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Torfaen Tales

Up the Canal

We discussed at length what we wanted to do for our summer holiday. It had to be something inexpensive. The answer was right on our doorstep. We decided to walk from Pontypool to Brecon along the Monmouth & Brecon Canal, staying in bed and breakfast accommodation along the way.

A couple of months before our departure we did an advance recce in the car and booked the B&Bs. Sorted!

The day before departure I thought I’d better pack. I normally take the kitchen sink away with me, but as my back pack is the size of a large handbag I had to restrict myself somewhat. Well, quite a lot, actually.

Day One - Pontypool (Bridge 52) to Gilwern (Bridge 103)

Thursday 22nd June dawned fine and sunny but with a playful breeze and a few passing clouds. We set off just before 10am, walking through Pontypool Park down to Pontymoile Basin. After a couple of photographs to commemorate the start of the epic voyage we were off.

Shortly after the bridge where you’d depart the canal if you were going for a swift half at the Horse and Jockey the first of a vast assortment of ducks hove into view: a mother with 10 little fuzz-ball ducklings paddling in the shallows of the opposite bank. Not long after that the first heron graced us with its fleeting presence. Herons seem to know instinctively when you are trying to focus a camera on them, and they launch into the air like a grey dart. It was hard to know whether the subsequent sightings of heron were the same one come back to taunt us, or the various friends and relations of the original sighting. In any case I didn’t manage to get a decent photo of any of them.

The scenery was bucolic in its summery splendour. The edges of the canal were frilled in green with heads of white flowers: cow parsley? Hemlock? Clumps of yellow irises are a pleasing sight at this time of year, but clash horribly with purply pink foxgloves. Only nature can get away with it. At least the foxgloves tone pleasantly with the lilac-coloured wild rhododendrons, and the briar roses in cream and palest pink tone agreeably with everything.

Soon we were in unexplored territory, having previously walked only as far as the Star Inn, Mamhilad. Not long after this the first squirrel was sighted, streaking up a beech tree on the edge of the canal. The cry of ‘Oh look! Ducks!’ was soon abbreviated to ‘Duck alert.’ We wished we’d thought to bring something in the way of food to offer them.

The canal is quite convoluted in this section, twisting this way and that, and it takes a while to cover any appreciable distance. We were occasionally passed by narrowboats and other small craft, the occupants offering a wave, a smile, and a few words. The canal is a friendly place. There were plenty of people on the towpath walking their dogs or just walking for the sheer enjoyment of being outdoors on a nice day.

Soon we came across a farmer herding sheep across one of the many bridges over the canal, ably assisted by a pair of sheepdogs who moved the plump, woolly creatures to their destination with great economy of movement.

To give you some idea of the frequency of bridges, we started at Pontymoile Basin with Bridge No. 52 and ended at Bridge No. 167 at Brecon. Many of them are quaint, hump-backed stone bridges, seemingly pointless in their existence. Some are wooden and others are a combination of brick and wood. They add to the enjoyment of the bucolic excellence of the scenery, all lush fields in shades of green and gold in summer, trees resplendent in full summer foliage, and distant hills in varying shades of green and misty blue, all capped with a periwinkle sky dotted with powder-puff clouds.

Before long we came upon Goytre Wharf, our chosen destination for lunch. Goytre Wharf is home to numerous craft moored either along the canal bank or in the separate marina which is simply teeming with fish.

When leaving the towpath you walk under an aqueduct which has a leak of slightly worrying proportions that drips down in a steady rain. It’s been leaking like that for more than 20 years in my experience but the canal still hasn’t collapsed. Perhaps it never will.

Goytre Wharf is very picturesque. There is a quaint cottage just past the aqueduct walk, and the remains of lime kilns from days gone by can be seen on the left. Further up the slope is a pub/restaurant with tables on the grass and a great viewpoint for watching passing craft. The area has been redeveloped in recent years and now incorporates a circular forest walk with a literary theme. It is the base of one of the narrowboat hire companies, and there is also a gift shop. Sheltered in among the pine forest, Goytre Wharf is a pleasant place to spend an hour or two whether approaching by canal boat, car or on foot.

After a brief snack we set on our way once again. Having foolishly left our guide to the canal at home we picked up another copy at Goytre Wharf, and Justin took on the role of tour guide. He diligently read all the details of historic and local interest as we went along. The canalside cottages in the section around Llanover and Llanelen are particularly splendid, with cottage gardens abundant with summer flowers. The mountains on the right beyond Abergavenny form a perfect backdrop to the verdant valley.

Having the guide we now knew what bridge number we were heading for at the end of our first day’s walk. Somehow it made the going easier: we were beginning to flag a bit in the warmth of the afternoon and seemed to do little but trip over roots and large stones on the towpath.

