The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is considered by many to be Britain's most picturesque canal, and, for much of its length, lies within the National Park's boundaries.
This landlocked canal runs for 35 miles (56km) from the old market town of Brecon to Five Locks, Cwmbran, following the scenic Usk Valley. It offers glorious views of the Brecon Beacons and passes through fascinating villages including Talybont-on-Usk, Llangynidr, Llangattock, Gilwern, Govilon and Llanfoist. Unlike many others, this canal has trees along much of its length, an array of wildflowers on its banks and is home to mallards, moorhens, carp and bream, kingfishers, herons, dragonflies and butterflies.
The Canal offers a quiet haven to walk along, take a day trip or hire a boat for a peaceful week. The Taff Trail cycling route runs along the first 2 miles from Brecon.
You can cycle on the towpath between Goytre Wharf and Llanfoist Wharf (5½ miles/9km) and Bryinch Lock and Brecon (2 miles/3km).
The canal has good catches of coarse fish including carp, bream and roach. Fishing is permitted all year round, a popular spot being Llangynidr pond (between locks 67 and 68). Anglers require an Environment Agency Rod Licence (obtainable from Post Offices) and a British Waterways Permit which can be purchased from the British Waterways Office at Govilon Wharf (01873 830328). For more online information visit Waterscape, British Waterway's leisure website.
The towpath offers walkers a gentle walking experience through some very pretty countryside. British Waterways has produced a booklet containing information on walks along the canal towpath which highlight some of the points of interest along the way, which can be obtained from tourist information centres. Information on easier access points across the National Park including the canal is available here. Beyond the National Park boundaries, the canal continues to Newport and up to Cwmcarn and although this section is non navigable by boat, the tow path is good for walking and cycling.
Public boat trips operate out of Brecon Basin from Easter to October and the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust also hold special events at various locations.
Day boat hire can be arranged from Llanfoist Wharf and Talybont-on-Usk and holiday boat hire can be booked from Llanfoist Wharf, Gilwern, Llangynidr and Pencelli. Canoes can be hired from Gilwern.
All craft using the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, including canoes, must have a British Waterways Boat Licence, which can be purchased by calling 01606 723800. Membership of the British Canoe Union or the Welsh Canoeing Association includes a British Waterways Boat Licence. If you're bringing your own canoe, park close to the canal at Goytre Wharf (between bridges 74 & 75), Lapstone car park (adjacent to Lapstone Bridge - bridge 76), Gilwern, Church Road Wharf (bridge 104), Pencelli (bridge 155) and Brecon Basin (bridge 167).
For more detailed information on the activities you can enjoy along the route of the canal visit Waterscape, British Waterway's leisure website.
Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust also hold special events at various locations along the canal during the year.
The canal was built between 1792 and 1812 to link Brecon with Newport and the Severn Estuary. Stone and processed lime from nearby quarries was transported by horse-drawn tramways to the canal and then by barge to Newport.
At the time of construction road conditions were horrendously bad and transportation by water was the cheapest and most efficient way to move goods. A major tramroad link existed between the canal and the large limestone quarries at Trefil and Llangattock. Today, the Llangattock escarpment still dominates the skyline around Crickhowell and part of it is designated a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) and conceals the entrance to one of the most challenging cave networks in Britain.
The iron works in the Clydach Gorge transported its products along a tram road linked to the canal at Gilwern. In the village of Talybont-on-Usk the ruins of the disused limekilns serve as a reminder of a time when the canal carried processed lime for household and agricultural use.
By the 1910s trade on the canal had virtually ceased but has been gradually restored by British Waterways with the support of many other organisations culminating in its reopening to the public in 1970. Today it is used for informal recreation including canoeing, fishing, walks along the towpath (a section of the Taff Trail follows the canal bank for walkers only), and for canal boat holidays.
The full length of the canal towpath is a public footpath with several public houses adjacent to the canal en route. There is a short tunnel through which the canal passes near Talybont-on-Usk and a pleasant and entertaining time can be had watching novice canal users negotiate their way through. Stone bridges crossing the canal are a common and attractive feature. There is a fine aqueduct located downstream from the canal lock adjacent to the minor road B4558 at Cefn Brynich (SO 079274) from which you can get an excellent view of the aqueduct by standing on the road bridge.
Water enters the canal via a culvert in the end wall of Brecon Basin. It is piped under the town from a weir on the River Usk, half a mile (800m) away at The Promenade. Water is also diverted into the canal from smaller rivers, including the Nant Crawnon near Llangynidr. There are weirs along the length of the canal which let surplus water overflow into another watercourse; a good example is at Pontymoile, Pontypool.
There are six locks still in use along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal: five at Llangynidr and one at Brynich. These are used to move a boat from one level to another and are filled and emptied using 'paddles' which let water through the gates or surrounding stonework. Boaters use a 'windlass' (a special handle) to operate the gear that controls these paddles.
At many bridges and narrow sections of the canal you will notice grooves on either side of the canal. Wooden planks are dropped vertically into these slots to isolate a length of the canal so it can be drained for maintenance work. The planks are often stacked nearby when not in use.
Nowadays this term is used to describe the handle that operates the lock gates. This is also the name of the equipment originally used to drain a section of the canal. You'll find the remains of windlasses at several points along the canal, for example, near Llwmws Bridge (113). It looks like a roller set on top of two posts alongside the canal, and was used to wind up the chain that was attached to the 'bed valve' (rather like a large bath plug) set in the bottom of the canal.
Cast iron Great Western Railway restriction notices can be seen at many of the bridges.
Bridges and locks are numbered in sequence, starting at Newport and going up the Crumlin Arm (west of Newport) first, then the main line. Bridges that were not the responsibility of the original canal company weren't numbered until recently. Now they have the number of the bridge downstream, followed by the letter 'A'.
The canal was designed to take horse-drawn boats approximately 63ft (19m) long and 9ft (3m) wide, carrying a cargo of 20 tons. At various points the canal widens to form a 'winding hole', or turning area for boats. To meet today's stricter safety requirements, craft must be a maximum of 60ft (18.3m) long and 8ft 6inches (2.6m) wide.
The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal has five slipways, where, with permission and upon payment of a fee, small craft on trailers can be launched: Pontymoile (bridge 52), two at Goytre Wharf (bridge 75), Govilon Boat Club (bridge 97) and Pencelli (bridge 154).
Just outside Newport, on the road to Risca alongside the Canal is the Fourteen Locks Canal Visitor Centre, where you can trace the growth and decline of the Canal and its role in transporting commodities from the South Wales valleys down to Newport docks.
A computer based information point lets you experience a ‘virtual’ journey along the canal, learning how a canal lock works – even having a go at working a lock – all without leaving the Centre. The information point also has details of some of the people who used to work on the canal. Relatives of former canal workers are encouraged to contribute any information they may have to help add to the current knowledge of canal workers’ lives.
The Canal and Heritage Centre is now run by the volunteers of the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust, and the Centre is open from 9.30am to 4.30pm, all year round. There is a tea room with outside patio, and a community meeting room with an IT suite. Family fun days and boat trips are organised from time to time, when the water supply is plentiful, and the Santa’s Grotto at Christmas is very popular.
Outside the Visitor Centre, the flight of locks rises 160 feet in just half a mile, and is still an impressive sight. An attractive picnic area and way-marked walks along the canal tow path and surrounding countryside make Fourteen Locks an enjoyable day out.
The park and canal walk is open all year dawn to dusk.
The Visitor Centre is open all year 9.30am to 4.30pm.
Fourteen Locks Canal Centre, High Cross, Newport,
South Wales, NP10 9GN
Telephone: 01633 894802