1 Brief History
Constructed 1794-1798 by the Swansea Canal Navigation Company, the canal rose 375 feet through 36 locks from sea level at Swansea up the valley to Abercraf. Built to carry coal down to industries in the Lower Swansea Valley and for export, this new link to the sea enabled development all along the valley of industries and the towns we know today.
Canal boats were built at yards along the route, the last being the “Grace Darling” in 1918 at Godre’r Graig.
With the construction of the Swansea Vale Railway, revenues on the canal declined and 1931 saw its last commercial cargo trip, though horse drawn boats were still used for maintenance and social events until 1958.
2 WRIGHT’S REPORT: THE SWANSEA CANAL IN 1949.
In 1948, Ian L. Wright, who will be 90 in July 2016, bought a two-seater canoe,’Cheswardine’ and set out to navigate all the South Wales waterways on behalf of the fledgling Inland Waterways Association. On April 19th, 1949, he began a two-day trip along the Swansea Canal.
The Inland Waterways Association, the brainchild of Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman, was just three years old. Its policy, as was made clear in its Memorandum to the Minister of Transport in March 1947, was to retain and restore all Britain’s canals. Ian Wright, brought up in Cardiff close to the crumbling Glamorganshire Canal, paid his one guinea subscription and became a member. He was then 21, a trained aerial photographer as a result of his war-time service in the Fleet Air Arm, and now a student at the Cardiff College of Art. His respect for Tom Rolt is obvious in the naming of his new canoe after the picturesque Cheshire village on the Shropshire Union canal, so lovingly recalled by Rolt in his 1944 book ‘Narrow Boat’.
As Wright and Penry, a fellow student and co-canoeist, set off to discover the condition of the derelict Swansea Canal, Wright started a record of the trip which he would send directly to the IWA Hon. Sec., the aforementioned Tom Rolt. It was a vital voyage. The Railway Executive, who owned the canal, were seeking official powers to abandon it. It was, like almost every other canal in the UK, in a bad way. The first half mile from Swansea Docks was dry and partly filled in, and then, from Maliphant Lock to Morriston, as Wright describes it, ‘the waterway passes through a barren waste of derelict copper works and slag tips, certainly one of the most depressing stretches of landscape one could encounter anywhere by canal’. Today, most of that stretch is a development and conservation site run by the City Council and Swansea University, and World heritage Status is a realistic aim. What little remains of the copper works are treasured Heritage structures with plans to rebuild one of the original bridges of the canal over a token one hundred yards of new water. How times change.
Back in 1949, Ian Wright and his ‘stout-hearted friend, Penry’ whose canoeing experience totalled just two afternoons, realised that paddling anything south of Morriston would be folly. It was, Wright says, ’dangerously full of submerged metal objects’. Coal dust blackened the water and made spotting the obstructions impossible. They decided to set off north from a disused approach at Morriston Station, 3 miles from the Swansea Docks, where the assembly of a canoe ‘would not attract unwelcome attention’. Wright was well aware that he would be on the canal without a permit and that he paid ‘no toll for passage’.
Just before nine-thirty on the 19th April, the ‘Cheswardine’, a pre-war collapsible with a rubberized lining, was assembled and ‘carried as surreptitiously as possible over the canal bridge and into the water’. It was not 100% watertight. ‘I didn’t assemble it often, as it affected the leaks’, Wright comments. The two companions ‘proceeded cautiously’, assisted by a stiff following wind, the black water ‘turning occasionally a dull yellow’ which Wright notes, ‘detracted somewhat from the enjoyment of the place’. They passed brick kilns, engineering works and three lifting bridges, ‘none of which looked capable of being raised’.
Just as they were starting to settle into a good rhythm and enjoy the views, ‘Cheswardine’, true to form, sprang a leak. Their camping gear was getting wet and they were forced to stop at regular intervals to bale out. As Wright notes, with studied understatement, ‘this caused us considerable annoyance and delay’. After an enforced twenty-minute stop for wet sandwiches below Ynystawe House Bridge they reached the Cwm Clydach Lock, the first of 22 they were to encounter. They had paddled 2 miles from Morriston in 2 hours.
