coincided with many restoration projects.Restoration of the former Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal began and over the next few years the BWB aided the restorers in their work. The only lock flight on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was re-opened and boats were able to navigate from Pontypool Basin to the village of Talybont. A fixed bridge barred the way north, taking a number of years to negotiate its removal.

A new government survey of inland waterways was undertaken but this still classified the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal as a Remainder Waterway. This meant it had no legal protection but despite this, restoration of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny stretch continued. Further south, on the former Monmouthshire Canal the story was different, from time to time stretches were filled in by industry, new housing and new roads.

The whole of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal ran through the fast developing Brecon Beacons National Park. A huge boost came to the restorers when Breconshire and Monmouthshire county councils gained permission from the British Waterways Board to turn the canal into a leisure amenity. This meant almost all future funding would come from the National Park. It also meant that it was very unlikely that any parts of the line would be blocked by roads or other developments.

The first major works on the last unnavigable stretches of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal were started with the rebuilding of Brynich lock, restoration of Brynich Aqueduct and the placement of a new drawbridge at Talybont where a low fixed bridge had held up restoration for some time.

The whole of the former Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal was fully reopened from Pontypool to Brecon giving holidaymakers a unique journey along the hillsides of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

While there was good news on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal, there was only gloom for the Crumlin Branch of the Monmouthshire Canal.It received no funding or protection and a number of road widening schemes took parts of the canal away. This included a new housing estate at Risca which needed access roads which caused canal bridges to be flattened and Giles Aqueduct to be completely demolished.

The infamous county and local council reorganisation which effected most of Britain had an advantageous effect on most of the former Monmouthshire Canal. All of the main line to the south of Cwmbran and all of the Crumlin Branch now fell under Newport County Council's jurisdiction and they were very sympathetic towards the restoration project. Among other things this saved the Cefn Flight of 14 locks at Rogerstone which had previously been due to be built on.The land around the flight was subsequently tidied up, the locks were cleared out and the whole area was turned into parkland with a picnic site and walkways which included wooden bridges over the locks to allow visitors a close-up view. At the top of the flight a canal visitor centre was built. Today the locks are far from navigable but their masonry and side ponds are kept well maintained - waiting for the day when the first boat comes their way.

A major breach occurred on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal high up on a hillside above Llanfoist. The canal had to be closed while the breach was repaired and a 4 mile stretch of the canal bed was lined with concrete.

With the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal now fully restored, attention turn to the Monmouthshire Canal. The section at Sebastopol on the main line was cleaned up by the Torfaen Canal Society. During the late 1970's a dredger cleared the bed on this same section and Job Creation employees tidied up the towpath etc. However, the section immediately to the north near Pontypool was left in a sorry state and the stretch to the south through Cwmbran remained unnavigable with little hope of the local council allowing restoration to begin. In complete contrast, further south the sympathetic Newport Council continued to show interest in the waterway by fully restoring Gwastad Lock.

Cwmbran council announced proposals to rebuild its main road system. Part of the plan would include flattening and culverting bridges over the canal. The IWA represented the Monmouthshire Canal at a public hearing but it was defeated and the road "improvements" went ahead the following year, effectively blocking the canal and any chance of restoration.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal is now used by thousands of holidaymakers every year. Unfortunately, the Monmouthshire Canal and its Crumlin Branch have seen little restoration in comparison. During the early part of the decade the main line was finally "tidied up" and is now maintained in the Cwmbran area but the Pontypool area had been left to decay and most of the line in central Newport had long since been filled in.

Suddenly things began to change for the Monmouthshire Canal main line. The Pontypool stretch, just south of the junction with the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal, was tidied up and the clean up of the stretch in Cwmbran was extended. Restorers were given permission to rebuild Crown Bridge at Sebastopol which, when complete, would allow a stretch of about 3 miles to become navigable. A feasibility study was set up to survey the whole main line in order to calculate the cost of a full restoration.

During summer restoration of Crown Bridge on the Monmouthshire Canal was completed. The local council were then awaiting funding to allow them to dredge the canal and open it for boats.

