Ian Wright and his friend Pendry have reached Pontardawe in their canoe trip up the Swansea Canal from Morriston to Ystradgynlais. It is April the 19th 1949, and Wright’s report of his journey which he will submit to the newly formed Inland Waterways Association will determine whether the IWA will put any resources into saving what remains of the canal.
The two canoeists are now within sight of the elegant spire of St Peter’s Church, whose every stone was brought by barge from Swansea Docks along the canal between 1862 and 1864. They pass Pontardawe bottom lock (now buried under the Argos store car park) and continue along the canal beside which, as Wright remarks “was an extensive tinplate works, the principal industry of the town”. W.Gilbertson’s Tinplate, Steel and Galvanizing Works was, at the time, on its last legs. Tinplate production finished eight years later in 1957 but in 1949 the whole compound was still an impressive sight. There were 12 chimneys over one hundred feet and the last eight of these stood defiant against the skyline until demolition in 1965.
Wright and Pendry carry their canoe, ‘Cheswardine’, a 17 footer, around a second lock (now Mamas Paradise Night Club) and arrive in central Pontardawe over the Upper Clydach River Aqueduct (mercifully still standing) and under Herbert Street bridge. There they ‘haul the canoe ashore at 2.00pm at a building yard and leave her in quiet corner while refreshments were obtained at a nearby cafe’.
They leave at 3.40 and in the shadow of St. Peter’s Church they pass ‘the shed and raft belonging to the Pontardawe lengthman.’ Wright had met the man in his walk along the canal earlier in the year. ‘He was conscientious man’, says Wright, ‘and had told of the great difficulty he had in doing his job properly because of the bad condition of his raft. He said that the Railway would not provide him with the wood and materials to effect its repair’.
Each lengthman patrolled a section of canal. There is only one remaining lengthman’s hut remaining on the Swansea Canal and it was painstakingly renovated by Clive Reed and members of the SCS in 1986. It is still there above Ynysmeudwy Lower Lock today.
The Railways being in direct competition with the canal (and they owned the canal prior to nationalisation and obviously employed the lengthman) would hardly see his raft (or his shed!) as a high priority item.
(To be continued: Thanks to Clive Reed for permission to quote from Ian Wright’s report).