This magnificent photo of Cwm Clydach lock, taken by Wright on the day, is fascinating not only to steam and canal enthusiasts but also because of the identities of the two young boys fishing. John Hutchings, the lad in long trousers, and his younger brother were born close to the canal and at sixteen John started work on the Swansea Canal, by then nationalised as the British Waterways Board. He worked his way up and was the Canal Manager for many years until his retirement in the 1990s. He still lives in Clydach.
A few minutes after passing the John Player Tinplate works, out of which the train (an Andrew Barclay Saddle Tank) is emerging in the same picture, the ‘Cheswardine’ reached the beautiful Clydach Aqueduct, the point at which today’s Swansea Canal emerges. Here the scene is much as Ian Wright would have seen it nearly seventy years ago (less the yellow and black water, of course).
The vast industrial complex of the Vale Inco Nickel Refining Works, one hundred yards further on, is still there too, though not now surrounded by ‘a half mile area devoid of vegetation due to the vitriol-laden atmosphere’. These days, it is a difficult job for the volunteers of the Swansea Canal Society to keep the rampant vegetation in check. Refining techniques have progressed greatly and the Clydach community receives regular community grants from this Brazilian-owned multi-national company.
At the next lock, Clydach Lock, Penry and Wright manhandled their 17’ boat, full of gear, across the main road, round the lock, up a steep bank and over the arm of the top gate. ‘It was’, Wright says, ‘a heavy boat to carry round all the disused locks in South Wales.’ Neither man had carried a canoe around locks with a full load of camping gear and provisions before. It was midday and they had been up since 4.00am when the ‘Cheswardine’ had started its journey by lorry from Cardiff. Now, after their assault course and back in the canoe, they came into ‘pleasant thinly wooded country’ looking down on the River Tawe close by. I am pleased to say that canoes once more frequent this idyllic section of the Swansea Canal, thanks to a generous grant from Natural Resources Wales.
Soon, however, the canal scene reverted to post-industrial decay. Wright and Penry were hemmed in by ‘a lengthy ridge of slag’ and the William Parsons’ steel and tin plate works (now the site of the Pontardawe Leisure Centre and the Cwmtawe Community School). Ahead though, they could see the elegant spire of St. Peters, Pontardawe’s parish church, a gift by Mr. Parsons to the people of Pontardawe, every stone of which had been transported along the canal between 1858 and 1862.
Here, at 2.00pm in Pontardawe, they rested, hauling ‘Cheswardine’ ashore at a building yard while they took refreshments. Below the Church they chanced upon the canal lengthsman next to his hut and raft. He bemoaned the condition of the latter, saying that the Railway would not provide him with the wood and materials to effect its repairs. In this way the Railways hastened the demise of their unwanted canals. Only one lengthsman’s hut, which was, to all intent and purposes, the mans’ living quarters, remains on the Swansea Canal today, lovingly restored thirty years ago by the founding members of the Swansea Canal Society.
This is it, situated by Ynysmeudwy Lower Lock where Wright and Penry arrived shortly after leaving Pontardawe. The Lower and Upper lock were, Wright says, ‘two of the most prettily situated ones we were to see on our voyage’. They still are, though, in need of much TLC. Here, the voyagers were helped by some local children who carried their paddle and gear while the two adults carted the canoe round the locks. It was 4.15pm.
The flow of the current downstream now became much faster and shallower. Penry got out and so too, eventually, did Wright, and the two men had to bow-haul ‘Cheswardine’ through five or six inches of water for the next half mile. The water level built up as they approached Lock 15, and what Wright describes as, ‘a veritable crescendo of locks’. The casual visitor would, today, be hard pushed to find the remains of any of these seven locks and the canal is but a trickle. The road builders of the 1970s were happy to use not only the line of the canal for the route of the A4063 but much of the lock stonework for its foundations.