In December heavy rain caused a build up of drainage water which flowed off the hills into the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal. Because the route is situated on the side of the hills for most of its length it means that surplus water from the mountains runs into the canal rather than running into the valley below. On December 8th BW were warned that water was leaking through the canal bank at Talybont where the route is carried above the village on a small embankment. Local police were alerted and villagers who lived near the canal were evacuated.Before anything could be done to stop the leakage there was a collapse of the canal bank. Half a million gallons of water and the earth from the broken bank rushed down Talybont's main street completely flooding the ground floors of houses opposite and the Star Inn pub some 50 yards away. The main road was completely blocked by mud from the canal and the burst bank left a gap almost 30 feet wide. It took days to clear away the mud which had ruined the ground floors of over 15 houses and it took 4 months to repair the canal. A concrete lining was fitted to prevent the problem from ever happening again (in theory).

During the same week as the Talybont disaster, further south at Llanfoist, where the 1975 breach had occurred (and had been repaired with a concrete lining), it was noticed that the towpath was beginning to crack. Investigations showed that major repairs were needed on this stretch of the canal bed too. A local hire boat fleet was moved away from the area and the suspect stretch of canal was isolated and drained. It was found that the concrete lining had cracked. A temporary trough was installed to allow one-way traffic along the damaged section while repairs went on.

All this must have been very disappointing for everybody concerned with the canal but just days after the breach at Talybont and the problems at Llanfoist were discovered there was a big boost for the waterway.Powys county council announced that they were to give the canal £7 million worth of funding towards a new basin at the northern terminus in Brecon.

A restoration report in the canal press early in the year announced that sections of the Monmouthshire Canal around its junction with the Crumlin Branch had been relined. However, there were still many flattened bridges blocking the way and many locks had been converted to weirs. It would still be some time before the whole main line would be navigable, restorers were predicting 2010 as a realistic target for the reopening of the whole route.

On April 15th the newly restored Crown Bridge on the Monmouthshire Canal was officially opened by the Mayor of Torfaen. A large crowd of local people and dozens of boats attended the opening. The newly reopened section allowed an extension of 2 miles from the terminus of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal at Pontypool to a new winding hole south of Crown Bridge in Sebastopol. The line to the south of the winding hole had also been recently dredged though it ran to a dead end via the tiny Cwmbran Tunnel to the head of a disused lock flight.

British Waterways reported that the problems at Llanfoist on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal may take a number of years to resolve. The temporary trough which was installed 12 months earlier was to stay in place for the foreseeable future. Major repair work is incredibly difficult on a canal which has to remain open for most of the year. Access to the damaged section is very difficult, not only is it several hundred yards from the nearest access point but it is in dense woodland and on a ledge half way up a mountain! The access point itself is not particularly accessible being up a steep narrow track.The towpath from the access point to the damaged canal is just wide enough for a towing horse.

During Spring it was announced that a new leisure area was to be developed on the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal at Goytre Wharf.Woodland trails, picnic areas, refreshments, an exhibition centre, new moorings and a restaurant trip boat were all to be implemented in the scheme. Plans were also announced to restore the lime kilns which stood alongside the canal at the wharf and to recreate the tramway which once ran to the wharf. By this time the project to reinstate Brecon Basin was well under way.The old basin had been re-excavated and a new canal side theatre was being built taking the form of an original canal warehouse. Just to the south, alongside the terminus of the canal, the site of the Brecknock Boat Company Wharf (which was last used in 1881) had already been restored and reopened. This gave boats a lot more room to turn around and moor while awaiting the opening of the new basin.

Hopes of reopening the Monmouthshire Canal main line have been given a boost with the possibility of National Lottery Funding. A new survey was being made with the intention of submitting an application to the fund. If successful the restorers aim to connect the main line to the River Usk at Crindau, just north of Newport. No matter what happens now, nothing will stop the full restoration of the Monmouthshire Canal main line. Once that is up and running it may not be long before the Crumlin Branch is also restored to something close to its former glory. The whole of the "Monmouth & Brecon Canal" is a major monument to Welsh architecture; the Monmouthshire Canal with its mighty lock flights and the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal with its amazing route through the Welsh hills should never have been allowed to die. But now the whole route is well on its way to a long and prosperous reincarnation!

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What we now know as the "Mon & Brec" is actually 2 different waterways with 3 different lines. The Monmouthshire Canal is partly restored and partly navigable, the Crumlin Branch is derelict while the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal is now fully navigable.

Monmouthshire Canal - Main Line route

The main line of the Monmouthshire Canal began at a junction with the River Usk in Newport. My 1971 reference book said that most traces of the canal in the town centre had vanished so I guess by now all traces will have gone. Most stretches had already been covered by car parks though the reference book said Town Lock in Mill Street and a stretch to Barrack Road were still there. Unfortunately these were also about to be filled in.