Finally I found a slice of bread crust abandoned by the path and commandeered it to feed the ducks, but typically none were seen for quite some time. Meanwhile an air force jet screeched past just above our heads - the air force love to practice their low flying skills in the Welsh valleys. It is splendid to watch them.

We were passed by a boatload of giggly ladies on an afternoon boat trip with glasses of wine. They were having a great time.

Then shortly after we were passed by a more up-market gathering on a narrowboat with their bottle of champagne. It seemed everyone was boozing it up except us, although drink was the last thing on my mind. I did wonder though if you could get done for being drunk in charge of a narrowboat.

Soon after this we passed two canoes, each with two teenage girls on board. They asked how long it would take them to get to bridge 100. As we were only in the mid ‘80s we suggested it would take at least an hour. They looked despondent but didn’t seem to be making much effort to paddle onward. We soon left them behind even at our modest pace.

Llanfoist is home to another narrowboat hire company, and a large building which looks like holiday flats has been built on the left bank of the canal.

Near Govilon we came to a sign which instructed us that the towpath was crossing to the left side of the canal, so we duly crossed the bridge. Near here was a sign for public toilets but none were in evidence. This I found was a bit of a drawback when walking the canal. People on their boats have facilities, but those on foot need strong bladders. There were too many nettles in the undergrowth to consider nipping behind a bush!

Soon wild sweetpeas and wild strawberries joined the list of flora beside the canal. At bridge 98 just after Llanwenarth Chapel the towpath crossed back to the right side of the canal. I eventually found some ducks who enjoyed the bread crust I’d been carrying for miles.

At bridge 100 we saw some people with canoes who looked like they were waiting for the girls we’d seen further back. We mentioned that we’d passed them, and while chatting one of the young men lost his footing on the edge of the canal and tumbled into the water. The only thing injured was his pride, he blushed hotly enough to dry himself out in minutes.

Finally the two pubs on the canal bank at Gilwern hove into view. It was coming up to six o’clock, roughly eight hours after we’d left Pontypool. We’d arranged bed and breakfast at another pub round the corner, The Lion. We were shown to our room and were glad to get off our feet. Justin was complaining of muscle cramp in his calves. I knew the toes on my left foot were rubbing a bit inside my trainers, but to my surprise I had a blister the size of a grape on my heel.

Our room was up in the attic, a bit dark but pleasant enough and with en suite facilities. Being Justin’s birthday we spruced ourselves up and headed out for a meal and a few drinks. Gilwern was very quiet on a Thursday night, but the landlady of one of the pubs assured us that it got busier on Friday and Saturday nights.

We slept like tops despite our hotel being beside the busy Heads of the Valleys road.

Day Two - Gilwern (Bridge 103) to Llangattock (Bridge 116)

After an excellent cooked breakfast served by friendly staff we went for a wander around Gilwern as there was little time pressure on us to check out. I dressed in a skirt and my beach sarong, a wonderful length of fabric which can be wrapped this way and that to make a dress or a top. The day was sunny but with a light breeze which happened to catch my sarong top, and suddenly I was showing rather a lot of my anatomy to Gilwern High Street. Thankfully we were the only people about.

We bought a loaf of bread in order to be better equipped for the ducks, and departed at 10.40 am. We passed some lovely gardens on the outskirts of Gilwern. Typically, now that we were armed with bread there didn’t seem to be any ducks about. The main item of wildlife was mosquitoes and other biting insects which were soon intent upon making a meal of me.

The view of the mountains on the right continued to astound. This section of the canal is edged with tranquil woodland, and before long we saw a cheeky squirrel darting up and down the trunks and branches.

Near bridge 104 we came across a sign for toilets, but they weren’t in evidence.

Finally we found some ducks to feed, and after this regular groups of ducks came by. Mothers with varying numbers of ducklings, ranging from newly hatched yellow and brown striped fuzzy things with little feet paddling like mad to keep up, right through the various stages to almost fully grown and difficult to tell apart from mother by their size. And also the handsome males with their green and blue feathered heads, some with their families and others in small groups of single males. All eager for crumbs of bread. In the words of The Fast Show, today we are mostly been feeding bread to ducks!

Today I decided to walk in flip flops because I didn’t want to aggravate the blister on my heel. They were blissfully comfortable and cooler on the feet than trainers, but poor protection from large pieces of grit which would become embedded in the soft plastic and have to be picked out. Justin was still troubled by a sore calf muscle, and although keen walkers we could both tell we’d walked a distance the day before.

