May and June 2020
Paddles on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
Easing out of lockdown
Lockdown meant that we couldn’t get out in the kayaks. I’m just glad we’d booked our rolling course at Plas y Brenin for the beginning of March – our other choice would never have happened as it was the weekend where we all saw life as we knew it pretty much stopped by Covid 19.
At the end of May Wales eased the rules on exercise, so after careful checking we were able to take our exercise in the kayaks as we are lucky enough to live within a stone’s throw of the lovely Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.
A beautiful place with a heritage from the industrial revolution
The Mon and Brec is like all the canals in our country: it has a great industrial history, a fall into decline, followed by loving restoration and now a new lease of life as a tourist and leisure destination.
It has 35 navigable miles, 6 locks, 167 bridges and notable tunnels and aqueducts. These days, it runs from Pontymoile Basin to Brecon, where, in good times you can easily stop for a wander round near the theatre and have tea or ice cream. The Monmouthshire canal was opened in 1799 with a branch from Malpas to Crumlin; the original Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal went from Brecon to Gilwern in 1800 and was then extended to Pontymoile in 1812. It is the Brecknock and Abergavenny stretch which is what we mostly see as the Mon and Brec canal.
Both canals played a crucial part in Welsh industrial history, serving the coal mines of the South Wales Valleys. 200 miles of tramroads connected to the canals which took coal, limestone and iron ore to be transported around Britain. Some of the history can still be seen from the canal – limekilns are to be seen near Gilwern and the wharfs at various points including Llanfoist – and many other great historical sites can be seen within a short distance of the canal. Big Pit, in Blaenavon, was granted World Heritage status in 2000. (https://museum.wales/bigpit).
The commercial use of the canals had pretty much finished by 1915 and throughout the 20th Century parts were completely lost to roads. In 1968 work started on restoring the stretch from Brecon to Pontymoile.
Happily for us, this is the part where we can take the boats.
Paddling a small part of the Mon and Brec.
We start at a small car park by Preacher’s Bridge (number 76) at grid reference SO315 072. It can be busy on normal sunny days as there’s only room for a few cars.
This trip is just under 4 beautiful miles with wooded stretches, open views across to the Skirrid and Sugarloaf and places with wildish edges which are home to yellow flags, reeds and wildlife. Our finish is at bridge 93, and then just a short walk home.
|Bridge 76||Small car park by Preacher’s Bridge||Happy start!|
|Bridge 77||Old Abergavenny Road||On the way!|
|Bridge 78||Mill Turn Bridge (then Mill Turn aqueduct)|
|Llanover Winding Hole||There are big fish here!||Watch out for fishermen|
|Bridge 79||Lower Mount Pleasant Bridge|
|Bridge 80||Mount Pleasant Upper Bridge|
|Bridge 83||Beech Tree Bridge|
|Bridge 84||Ty Coch (Bernie’s) and the barge hazard||I used to work nearby 🙂|
|Ochram Brook Aqueduct||Grade 2 listed and near the weir||Lovely open view|
|Bridge 86||Ochram Turn Bridge||Pretty and wide|
|Bridge 87||Poplar Bridge|
|Twyn Glas Wharf||‘Robert’s Farm’ and wharf||Flowery approach|
|Bridge 88||Twyn Glas||Pretty cottage|
|Bridge 89||Barn Bridge|
|Bridge 90||Morgan’s Bridge|
|Bridge 91||Wooden Bridge||Path to Llanellen|
|Bridge 92||Heol Gerrig|
|Bridge 93||Llanellen Farm (Pant)||Bridge Farm|
|Total distance||Just under 4 miles|
We’ve noticed a few different things about the canal this year. It seems that the lack of motor traffic and narrow boat holidays has allowed the water to be clearer and we have seen astonishing numbers of tadpoles and many fish – mostly rudd or roach I think. We’ve also become practised ‘midge-snorters’(!!): “Quick, stop smiling and move away form the veritable clouds of midges”.
The banded Demoiselles that we saw on The Wye last year are here in huge numbers – they were at their best at the end of May. If you’d like to know more about these beautiful ephemera and their relatives, have a look at: https://british-dragonflies.org.uk/odonata/damselflies/ . There are also lots of delicate blue damselflies, (I’m guessing they are the ‘Common blue Damselfly’), but please don’t expect me to separate it from its very similar relations!