North of Barrack Road (at the north end of Barrack Hill Tunnel) is a better scene. The canal is in water and has a towpath as it rounds a wooded hillside to its junction with the Crumlin Branch at Malpas, the M4 motorway is close by overhead. Strangely it is the main line which turns away at the junction while the Crumlin Branch actually carries on in a straight line. This is because the main line has curved from north to west but it soon takes a sharp bend to head north again beyond the junction. Just a few hundred yards north is Gwastad Lock which has been fully restored. To the north of Malpas the canal used to run through open country but most of this is now developed into housing estates.Near the village of Llantarnam the canal climbs up through the 10 Ty Coch Locks where, in 1995, only some of the chambers still survived.

The route now enters Cwmbran where the unsympathetic council either filled in the lock chambers or converted them into "cascades". Although these look attractive in their own way, they are a great hindrance to restoration. Five Locks Road crosses over the route at the 5 Pontnewydd Locks, nearby is a new housing area named Five Locks Close. Above the locks the canal is now well restored and (theoretically) capable of taking boats. This stretch includes Cwmbran Tunnel which, although not officially open, is navigable. It is just 80 yards long but has no towpath and is very low and narrow.

My 1971 reference book reported that past Cwmbran the canal instantly deteriorated. Parts of it were blocked by weed, bikes and bedspreads. Bridges were culverted and a pipe had been installed crossing the route at a height which completely blocked any chance of navigation. The reference book also reported that because the canal was not maintained or cleared of silt in this section the towpath and nearby properties often suffered badly from flooding after heavy rainfall. All of these obstructions made it very difficult for local industries to draw their water supply which still came (in theory) from the River Usk via the canal. The author of my reference book, Ronald Russell, was unusually outspoken about the state in which he'd found the canal in Pontypool. He called it a disgrace, saying it could easily become a useful amenity to the heavy local industry and with two "canal side" pubs it could also have provided the public with an interesting leisure area. This is the only stretch still owned by the government - everything to the south is in the hands of local councils. Changes in government policy (or simply change of government) saw the beginning of a big change for the canal during the 1980's and this continuing into the 1990's. This whole stretch was restored, Panteg Works now draws a good supply of water and, following the rebuilding of Crown Bridge, the channel is officially open to boats.

The route soon reaches Pontymoile Basin which has an attractive bridge and a toll house beside the site of the stop lock which used to regulate the waters of the Monmouthshire Canal from those of the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal. The Monmouthshire Canal used to bend left to continue north west while the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal heads north.

Past the junction the Monmouthshire Canal used to head north west for its final 1½ mile into Pontnewynydd. This section was closed in 1853 and most of it was converted into railway by the Monmouthshire Canal company. In 1971 (if not still) there were a few scattered traces of the original canal including part of a lock in Pontypool which had been preserved on a new traffic roundabout!

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Monmouthshire Canal - Crumlin Branch Route

