James Wood discovers the joys and challenges of narrowboating on a canal hire boat in the Brecon Beacons
Have you ever wandered down an autumnal towpath, amid the mild fug of stove smoke, and wondered how cosy a trip aboard a canal barge could be? I know I had. A few steps more and a welcoming pub is usually to be found, only adding to the appeal.
So when my wife, Ali, suggested a narrowboat holiday with Beacon Park Boats, I didn’t need convincing. We could combine it with seeing Welsh relatives, while the kids – used to ‘roughing it’ in our 45-year-old project boat – would be thrilled at the prospect of a boat with a TV (we didn’t mention there was no signal reception).
The Mon & Brec canal
The Monmouth and Brecon Canal (known as the Mon & Brec) is a little known stretch of canal, unconnected to any other UK waterway. It’s almost entirely rural, located in the Brecon Beacons National Park. A number of picturesque walking trails follow the route of the canal, including the Usk Valley walk and the Taff Trail. The section now navigable to narrowboats or river cruisers runs 35 miles from Brecon down to Cwmbran.
Although construction started in the 1790s, the canal didn’t open fully until 1812, initially transporting coal, lime and agricultural goods. However, following the industrial revolution, the Mon & Brec became one of the main arteries for iron ore (incoming), and finished iron (outgoing) from the forges at Blaenavon. The decline of the canal began only a few decades later, with the rise of rail and the eventual acquisition by Great Western Rail (GWR). The canal finished work as a commercial artery in the 1920s, and restoration for pleasure boating only really began in 1968.
What’s remarkable is that once you step off your boat you’re often heading downhill to local towns and attractions. The ingenious engineers of the time designed the canal to follow an elevated contour of the Usk Valley, an important feature for efficient navigation of the uplands of the Brecon Beacons.
As we were holidaying with our three children, aged six to 11, our days of ‘travelling light’ were well behind us. Fortunately, our boat Puffin was far removed from the coal barges of the eighteenth century. She sleeps up to six in comfortable beds, offers central heating and a fully stocked galley with all mod cons. And as a clincher for the little people, wifi and a TV and DVD in each cabin. There’s nothing like travelling in style… even at just 2 knots an hour!
We joined Puffin at lunch time and were greeted with a glass of prosecco before having a very thorough handover from the company’s owner Alasdair Kirkpatrick (via DVD) and in-person from Mark, one of the engineers. After a tour of the engine, gas appliances, bow thruster and electrics, and a crash course in clearing the prop of weed, we were on our way.
Lessons in narrowboating
The plan, on Mark’s advice, was to do a short trip on the first afternoon so we could safely navigate the first few canal bridges and moor before dark. Upon approaching the first bridge Ali and I agreed it was very sage advice; Puffin is 56ft long and 8ft 6in across the beam. The bridge had about 15cm clearance on each side. We soon found out why Puffin had a permanently deployed set of fenders, as we bounced down the towpath glancing nervously at Mark, who’d stayed aboard to ensure we ‘picked up the ropes’. At home, we sail a nimble 28ft cruising yacht. Puffin was a lot of things, but nimble she wasn’t.
At this point we thought we’d better practice mooring while we still had Mark along with us. Unlike with a yacht, where it helps to pre-plan your destination and mooring in great detail, you can pretty much tie up anywhere along the canal, as long as there’s room for other boats to manoeuvre. And so it was that, after bumping through a couple of bridges, we moored at the first spot we could. It was surprisingly easy (with a little help from the bow thruster) and I hopped ashore with a centre line and pulled Puffin to a halt, affixing a fore and stern line to mooring pins we drove into the bank.
It was only then we noticed the amazing view that had opened up from Puffin’s stern, across the Usk Valley to Crickhowell and up into the mountains. We quickly resolved to remain where we were for the night, just before bridge 116.
The evening was calm and as the night closed quickly in, we retreated into the cosy saloon and drew the curtains; the engine had heated the water tank and powered the heating system. While the kids watched a DVD, I prepared a family chilli. It was fair to say we’d settled into the rhythm of the canal rather well.
Day 2: Locked up in Llangynidr
We awoke to autumnal sunshine. There couldn’t be a prettier time to cruise the Mon & Brec, with burnt orange and fire-engine red leaves spiralling slowly onto the canal with the purple mountains as a backdrop. Breathtaking.
