Canals of Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 16:09 20 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:04 20 February 2013

Canals of Herefordshire

Canals of Herefordshire

Chris Poole navigates the Mon and Brec and the Hereford and Gloucester, built by navvies, and now being restored by enthusiasts as places of recreation and culture

Waterways in trust

Chris Poole navigates the Mon and Brec and the Hereford and Gloucester, built by navvies, and now being restored by enthusiasts as places of recreation and culture

People think they were built by Irish navvies. But ours werent. They were built by Welsh navvies. The commentator is talking about canals, sometimes known to their builders as navigations. This is where the word navvy originated a description of the hard, often inebriated, tough men who built thousands of miles of navigations in Britain.
The speaker is Phil Hughes, manager of the Fourteen Locks Centre at Newport and part of the Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canals Trust. The centre is close to the southern end of what has become the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal the Mon and Brec as it is known to the inland waterways community. Phil describes the immense task of canal-building as the 18th century drew to a close: These men could excavate and move up to 20 tons of soil a day with a pick and shovel. A truly Herculean effort. We had two canals, explains Phil, the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal connected Brecon with Gilwern. It was largely an agricultural canal although the first boat to reach Brecon on Christmas Eve 1800 was carrying coal.

Nearer to the sea, at about the same time, the Monmouthshire Canal was transporting the coal and iron from Blaenavon and Clydach to Newport. In 1812 the two canals were connected to become the Monmouthshire and
Brecon Canal.

The canal basin in Brecon is, today, a place of recreation and culture. The canal-side Brecon Theatre is home to a programme of drama, music and dance to stimulate our intellects while a restaurant caters for our more bodily needs. As the end of the line of the canal it is, of course, a turning place for boats. It isnt until you try boating on canals that you come to appreciate the importance of planning ahead by identifying turning places. Turning a 70 ft boat (the maximum length on some English canals) is only possible in the right places.

The Mon and Brec passes through a National Park the Brecon Beacons. It is the only canal in Britain to hold this distinction. It is, undeniably, one of the most beautiful waterways in the country. Largely rural and full of wildlife it offers boaters, walkers and cyclists unparalled leisure opportunities. There is more, though. This canal can thank what is now a World Heritage Site for its existence Blaenavon. All along its navigable length between Brecon and Pontypool there are numerous reminders of its industrial origins and connections.

Only a little over 30 miles of waterway is presently restored and navigable. Below Pontypool things are more difficult. Unlike the almost lock-free navigation up to Brecon, on the route south from Pontypool towards Newport there are many derelict locks and other features to be restored. This is the primary purpose of the trust for which Phil Hughes works at the Fourteen Locks Centre. He is a veritable mine of information, dedicated and enthusiastic about the future of canals in our area but under no illusion about the task ahead. It will need considerable sums of money to continue with our restoration work, he says, but the rewards are there look at what was done in Scotland at the Falkirk Wheel. That venture cost many millions of pounds but its now on course to generate 1.4 billion a year in income and 2,400 jobs.

To mark the re-emergence of canals in this part of South Wales, the Inland Waterways Authority will, this year, stage its National Trailboat Festival at Kimberley Park in Newport. Branded the Welsh Waterways Festival it will run from May 29 to 31 with a newly restored section of canal opened for boating.

While the Mon and Brec is the only navigable waterway in our region at present, it was not always alone. Britains very extensive canals network had been created as a means of transporting goods and materials that was faster, cheaper and more reliable than highways of the time. Inevitably, a better system would emerge one day and it did, in the shape of railways. These took over with astonishing speed rendering canals largely redundant comparatively quickly. But not before a navigable waterway had been built between Hereford and Gloucester.

The Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal was completed in 1845 and was the last canal to be built during Britains Industrial Revolution. As such it was never commercially successful and soon fell into disuse, some of it to suffer the ignominious fate of having a railway built on it. It connected Hereford with Ledbury, Dymock and Newent before reaching the Severn near Gloucester.

As with so many canals in Britain today, volunteers and enthusiasts have gathered enough support and resources to form a trust working to preserve and restore the Hereford and Gloucester. Much has already been achieved with a fine visitor centre at the Over Canal Basin near Gloucester completed and ensuring that the canal terminus in the centre of Hereford is an integral part of the plans to regenerate the city centre.

People have been building canals in Britain for thousands of years. The Romans built some, largely for irrigation purposes. However, most would credit the Duke of Bridgewater for the first canal with a clear industrial purpose. The Bridgewater Canal near Manchester was completed in 1762. It was not just the railways that put an end to the work of the navvies. Two hundred years later, during the severe winter of 1962/63, the canal network, already in serious decline commercially, was largely frozen solid for weeks on end. Goods could not complete their journey and the remaining confidence in canal boats as carriers ebbed away.

Fortunately, by then, some had the foresight to see a future for the network for leisure rather than trade. Groups of volunteers had already been formed to protect and preserve the waterways. There are now about 2,500 miles of navigable inland waterways in Britain. For this national treasure we can thank not just the navvies who built it but the army of volunteers, like those on the Mon and Brec and the Hereford and Gloucester, who have succeeded them to preserve our heritage.

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