David and Ann Berry take their first full cruise as inland waterways boat owners voyaging along the Mon and Brec Canal.
For years my wife, Ann, and I have been Greek Mediterranean cruisers – we keep our Moody Eclipse Aderyn Glas in Preveza, but haven’t been able to visit since the start of lockdown.
So we now also own a canal cruiser near our home in Wales, which has taught us that there are things you don’t get at sea, even in the Greek Med: you don’t get low bridges; tight turns; a bank to tie up to and good Welsh pubs for lunches.
This was Osprey’s first adventure northward. We went aboard mid-August and spent the first night in the marina at our base at Goytre. And it was freezing! What’s happened to the hot Augusts I remember from my childhood?
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When we first moved to Deganwy I saw a programme on Welsh television with a couple of guys from Aberaeron…
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It was so cold that next morning 0600 we returned home determined to find a warmer duvet and better clothes. I have to admit at that point I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to spend six nights on Osprey on the Mon and Brec Canal.
Goytre is an interesting place, it has useful facilities like a chandlery which sells ice cream, a café, toilets and showers and a workshop. It’s a base for ABC boat hire and the staff and berth holders are all very friendly and helpful.
To prepare the boat we took her windscreen off. This was something we had always envisaged doing if we turned northward because to the north is the dreaded bridge 100 – the lowest on the canal.
We left the sanctuary of the marina at about 0900 and headed north towards Brecon. I soon relaxed, watching the banks glide by and seeing herons and rabbits.
Above us after a short time the imposing bulk of the Blorenge mountain loomed on our left and we trickled along the contour beneath it, knowing that the canal owed its existence to the iron trades carried out at Blaenavon and the other ironworks and lime kilns from Victorian times.
So we cruised northward through the Beacons National Park admiring the views that we never get tired of.
The canal is generally overgrown and in need of weed clearance. Ann and I had the usual discussion about why we paid fees when the trust allowed the weeds to grow until they met in the middle.
We passed through the yard of Govilon boat club and motored on to Llanfoist, which has the tightest turn on the canal and we wondered how 60ft boats could possibly make it around the kink.
It also has a bit of history in a tramway that runs down Blorenge mountain – duck under the short aqueduct and you can find a replica tram.
After about three hours we reached Gilwern and decided a lunch stop was in order. Gilwern has lime kilns, moorings, and a number of pubs. A few enquiries and we found the only pub in the village that would do a lunch and headed that way.
The Beaufort is a green building in the centre of the village with no external markings to show it’s a pub. Wales was free of masks and distancing by this time and we could go in, sit and chat without constraint.
So we ate and stayed late into the afternoon before considering whether to move on that day or stay overnight. We stayed.
Next day we pointed northward again knowing that today the scary bridge 100 was on our horizon.
Bridge 100 is frightening but more in the telling of scary stories than in reality. It is low, there’s no doubt about that and that’s the reason we removed Osprey’s windscreen.
We still had to cower on the cockpit floor as we passed under it – it’s that low, and taking your eye off the line of the bridge makes bouncing off the sides inevitable.
But even that isn’t the worst of it – bridge 103 is also very low, slopes dramatically to the right and for added complexity has a steel pipe halfway along it.
Next up was Llangattock with even more lime kilns and, north of the town, a remarkable giant redwood tree.
Llangynidr was last and we tied up for what was to be our last night. We had passed the Green Meadow festival site down in the valley through the trees, but decided to follow the signs for the Red Lion pub.
Had we known how far away from the canal it actually was, we’d have walked along the towpath to the other pub, the Coach and Horses. In fact we could have taken Osprey through the locks and tied up.
We intended to continue to Brecon but the universe conspired to cut our adventure short: next morning the gas regulator failed shut and so no tea! This was not survivable so we turned the boat and started for home.
Mon and Brec canal: A potted history
The Mon and Brec Canal consists of two arms. The Crumlin arm began at the wharf on the River Usk and wound its way into the Crumlin valley passing through 14 locks as it rose to the working level of the valley mines.
It carried coal to Newport for shipping onwards. It’s no longer navigable by anything more than a canoe or paddleboard, and the locks are pretty much derelict. The main line ran from Newport to Pontnewynydd passing through Pontymoile south of Pontypool.
Its purpose was to carry coal, iron and limestone to and from the iron furnaces of Blaenavon and the tops of the valleys. Every so often along the canal you’ll come across limestone kilns. The Brecon and Abergavenny Canal was incorporated into the main line in 1794.
At Brecon there were a number of feeder railways and tramways – the 10-mile long Hay tramway being one – all horse drawn, that delivered goods to the canal header. The canal today can be walked the 35 miles from Newport to Brecon (I’ve done it) but is only navigable for boats from Pontymoile.
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This feature appeared in the December 2021 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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