The Crumlin Branch leaves the main line south of Malpas, to the north of Newport. It starts by heading south west, roughly following the line of the M4 though a little way to its south. It is still a very rural canal route (apart from the ever present sound of motorway traffic) as it runs around the bottom of Allt-yr-yn, a hill which in English means "The Declivity Of The Ash Trees"! Allt-yr-yn lock and accompanying cottage is said to be dear to the hearts of many Newport people, bringing back memories of childhood days. The following stretch has five single locks as it winds through fields before turning west and going under the M4, sadly, in a pipe, though a towpath tunnel was built for walkers. Just past the motorway are the fourteen Cefn Locks near Rogerstone. All the locks have deep stone chambers which lift the branch a total of 150 feet. Most of the locks were built in pairs though they are not true staircases. They are similar to the Bratch Locks on the Staffs & Worcs Canal which have tiny pounds between each lock. These pounds connect to side ponds which store water. Half way up the flight one of the locks, known as "the sea lock" was built wide at the top to allow boats to pass. A little way further up, the towpath changes sides close to a lock cottage. In 1971 the skeleton of a boat lay on the grass near the top of the flight between two side ponds.At that time there were plans to fill the locks in and leave them at just a few inches depth for safety and the side ponds were to be converted into paddling pools. Thankfully the locks and side ponds were saved from this fate when Newport Council took over the running of the district in 1974. They smartened the place up, turning it into a park complete with a canal visitor centre. Past the lock flight the route follows the same course as the former A467 (now the B4591) on the north eastern side of the road. Immediately after the locks the canal turns sharply from west to north west through a wooded cutting, leaving the Lwyd Valley and crossing into the Ebbw Vale. When the cutting recedes, the waterway emerges high up on the hillsides. In the main, the stretch out of Rogerstone through to Risca is in good condition and still very rural although the route has been culverted 3 times. The towpath is in good repair along most of branch and most road bridges have survived though Ty Sign housing estate is said to be far from pretty. A 1995 magazine article damns the culverts which were made when bridges were flattened to give access to "interminable new housing". This, on the face of it, is a fair complaint, but then again... does the writer of the article not live in a nice house? Was it not new once? Did it not once stand where green land had been? Or does he expect us all to remain within the towns in Victorian slums (which were also originally built on green land)? Was the canal itself not originally cut like a scar through peaceful pastures?? If the new houses stand for 200 years will some future-day historian not scream blue murder if a council wants to tear them down?? Here endeth this particular rant on the subject of "everything old is great - all things new are crap"!! To be fair to the writer of the article, he had good right to be a little upset, it was written by Ian Wright - the man who took his canoe along this very section in 1948 and stalled its closure. One very sad loss due to the new housing is Giles Aqueduct which was demolished in 1973 to make room for one of the access roads.

The village of Risca is far below the canal as the route is surrounded by steep hills and woodlands all along this section. Beyond Risca Quarry the final stretch of watered canal, passing Crosskeys and Pontywaun, is said to have "high scenic value" not unlike the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal. At Crosskeys the canal is severed and disappears for a few hundred yards under the main road. When the waterway reappears it continues for just one more mile and then comes to an abrupt end at Cwmcarn. Beyond here my 1971 reference book said the route had already (in some places) been wiped out during road widening schemes and, in other places, was just about to be filled in. It said there was nothing to see on the approach to Crumlin other than the odd muddy ditch. Crumlin once had a famous viaduct, built in 1857 it carried the Ebbw Vale railway for 1,650 feet, 210 feet in the air across the valley. Not surprisingly it was the largest viaduct in the world for some time and photographs look as though travelling on it was somewhat precarious - it was dismantled in 1965. The viaduct crossed the canal in Crumlin though the waterway has also long since gone.

The Monmouthshire Canal had 24 tramways (or "dramroads" as they were called in the area) but there is virtually no trace of any of them except for a very short section to the west of Pontypool town centre.Most were converted into railways or simply wiped out.

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Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal Route

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal is now fully restored and is used by thousands of holiday makers every year. Its route is fully covered in all good canal guides so I will not describe it in full here though I will recommend some of the many places worth visiting.

The Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal is the only one in Britain to fall completely within the boundaries of a National Park and is probably set within the most beautiful countryside on any canal route.Among it's most interesting features - along with the continuous excellent views - are the wharves at Pontymoile, Goytre, Gilwern, Govilon, Llanfoist and Llangattock. Pontymoile (in Pontypool) is the point where the Brecknockshire & Abergavenny Canal made a junction with the Monmouthshire Canal. To the south the Monmouthshire has been reopened for a couple of miles.At the junction there is a car park and picnic tables. There is an old wharf cottage and a small aqueduct just to the north. Water usuallyspills down cascading steps from the aqueduct into the stream below.Goytre is presently being redeveloped with parkland, restaurants and restored tramways. Llanfoist is high on the hillside, found by travelling up a very narrow road which was once part of a tramway. At the wharf are some old canal buildings and a narrow pedestrian tunnel under the canal. Virtually all of the wharves have old lime kilns nearby. Llangynidr lock flight is one of the best in Britain and makes for a beautiful afternoon stroll. It is overhung by trees, crosses a fast river on an aqueduct and passes a cascading weir. There are old canal cottages and stables (still lived in) and a pub on the road which crosses near the bottom of the flight.

The small Ashford Tunnel and Brynich Aqueduct are worth seeing while Talybont is an interesting village with its aqueduct, pubs, lift bridge and the main street running along the foot of a short canal embankment. At the end of the line is Brecon, a town well worth seeing - including the "Promenade" along the banks of the Usk. The new canal basin with its new theatre gives an excellent terminus to an excellent canal.

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