At Bridge 114 there was another potential pit stop, a sign advertising toilets. There is a building next to the disused lime kiln on the left side of the canal, but no signs on it to say this is where the toilets are. There were two workmen nearby and I asked them. Yes, these were the toilets and they were locked. Luckily we’d come along while there was someone present who had a key.

We soon came to Llangattock, our next port of call for the night. It was only ten to one! We’d dragged our heels taking photographs but we were still very early. We left the canal at bridge 116 and walked downhill past a posh looking hotel, The Old Rectory. We fancied some lunch but not at those prices, and the only other pub in town didn’t serve food. So we dropped our back packs at our bed and breakfast and freshened up before heading into Crickhowell, only three quarters of a mile away and possibly less via the shortcut through the picturesque churchyard.

We had a ‘light bite’ and the Bridge End Inn, amused that it had the same name as the pub we’d eaten at in Gilwern. We decided to book a meal there for the evening. We went to visit a friend, then after a bit of a browse round Crickhowell’s shops we headed back to our B&B. The Old Six Bells was the highlight of our accommodation: light and bright, and tastefully decorated. Many B&Bs look as though they contain cast-offs of furniture and bedlinen, none of which match. But at The Old Six Bells everything matched and toned, and the en suite bathroom was lovely. They even supplied a hairdryer, the only B&B on our trip to do so. Travelling light I didn’t bring my own and had a succession of bad hair days and nights. Our room overlooked the garden, and we enjoyed watching the owner’s dogs and cat at play. The Old Six Bells ceased its life as a pub in 1935 and now shows little sign of its former identity.

After a welcome shower we headed back into Crickhowell for a good meal at the Bridge End and a couple of after-dinner drinks at The Bear.

End of Day Two. So far so good.

Day 3: Llangattock (Bridge 116) to Talybont-on-Usk (Bridge 143)

After an excellent breakfast in the refectory style dining room at the Old Six Bells and an interesting chat with the proprietor, we set off at 10.15 am. We slogged up the steep hill to the canal and got under way. The first section was under heavy forest cover, but soon opened out so we could see the surrounding countryside. We were passed by a few narrowboats and soon came upon a family of ducks just crying out to be fed (honest!). Soon we came to the grand estate of Glanusk House, the residence of the Legge-Bourke family. The house is visible from the canal, and very nice too, just beyond the River Usk at the bottom of the valley.

I wore flip flops again because the blisters on my feet would have bothered me if I’d tried to wear trainers. Today various mosquitoes and other flying insects decided I was worth biting.

For a while we walked ‘in step’ with a narrowboat. Ahead we could see a heron posing elegantly on the water’s edge, beautifully reflected in the still waters. Sadly the bird was disturbed by the boat before I got within photographing range, and there was no chance to get a photograph before it flew off.

Soon we came to our first lock gate at bridge 132, and watched a narrowboat complete the sequence of events constituting the transition through a lock. Then round the corner at bridge 133 we came upon a sign pointing us towards the Coach and Horses pub at Llangynidr, where we arrived at 12.35 for our lunch stop. My first incentive was a visit to the loo, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a vase of beautifully scented lilies. We sat outside at tables at the front and enjoyed the lovely weather and had a bite to eat. It was a popular spot for people walking their dogs to stop for a pint and a natter. Some executive-type motorcyclists pulled up and looked quaint in their black leathers with cups of tea. We dragged ourselves onwards at 2.17 pm, past the remainder of the flight of 5 locks. We stopped and watched some of the narrowboats making their way through the locks, always entertaining.

To the right of the canal is a large pond covered in water lilies and heaving with fish.

Soon we came upon a grand-looking house which, according to the guide book, was Llandetty House. Interestingly it had one window blocked off with brickwork, possibly dating back to the mid-1800s when there was a tax on windows and many people chose to block up their windows. Shortly after we came to another grand-looking house which also could have been Llandetty House - we weren’t quite sure which was which.

After bridge 141 we came to the Ashford Tunnel which takes boats about 400 metres through the hill. The towpath ceases, and there is a footpath which goes up and over the hill. It isn’t totally clear where you should go, but it’s best to get off the road, go through the metal farm gate and follow the footpath through the bottom of the field. Around half way through you will see a tunnel ventilation shaft with a metal grille, and you can hear the engines of boats going through and hear peoples’ voices. It’s a bit of fun to call to people on the boats and freak them out a bit.

At the bottom of the hill on the other side walk along the road a short distance then rejoin the canal towpath. At bridge 142 on the left you will see the ruins of more lime kilns.

