Although man-made waterways have been around since ancient times, it was with the coming of the industrial revolution, and the need to cheaply move mass amounts of materials, that canals began to change the face of Britain. More than 100 canals were built in England and Wales alone between 1760 and 1820.
Growing up in Tavistock, I was no stranger to canals, as the Tavistock canal runs along the edge of the park and playground. Completed in 1817, the canal was used to connect the town to the navigable river Tamar 6 km away. As with many of the canals of this era, it was an engineering marvel, including innovative features such as twin track inclined planes, and a 2.3 kilometre tunnel drilled through solid rock. Now used as a feeder for a hydro power station, the canal is not navigable by boats.
Quite a different story to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, a network of canals running through the Brecon Beacons National Park in South Wales covering more than 50km.
We hired the narrowboat Merlin from Llanfoist, just outside Abergavenny. With a thoroughly modern interior but retaining a comfortably traditional exterior, this 43 foot boat was our home for the last four days in October. Unfortunately, British Waterways close the canal for maintenance on 1 November, or we would gladly have stayed for longer.
The canal has an interesting history, and is actually made up of two joined main canals, plus a couple of branch lines. We travelled north from Llanfoist towards the top of the Canal at Brecon. With a speed limit of 2.5 mph (slightly slower than a casual stroll, and a lot slower than my normal walking speed, it is not the way to travel if you are in a rush. For 37 kms, from south of Llanfoist until Llangynidr, the canal follows a single contour high up on the hills above the river Usk in the valley below. For two days we wound around the hillside through dense forests, farmed land, and picturesque villages. With the thick canopy of trees the red-golden hue of autumn, the canal was thick with leaves creating a picturesque setting, but also a hazard to propellers! Squirrels were never far away, using the express ways high above the canal as a bridge from one side to the other. Herons, kingfishers and more were frequently seen. The canal due to close soon, there was not much traffic about (a fact we were quite happy about given the difficulties in passing others without running aground in the shallow edges), but the banks, wharves, basins and marinas were often lined with everything from traditional narrow boats to more modern plastic runabouts.
A 43ft narrowboat handles quite differently to anything I have sailed in the past, but it doesn’t take long to get the feeling, and Merlin responded well to the tiller. We meandered north until we reached the first of the six locks that begin the climb up to the start of the canal at Brecon, before having to turn and head back to return the boat.