11. Bus on the newly constructed A4063 next to the reduced canal at Godre’r Graig, c. 1970.
The Swansea Canal Society is now applying for a grant to make this section a Heritage Trail. The remains of Thick’s Lock (lock 17) is the finest of these seven locks and, though in a poor state, is CADW listed. In 1949 it had, as Wright says, ‘a canal workshop with a large undershot water wheel on the tow path side, and on the other side, a boat repair and building yard.’ Here the last Swansea Canal day boat, the ‘Grace Darling’ was built.
Wright and Penry had by now hit the wall. ‘Nine miles of portages around locks and so early a start had begun’, he says, ‘to have an effect on us. We were tired and the sight of this flight of locks was almost too much’. Wright had became so weary that he no longer wrote down the journey times. Help from some more local children saved them. ‘Three youngsters, who had begun to follow us, offered to help by carrying our paddles and gear to the top. The offer was as unexpected as it was welcome. I had expected opposition and abuse from the canal-side urchins on the Swansea but throughout our 11 mile voyage there was no unpleasantness whatsoever.’
Much cheered by this hospitality, Wright and Penry made the ascent in easy stages to Lock 22, only to be met by a landslip which had completely blocked the canal. They carried the boat once more. Then they bow-hauled her through the outfall of a colliery washery. Eventually, Wright was able to get back into the boat and Penry directed him ‘through shallow and tin-filled water to the bridge by Ystlyfera station.’ Then it began to rain.
They were now desperate for a camping place. It was, Wright says, ‘getting dark rapidly’. They paddled across the still magnificent three span Twrch Aqueduct into Breconshire (now Powys) though Wright is, by now, in no mood for architectural appreciation of any kind.
12. The Twrch Aqueduct, 2015.
Industry, once more, slipped into the distance. Their mood lightens and Wright discovers ‘the most delightful stone path bridge I had ever seen. The bridge was narrow and with a subtle reverse curve and took the towpath over a forgotten branch canal to the Ynyscedwyn Ironworks.’ ‘Cheswardine’ is made fast there and Wright reconnoitres for a place to spend the night. He tramps past another two locks before he finds one. He walks two hundred yards through wet grass to ask the farmer’s permission to camp there. He returns to Penry. ‘Accompanied by some muttering and groaning we carried ‘Cheswardine’ up to the spot, half a mile below the village of Ystradgynlais’. They assemble the tent. It was 8.00pm and they had covered 11 miles and passed 21 locks. I trust they slept well.
The next day’s travel, on Wednesday April 20th is, perhaps mercifully for the two men, a very short one. It is now dry and sunny. The two men carry the canoe past Lock 27 and paddle into what is to be the last navigable water in the canal. It is barely 100 yards long. Ahead they can see Lock 28. ‘Its top gate had gone and water poured in from the very long disused part of the canal which stretched for a further two mile to Hen Neuadd in Abercrave’. To mark the occasion, they enter the derelict lock and take some souvenir photos. They can go no further.
I fear I have none of those momentous last photos, but the completion of their difficult journey is marked by another chance meeting. Mr T. S. White, the retired canal manager, who lived alongside the lock, sees the canoeists and tells them that the ‘Cheswardine’ is the first boat to work up to Ystradgynlais in 30 years. ‘No one to his knowledge had ever been through the canal by canoe before,’ reports Wright. ‘Presumably’, he adds, ‘I would be the last person, too.’
The thought of canoeing back to Morriston Station is too much for Wright and Penry and the two men decide to leave ‘Cheswardine’ at Penygoraf Farm, which adjoined Lock 27. On April 30th, she is brought by road to Aberdulais on the Tennant Canal and from there worked down to Clyne on the Neath Canal. A few weeks later, Wright begins an exploration of these two disused canals.
Though the condition of the Swansea Canal was no worse than many others in 1949, any hope of the Inland Waterways Association getting behind a push to restore it, is quashed by the linear nature of all the South Wales canals. They are unconnected to each other. The IWA is a small organisation in the nineteen forties and only the Brecon and Mon in South Wales receives concerted support. The Swansea Canal declines for another thirty years and it is only when no more than 5 of its original 16 mile is left in water that the mood turns. The Swansea Canal Society is formed in 1981, and the Swansea Bay Inland Waterway Partnership now lobbies for a 32 mile navigable waterway linking the Neath, Tennant and Swansea Canals via the Tawe river and the Prince of Wales Docks.