We arrived at Talybont on Usk (bridge 143) at 4.15pm and walked down Station Road to our accommodation at the Usk Inn. This was the most expensive night but the room was a bit shabby and nowhere near as nice as The Old Six Bells. Still, there was a nice view of the hills if you ignored the car park at the back. After a rest and a shower we went into Talybont for a meal at the White Hart. It was busy but well run by a ferociously efficient manageress and a great chef who ran themselves ragged to keep their customers happy. The resident black and white cat,

Jess, was regularly chased out of the dining room.

After an excellent meal at the White Hart we went on to the nearby Star Inn for a couple of drinks, then back to the Usk Inn for an expensive nightcap. And so to bed!

Day 4 - Talybont on Usk (Bridge 143) to Brecon (Bridge 167)

Happy birthday to me! How nice to wake on a Sunday morning in a hotel, knowing you have a lovely day ahead and journey’s end is in sight. We enjoyed our breakfast and were on our way at 10.15 am having stopped at Talybont Stores to buy a packet of pitta breads to feed to the ducks.

There is an electric swing bridge on the canal just as you leave Talybont. People piloting narrowboats are able to raise it to let themselves through, but on this occasion there were no boats about. Everyone seemed to be having a lie in on Sunday morning.

The first ducks of the day were lying in wait for us just beyond the swing bridge. They seemed to approve of the pitta bread. A passing walker commented “You’ll never get one for lunch,” and I had visions of us laying out a picnic on the canal bank and a duck joining us in our feast with a napkin tied round its neck. Just my warped sense of humour.

Bridge 148 is the first of four manually operated tilt bridges.

Justin as usual was reading the notes aloud from our brochure. After Bridge 152 the canal was supposed to pass through the moat of a castle at Pencelli, but we didn’t see the moat or any castle ruins.

We saw the first moving narrowboat at 11.40 am. How lazy! The sky was by this time becoming quite cloudy and threatening, and we had a light shower round about midday which was scarcely enough to dampen our t-shirts.

Near Bridge 160 we had a lovely view of Pen y Fan, and soon we could see the River Usk quite close to the canal on the right through the trees.

At Bridge 162 the towpath to Brecon crosses the bridge. You should get off at Bridge 161 and follow the sign for Brynich Aqueduct if you want a good view of the aqueduct from below. It’s quite amazing to see boats crossing the canal on top of a bridge! On another occasion I bathed in the refreshing waters of the Usk at Brynich Aqueduct. If you’re on a boat you can moor up near the aqueduct and climb down the bank to get to the river, but travelling on foot the towpath is on the wrong side of the canal to facilitate access to the river from the aqueduct. Shame, as I would have enjoyed a paddle. However we did see a swan with a single grey fluffy cygnet just near the aqueduct.

After the aqueduct the River Usk soon bends away from the canal. We soon saw our first yellow ducklings among a clutch of brown and yellow striped brothers and sisters. The mother was a mallard, no prizes for guessing the colour of the father!

The last stretch of the canal is quite straight, and runs parallel to the road. The sound of the traffic made us aware that we were about to re-enter the hustle and bustle of civilisation in Brecon.

The canal ends in a basin shortly after Bridge 167. There were masses of ducks! A new theatre has been built by the canal basin, and it must be lovely to come out of the theatre at night and see the lights reflected on the canal. There is a terrace of houses opposite the theatre which face onto the canal - no privacy!

And so our walk ended at 2.40 pm. We checked in at our bed and breakfast, the Borderers Inn on the main road into Brecon which runs parallel to the canal one long block away. This was a pleasant place to stay, my second favourite after The Old Six Bells.

After a shower and a rest we headed out for a meal. We happened upon the Brecon Balti Tandoori, a small establishment with good food and service. There are many pubs to choose from in Brecon but we sampled only two. After leaving the first watering hole in the middle of town it started to rain quite heavily with thunder and lightning, so we made a run for it to the pub next door to our B&B.

We slept well after our final day of walking. The hosts of the Borderers Inn are friendly folk, and we enjoyed our breakfast. We had a bit of a browse around Brecon’s shops before seeking out the bus to Abergavenny. There was some confusion over where it stopped. At present it stops opposite the large monkey puzzle tree which is a good landmark, but we understand it is soon to move elsewhere. Among our fellow passengers were a man and his dog. The dog sat upright on the seat next to his master like a well-behaved child. In Abergavenny we alighted at the bus station and only had a short wait for a bus which took us onward to Pontypool and home.

I’d thoroughly recommend exploring the canal on foot. You see quite a lot on a boating holiday, but you travel that bit more slowly on foot and we felt very much immersed in our surroundings. For scenery, flora and fauna you can’t beat this part of Wales, and I look forward to retracing my steps one of these days.

By Karenne Griffin

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