Illustration: Bish Bash
The Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal – or the Mon & Brec as it’s affectionately known – is a standalone waterway, unique in its location, construction and beauty. Built between 1797 and 1812 to link Brecon with Newport and the Severn estuary, it is a marvel of contour engineering, clinging to the mountainside for most of its course. The boisterous River Usk a constant companion tumbling below.
For decades, the canal transported farm produce to market, and connected nearly 200 miles of horse-drawn tramway that carried coal, limestone and iron ore quarried from the surrounding valleys. Today you can see many remnants of this industrial past along the towpath, from disused lime kilns to narrow gauge tram tracks, particularly when the canal crosses into the Blaenavon World Heritage Site at its southern end.
The leafy stretch of canal from Brecon to Pontypool (originally called the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal) is 33 miles long – which is a good length to walk over a long weekend, to cycle in a day or to slowly explore in a series of stops by car. The route skirts the eastern edge of the Brecon Beacons, taking in pretty market towns and traditional Welsh villages with a good smattering of waterside pubs and cafes to refuel in. Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of the lofty ridges of the Beacons, enticing you to deviate from the canal and explore this stunning national park.
Starting at Brecon canal basin
The town of Brecon makes an excellent starting point, with its high street filled with independent shops and cafes, a small but sweet cathedral, castle and military museum. Around the canal basin, you’ll find a theatre, cafe, and companies hiring out narrowboats and offering day trips, plus there’s a supermarket close by for stocking up on walking snacks.
After setting off from Brynich Lock, next to the theatre, you’ll come to Brynich Aqueduct – an impressive Grade II four-arch structure that carries the canal over the Usk. You’ll also catch glimpses of Pen y Fan, the highest peak in the Brecon Beacons with its distinctive horseshoe-shaped rim. After 2.5 miles you’ll reach the village of Pencelli, which has a popular campsite in the old castle grounds, and a traditional canal-side pub called the Royal Oak Inn, complete with flagstones, creaky beams and a log fire.
Onwards from Pencelli, you’ll come to Talybont-on-Usk. This pretty village is nestled between the canal and the river, and boasts a trio of decent pubs (including the CAMRA-award winning Star Inn), a cafe, shop and bike hire hub. There’s even an electric powered lift bridge that halts road traffic. If you’re keen to explore more of the village, there are old lime kilns to visit, the old Brinore tramroad, which once transported limestone from Tredegar quarries to the canal, and Talybont reservoir, famed for its birdwatching and trout fishing.
Considering the mountainous terrain this stretch of canal winds though, it’s perhaps surprising that there are only six locks along its entire length. You’ll find five of them in quick succession at Llangynidr, plus one of the finest examples of an early road bridge in Wales. The Coach & Horses Inn, a 16th century pub by the bottom lock, serves delicious Welsh lamb shank and homemade pies.
Time for a picnic?
Five miles along the towpath is the village of Llangattock. Dramatic limestone cliffs – the Llangattock Escarpment – are evidence of an extensive quarry from the 19th century. Below lie some of Britain’s longest cave systems. For an unforgettable picnic, lay your blanket beneath the boughs of the Giant Redwood of Llangattock, which towers over the canal. Last year this mighty tree was shortlisted for Wales’ Tree of the Year by the Woodland Trust. Walk around its 11-metre girth and you’ll see why.
The village’s Vine Tree restaurant has an incredible seasonal menu, or you can take a detour across the Usk to the bustling market town of Crickhowell, famous for its 13-arch bridge – although bizarrely it has 12 arches on one side, 13 on the other. Here you’ll find delis, cafes hidden within bookshops and a friendly independent store selling hiking kit.
Entering Blaenavon World Heritage Site
Carry on along the Mon & Brec and you’ll soon pass the historic villages of Gilwern, Govilon and Llanfoist in the shadow of the Blorenge – a 561m hill that’s shaped like a punchbowl. The canal then skirts the market town of Abergavenny, known as the ‘Gateway to Wales’. It’s a handy hub for exploring the national park, with good train connections to Newport and beyond, and there’s lots in the town to keep visitors amused, including a motte and bailey castle, weekly markets and a famous food festival, this year taking place 15-16 September. Be sure to visit the Sugarloaf Vineyard to sample wine made from grapes grown on the sunny side of the Sugarloaf mountain, next to a tumbling stream.
Amid this bucolic scenery, it’s easy to forget you’re in the Blaenavon World Heritage Site, once a hive of industrial activity. At Goytre Wharf you’ll see beautifully preserved lime kilns complete with sculptures of the labourers, plus a cafe, woodland trails and lots of colourful boats moored in the marina. Those wanting to stay the night can do so in the waterside Grade II-listed cottage, in which goods were weighed before being loaded onto barges at the wharf.
From Goytre Wharf, it’s a final 6-mile walk to Pontymoile Marina, which lies on the outskirts of Pontypool. Here you can rest your weary legs in the quirky tearoom, converted from an old narrowboat (but on dry land), and refuel on a hearty bowl of Welsh lamb stew.
While you’re here
Being on the edge of the Brecon Beacons you can’t leave without posing for a photo on the ‘diving board’ – a rock atop Fan y Big, one of the highest ridges in the National Park. The National Trust’s Horseshoe Ridge Walk takes in Pen y Fan, Corn Du and Fan y Big. It’s a challenging but rewarding route, just over 10 miles long.
Visit the Big Pit Museum in Blaenavon. It was once a real working coal mine and today you see demos, exhibits, and even enter the mine itself. Free entry.
You’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to trying local food along the canal with the abundance of farm produce, artisan makers, vineyards and orchards in the area. Many of the cafes have traditional Welsh cawl on the menu (lamb and leek stew), including Giglios in Brecon, and you’d be hard pushed to find a pub that doesn’t serve local ale and cider. Real ale enthusiasts must visit Rhymney Brewery, which has a visitor centre and ales on tap.
Wildlife to spot
The Mon & Brec has healthy populations of water voles, otters, kingfishers, herons and lesser horseshoe bats. Keep your eyes peeled for buzzards and red kites overhead, too.
Did you know…?
The Brecon Beacons National Park is an International Dark Sky Reserve, boasting some of the highest quality dark skies in Britain. How many shooting stars will you spot on your trip?
Bikes & Hikes can deliver bicycles to your accommodation or wherever you need them along the canal. The friendly team can also arrange packed lunches.
Boat trips and hire
Canal Basin, Brecon LD3 7EW
Runs daily cruises from Brecon Basin from March to October (twice daily in July and August).
Beacon Park Boats
Hillside Road, Llangattock, Crickhowell NP8 1EQ
Narrowboat and day-boat hire.
Castle Narrowboats has recently added electric narrowboats and day-boats to its fleet.
Church Road, Gilwern NP7 0AS
Red Line Boats offers canoe hire as well as narrowboat and day-boat hire.
Goytre Wharf, Llanover NP7 9EW
Service X43 runs a frequent service between Brecon and Abergavenny, stopping at several places along the canal, including Talybont-on-Usk and Llangattock. To get back to the start point from Pontypool, you’ll need to catch the X3 bus from the town hall to Abergavenny Bus Station, then hop on the X43 to Brecon. The nearest railway station is in Abergavenny.
Find out more about the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, as well as the Trust’s role in managing the waterway, by visiting our website.