There are mallards and moorhens – the latter hiding in the reeds and remaining a bit shy. Mostly, you’ll know they are they from their high pitched squawk, or from the splash as you pass – when they move swiftly deeper into the reed-bed. Mallards lay between March and July, so we are seeing ducklings of varying ages. They are quickly taken to water by Mum – within 10 hours of hatching- and will already be able to swim. At 50-60 days old they will be fully fledged.
I’m only just learning to identify birds, so there are still a lot which come under the LBJ species (little brown job). However, the birdsong along the canal is outstanding. We haven’t seen kingfishers this year, but we’ve seen a couple n the past. Maybe we are just too noisy? We hear Chiff Chaffs (and also see them dart from tree to tree), Robins, who sing so mellifluously, blackbirds and, where we have more open skies we’ve seen buzzards wheeling and on windy days, hovering and diving. There are red kites round here too now – it’s such a joy to see this amazing bird with its distinctively chestnut back and forked tail. Their huge wingspan is a full foot more than the buzzard at around 70 inches. Yes, that is not far off the height of a man.
We’ve also enjoyed the flora of the canal banks. When we started out in Mid-May the yellow flags were at their best, with Hemlock Water Dropwort just starting to bloom. The water forget-me-nots and water speedwells came into their own in beautiful clusters a little later (late May, early June) and were abundant at Twyn Glas where the canal edges are wonderfully wild and wide. Ragged robin showed its delicate thread petals and waterweeds waft gently under the surface.
At this time of year, the trees are in full leaf with a great range of greens, and the reflections in the canal are spectacular. In May we had seen a long dry spell and the waters had a thin film of seeds and leaves which collected as scum on the kayak hulls (and took a good scrub to remove). After night-time rain the waters were fabulously clear again and the surface of the water was renewed as a mirror of the sky, drifting clouds and shimmering trees.
Invasive species are a problem on canals and in August 2019 weevils were introduced further down the Mon and Brec to help control duckweed. Lots was also cleared by local anglers. Along the canal we see horsetails which grow vigorously, and the battle to keep canals clear is a constant one. The “Check Clean Dry” campaign encourages us all to do just that after every trip to help prevent spread of unwanted species. (Have a look at https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/specialist-teams/maintaining-our-waterways/vegetation-management/invasive-species-control ).
Maintaining the canal
The Canal and River Trust have a big job on their hands: all Winter we were aware of the work they did draining, repairing, bank-building and fortifying the canal infrastructure. In the past ten years or so we’ve seen huge amounts of work done on the tow paths to make them user-friendly for walkers and cyclists alike, and we see the dredging carried out to allow the passage of the holiday narrow boats.
We caught up with some of these works (caught on the video, where we had to squeeze past at times) and learned how they manage to preserve the fish stocks by moving them away, upstream of dredging works.
Although we have been frustrated at not being able to get out on the sea, we are using our canal time as an opportunity to focus on technique. Goodness, when you’re on a canal you can really tell if you can paddle forward in a straight line!! I spent ages drifting right and only after 4 weeks do I feel happier about my direction. Nonetheless, this ‘struggle muscle’ has taught me lots about things to look at if straight lines just aren’t happening:
Am I sitting straight? Am I holding the paddle centrally? Where does each blade enter the water? Where does it exit? Are the footrests properly set? Are the hip pads sitting me comfortably? Am I holding the paddle shaft too tightly? And so on….
I’ve been able to try a variety of paddles: very old New Waves that weighed a ton, long Corryvreckans on a bent shaft, Werner Ikelos on a bent shaft and Werner Shunas on a straight shaft. Clearly the most important thing was having matchy matchy kit, and blue blades have finally got me paddling more comfortably. Of course, it might be the fact that they are the right size blade (Shuna), a straight shaft with a grip suitable for my arthritic hands and the right length at 210cm. But they are also very pretty.
We’ve tried out bow rudders, stern rudders, edging, low braces, draw strokes and backward paddling. It’s be great to try things out on still water, in a safe place, but we’ve also built some fitness and stamina so when we finally get out to play on the sea, we’ll be raring to go.
…and if you would like more pictures, here is my slideshow on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ua_rbAO_a0s