Though passage planning is certainly less demanding on a canal barge, it does help to do a bit. The conundrum was whether or not to tackle the flight of five locks at Llangynidr. Although there was a winding point above the first, Puffin was too long to complete a full turn, so we were forced to make a decision between doing five locks (or essentially 10, as we also had to come back straight away) or none.
Each lock takes between 20 to 30 minutes to navigate, or a full five hours to do all 10 in total. As we’d decided to visit Abergavenny on the way back, we thought we’d we’d give them a miss and use the winding point at bridge 131, before refilling at the water station.
Having completed the leaf check on the prop, we got away before the kids had even rolled out of bed. That’s one of the joys of cruising at 2 knots; single-handing is almost stress-free so Ali or I were always able to pop down below to sort out breakfast. The route was rural and majestic, more like a river cruise than the more urban barge trips I’d taken before.
Once the kids were fed and watered, we persuaded them to hop ashore at one of the bridges and run on to the next. While they bombarded the flower pot with acorns in an autumnal game of ‘bullseye’, we enjoyed the solitude, and kept to the far bank, making it difficult for the shore-goers to rejoin the vessel.
Turning a narrowboat
Having enjoyed the cruise to bridge 31, I let my passengers back aboard. We made a (very clumsy) turn at the appointed winding point, our shouts of ‘astern, forward, where’s the barge pole!’ disturbing an unhappy fisherman, as we pivoted off the bank where he’d just set-up.
We still wanted to see the locks so, having moored, walked along the towpath past the atmospheric lock flight and lock keeper’s cottage. Wood smoke wafted across the water, recreating a scene from the canal in its heyday, 150 years before. A barge was in the process of moving through the locks, and they were still at it when we returned from our sweeping hill walk past what used to be the local workhouse. Rather smug, we decided to head for the Coach & Horses, a cosy canalside pub for refreshment, but our smiles were wiped from our faces when we discovered that Tuesday was the landlord’s day off!
Luckily, the Red Lion, a little further on, accommodated us with real ale and scampi fries. Darkness had fallen by the time we left, and we returned to another snug evening aboard Puffin, albeit via a motley assortment of footpaths, fields and a creepy, overgrown car graveyard.
Day 3: Gilwern and Govilon
Our ultimate destination was the wonderfully named Gilwern or Govilon, dependent on progress. If the names conjure up visions of impish twins from Welsh folklore, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like sailing with our two youngest children.
Whenever approaching a bridge or an oncoming barge, one or the other would be sure to erupt out of the cabin, distracting the helmsman, and leading us into a reed bed or an overhanging willow.
Not that it took much to disrupt our progress; the Mon & Brec is shallow and narrow, and Puffin pivots from the middle, which takes a fair bit of getting used to. At one point we came straight out of a bridge and hit a floating log, which stopped us dead in the water, requiring much reversing and poling off the banks. In this way, a two-hour journey can easily become three hours or more. However, ‘slow progress’ was accompanied by dramatic views, a friendly grey heron and squirrels jumping across the branches overhead, so we soon adapted.
Stop in Crickhowell
We stopped at the market town of Crickhowell, a 30-minute hike across the river Usk, where the kids’ playground was situated in the ruins of a 13th century motte and bailey castle. Flanked by the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, it was a lovely place for the kids to let off steam before meeting relatives for a hearty Welsh lunch at the Bear Hotel.
Back aboard, and carrying on south we passed the Beacon Park base, which is well located for topping up water, pumping out the holding tank, or refreshing the on-loan DVD collection.
Gilwern was next, serving up a new challenge in the form of moored fibreglass boats either side of the canal, narrow bridges on sharp bends and the lowest bridge on the canal, which we cleared by no more than 3in, ducking all the way.
Steering a narrowboat
Helming had become second nature, but I was glad to have a few hours’ yacht cruising under my belt as we passed the closely packed boats. Turning was all about anticipation. Swing too soon and you end up snaking out of control; go too slowly and you lose your course. You have to hold your nerve until it feels it’s nearly too late, before nudging the bow around while keeping an eye on the stern. The bow thruster certainly earned its keep at Gilwern, though we did once trip it with our over-eager usage.