Wright’s voyage and report on the Swansea Canal may have had no immediate effect on its decline but his 1977 book ‘Canals In Wales’ with many of his 1949 photos, is a classic. ‘1949 was’, Wright says in its introduction, ‘a vintage year. I crossed the aqueducts over the Neath, cruised by Neath Abbey, portaged my way from Newport to Brecon, and became the last ever voyager up the Swansea Canal.’
One day, in the not too distant future perhaps, when two short, piped sections of the Swansea Canal are once more in water, and a seven mile unhindered stretch of navigation is created, it would be fitting to have a commemorative canoe trip (complete, of course, with the exhausting portages and, we hope, the helpful urchins) from Clydach to Ynysmeudwy to remember his pioneering work for the IWA.
Martin Davies, Swansea Canal Society.
My thanks to Ian L. Wright for permission to quote from ‘Report of Voyage of ‘Cheswardine’ up the Swansea Canal from Morriston Bridge to Ystradgynlais (Lock 28) on Tuesday 19th April,1949’ and to use his photo of Cwm Clydach Lock.
The 1960s photos were taken by Gareth Mills retired Swansea Dock Employee, reproduced by kind permission of his executors.
The modern photos are by Martin Davies.
The 1986 photo of the lengthsman’s hut is by Clive Reed, Swansea Canal Society Heritage Consultant, who I also have to thank for giving me a copy of Ian Wright’s report.
Canals In Wales (1977) by Ian L. Wright pub. by Bradford Barton.
Narrow Boat by L.C.T. Rolt (2009 edition, pub. by The History Press).
Race Against Time, How Britain’s Waterways Were Saved’, by David Bolton (1990).
‘Braunston Revisited’ by Tom Coghlan in ‘Endeavour’, the IWA Northants branch magazine (May 2104 and August 2014 editions).
3 CLIVE REED
Clive Reed has worked on, and campaigned for, restoration of the Swansea Canal for 34 years. When in 1980, aged 37, he moved to a canal side cottage, the waterway was in a bad state. Of the original sixteen miles, only the middle five remained in water, and even these were derelict.
In 1981, canal enthusiasts formed the Swansea Canal Society. Clive joined them. He re-organised weekly work parties using his skills and contacts as a craftsman in the Swansea Dry Docks to borrow, buy or hire tools. Every Sunday from 1983 he worked with parties of 12/14 volunteers. With funding from the Prince of Wales Trust and assistance from the Community Work Programme, Clive organised the transformation of the canal between Clydach and Ynysmeudwy into a public amenity.
Five miles of towpath were rebuilt, aqueducts on the canal restored and at Ynysmeudwy, the only surviving lock-keeper’s hut on the canal was rebuilt. Clive facilitated access for necessary heavy machinery using cleared trees to create a track wa
In 1984 he became Society Secretary, remaining in post until 2008, writing regular newsletters and producing leaflets, including the only three-language booklet about a UK canal. He currently writes articles for the Society’s website.
In 1993 he organised the production of the Society’s Bicentennial video ‘Towards 1994’, still shown in the Clydach Heritage Centre.
In 1992 British Waterways donated a canal mud-hopper hull to the Society and, together with a small group of Society members, funds from many other members and two years’ hard work, the hull was transformed, by Clive’s design, into the trip boat ‘David Papa Thomas’.
Between 1991 and 1993 he organised dredging of the canal from Ynysmeudwy to Pontardawe so that by 1994, the boat could travel this stretch with passengers. Clive trained six members of the societyas skippers.
The boat ceased to carry trippers after 2005 and,sadly, was destroyed by fire in 2006 by vandals.
From 1985 to 2005, Clive successfully fought against Local Authority developments, to protect the canal corridor for future restoration.
In 1994 Clive wrote the text for canal exhibits and artefacts displayed in the newly built, still functioning, canal-side Coed Gwilym Heritage Centre, for which he was also a consultant in its design and lay-out.
To progress the restoration of the Swansea Canal, in 1998 Clive became Secretary of the Swansea, Neath and Tennant Integrated Waterways Regeneration Forum for its 8 years’ duration.
Clive resigned as Society secretary in 2008 through declining health. He was awarded Life Membership of the Society twice, in 1992 and in 2008, and is now the Society’s Heritage Consultant. Since 1985 he has given, on average, 15 illustrated talks a year on the canal’s heritage and restoration work and plans to continue. He wrote ‘Two Centuries of Pontardawe 1794 to 1994’, is co-author of three volumes of the ‘Around Pontardawe and District’ series and a consultant for the forthcoming publication ‘The Swansea Canal and its Railways.’
Without Clive Reed the Swansea Canal might still be derelict.
4 SWANSEA CANAL STRUCTURES
Please find enclosed information on the Swansea Canal locks, bridges and aqueducts along the canal section Clydach to Ystalyfera, a section which is mostly in water.
Commencing at Clydach :-
- aqueduct Lower Clydach aqueduct (Clydach)
- bridge Pont John
- bridge Pont Nant Lowrog
- lock lock number 6. Mond lock, rise 9 feet.
- lock (infilled) lock number 7. The canal Society hope to re-open this lock in the future
- bridge Pont Coed Gwilym
- lock lock number 8. The Green Lock, rise 8 feet 5 and half inches.
- bridge Trebanos bridge
- lock lock number 9. Trebanos lock, rise 8 feet 6 inches.
- aqueduct Upper Clydach aqueduct (Pontardawe)
- bridge Herbert Street bridge (previously Pontardawe bridge)
- bridge Ynysgylennen bridge
- bridge Ynysmeudwy Isaf farm bridge
- bridge Ynysmeudwy Ganol farm bridge
- lock lock number 12.Ynysmeudwy lower lock, rise 8 feet 6 and half inches.
- lock lock number 13. Ynysmeudwy upper lock, rise 10 feet.
- bridge Ynysmeudwy Uchaf bridge (pottery bridge or Bryn bridge)
- aqueduct Cwmdu aqueduct (Ynysmeudwy)
- bridge B4603 main road crossing of canal
- bridge Corbwll bridge (Cilmaengwyn)
- lock lock number 14. Cilmaengwyn lock, rise 10 feet 2 inches.
- bridge Cwmtawe Isaf farm bridge
Beyond Godre’r Graig there canal is culverted in an open concrete culvert approximately 5 feet wide. There are several lock chambers along this section, all ruinous, but interesting for the industrial archaeologist.
- lock lock number 15, no rise at present
- lock lock number 16, no rise at present
- lock lock number 17, Harry’s lock, no rise at present
- lock lock number 18, narrow lock, no rise at present.
- lock lock number 22, not in water.
- aqueduct Twrch aqueduct (Ystalyfera) not in water.
Birth of a Valley Project
Cast our minds back 400 years. The Swansea Valley was barely inhabited; there were no towns or villages as at present. There were a small number of gentry houses such as Ynysdawe, Cilybebill, Ynyscedwyn, Hen-Neuadd, and possibly a few dozen farms.
Then it all began. A furnace was erected at Ynyscedwyn to produce iron, which was followed by coal mining to fuel the furnace, and forges to convert the iron into a workable metal. The iron was transported by packhorse to the forges at Clydach and Llandyfan, and by the donkey trail to the port of Neath. It all changed in 1794-98. the Swansea Canal was constructed to carry the mineral wealth of the valley down to Swansea.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE SWANSEA CANAL
IF THE SWANSEA CANAL HAD NOT BEEN COMPLETED IN 1798, THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN NO MAJOR INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENTS IN THE AREA BEFORE 1860, AND THEREFORE NO TOWNS CREATED IN THE VALLEY.
THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN NO LARGE SCALE COAL MINING AND IRON MINING IN THE AREA.
WILLIAM PARSONS WOULD NOT HAVE BUILT HIS IRON WORKS IN 1838
WILLIAM GILBERTSON WOULD NOT HAVE COME TO PONTARDAWE AND ENLARGED PARSON’S SMALL IRON WORKS.
AND THE ROOF OF THE WHITE HOUSE IN AMERICA
Canal tolls. Charged at one ton per mile carried.