The final challenge of the day was the precarious winding hole at Govilon. Turning a 56ft steel barge in what felt like a 57ft turning space took a little concentration, a modicum of luck and a lot of effort poling the stern around. It was only after we’d successfully turned and moored for the evening that we read that the winding point was designed to reverse into, rather than out of, which would no doubt have saved us some unnecessary blood, sweat and tears. As ever with pilotage guides, the devil is in the detail!
Nonetheless we were very happy with our mooring for the evening, tucking into some Crickhowell sourdough as the kids picked out a film for the DVD player. The cosy family evenings in the main saloon will last long in my memory.
Day 4: Abergavenny
There’s something magical about lying in bed as a boat goes by at first light, the gentle wash threatening to rock you back to sleep… and then comes a thump from the bow wave that sounds like the boat’s breaking in half!
Aroused from slumber I put the kettle on and planned the day’s itinerary. It was our last full day on the Mon & Brec and we decided to walk into Abergavenny, following the canal as far as Llanfoist, before cutting down to the River Usk and under the A40; about three miles.
The towpath wound past thick woodland, along the contour of the valley, passing the remnants of long abandoned industry, from lime kilns, tunnels and ironwork tramways to re-purposed warehouses at Llanfoist that now look like very comfortable homes.
Llanfoist Wharf was once an important transshipment point for iron and other goods from Blaenavon. The trams would have weighed in excess of 1.25 tons when fully loaded, and ran on a pulley system up and down the 5.5km gauge tramroad, connected by rope or chain, passing at the incline head around a horizontally mounted braked sheave, which controlled the rate of descent. Pig iron, limestone and coal from local quarries and pits was transported by horse-drawn trams to Llanfoist Wharf where it would be loaded onto barges heading to Newport.
Built in 1820, the boathouse (right) was one of the earliest railway warehouses in the world, and valuable iron ore and goods would have been stored upstairs. Under the three-storey Wharfingers house (left) there is a pedestrian tunnel built over the culverted stream, which you can walk through en-route to Abergavenny.
Abergavenny castle was our ultimate destination, and it was well worth the hike. The castle museum had something for everyone – from the stuffed ‘turnspit dog’, an extinct breed used to cook meat, to the video on the World War II home guard and the works of Arthur Machen, a local horror writer cited as an influence by Stephen King.
Wandering back to Puffin by mid-afternoon, we planned to cruise back up to a picturesque section of canal at bridge 112 before dark. It was optimistic given the tricky navigation through Gilwern and the now-familiar challenges of oncoming barges and grounding. Nonetheless, luck was on our side and come nightfall, we were tucked up on a ringed mooring with a view of the Sugar Loaf mountain.
The evening routine was well established by now; dinner, family DVD in the saloon before heading to bed in one of the exquisitely cosy cabins. Needless to say, everyone slept well.
Day 5: Last leg to Llangattock
Puffin was due back at Beacon Park Boats by 9am, so we slipped our mooring at first light while the kids were still in bed. Returning to base, there were already four other charter boats in front of us, the most we’d seen at any one time. It was interesting that with the wind blowing us into the bank, we were advised to put the helm hard to starboard, and to use the bank to pivot 90°. It took about three or four minutes to get the stern fully around, and then it was a simple case of reverse, with minor corrections on the bow thruster. The Beacon Park guys were really easy-going and talked us through the whole procedure.
Would we do canal boating again?
After the solitude and peace of five days on the Mon & Brec, the busy, urban valleys towards Cardiff seemed like a different world. We reflected on the holiday, and just how much we’d enjoyed it.
While at sea, the kids get bored of long hours spent cruising, on the canal, we did our cruising early morning and late afternoon, with rich hours in between spent hiking, exploring villages and eating out. In the mornings, I loved to pad outside in my dressing gown with a cup of tea, and move the ‘family home’ while everyone slept; no passage-planning or stowing things away.
There’s something immensely cathartic about the canal at first light, autumn leaves raining down on you, and ducks gliding past. At dusk it feels entirely different, with the sun setting over the mountains and the cabin glowing as you peg the lines into the dewy bank.
The big bonus, too, was a centrally heated boat. Though it was a mild autumn, this could be the clincher for kids and reluctant partners, who’d otherwise steer clear of winter sailing. Rather than charter in the sun next year, we all agreed we’d be happy to do another off-season narrowboat trip, and learn yet more history, do longer walks (and visit more cosy pubs).
- For more information see beaconparkboats.com