Coal One penny per mile. Iron Two pennies per mile.
Stone Three half fence per mile. Pottery Two and a half pence per
Bricks Three half pence per mile. Hay Two and a half pence per
Copper Two and a half pence per mile. Lime One penny per mile.
Nails Two and a half pence per mile. Sand Three half pence per mile.
Tiles Three half pence per mile.
A barge laden with 22 tons of coal, travelling from Ystalyfera to Swansea in 1850, a distance of 12 miles, was charged a toll of £2-2-0, two pounds two shillings. The equivalent of £400-00 in today’s money (one week’s wages).
Discover the Story of Industrial South Wales
- Ynyscedwyn Ironworks. David Thomas discovered the method of using anthracite coal to smelt iron-ore in 1837. He emigrated to the USA that year and founded the American anthracite iron industry. The Literary Album of America said this of David Thomas in 1869, “Probably no man has done more for the permanent prosperity of the United States than Mr Thomas, and his efforts of enterprise, together with his high moral character, entitle him to a distinguished place among our useful citizens”.
- In 1858 the largest combined iron and tinplate works in the entire world was at Ystalyfera.
- The Twrch Aqueduct on the Swansea Canal was among the first in the UK to be constructed using hydraulic mortar.
- The thinnest iron in the world was rolled at the Pontardawe ironworks in 1871after a challenge from the USA ironmasters.
- The roofing plates of the White House in the USA were manufactured at the Pontardawe Steelworks circa 1908. The plates were lead-covered steel sheets known as TERNE plates.
- Swansea Canal. 18,000 barges a year passed along the Swansea Canal in the 1880’s.
- One of the first of the “new” towns in Wales. Created by the Morris family in the 1750’s.
- Swansea. The first reinforced concrete building to be constructed in the UK was the Weaver’s flour mill.
Swansea Valley heritage structures
Ynystawe Patent Fuel Works (Swansea Valley)
Ruins of the former experimental Patent Fuel works survive south of Clydach in the Swansea Valley. The works were erected circa 1875 by the Graigola Colliery Company to utilise waste poor quality coal. The coal was mixed with pitch and compressed at high pressures to form ovoids and brickquets. Ruinous masonry walls survive among the overgrown site.
A public cycle path runs through the site.
Map reference SS 683 002 Clive Reed January 2008
Swansea Canal toll-bridge at Clydach
Grade 11 Listed iron bridge erected by the Swansea Canal Company circa 1850 for the use of canal company employees. Later used by colliers and other workers to access factories and coalmines on the east side of the Swansea Canal. The canal company charged the workmen a toll of a half penny each way to cross the bridge. Later this toll was paid by the colliery company at two shillings and sixpence per year per man. The bridge is known locally as Pont John, and is the only known example of a toll bridge crossing a canal in South Wales.
There is public access over the bridge but the access path is steep and may be difficult for disabled persons.
Map reference SS 699 012 Clive Reed January 2008
Lower Clydach Aqueduct at Clydach
Grade 11 Listed single span masonry canal aqueduct carrying the Swansea Canal over the Lower Clydach River. The aqueduct also contains an inbuilt overflow weir to allow excess water to escape into the river. Erected in 1794/95 by Roger Pearce for the Swansea Canal Navigation Company.
There is full public access over the aqueduct.
Map reference SS 688 012 Clive Reed January 2008
Canal Multi-Overflow outlet and sluice at Trebanos on the Swansea Canal.
Grade 11 Listed early 19th century canal overflow constructed to provide water to the nearby Pheasant Bush Tinplate works (erected 1835) and also to act as an overspill for canal water into the River Tawe.
The structure can be seen from the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 713 028 Clive Reed January 2008
Canal lock at Clydach (Swansea Valley)
Lock number 6 on the Swansea Canal. The lock chamber and adjacent Pont Lowrog road bridge are intact. The lock is one of 36 originally constructed along the Swansea Canal between 1794/98. Last used circa 1958. Known locally as the Mond Lock. Adjacent is the 19th century water leat that provided water to a turbine. The lock is not operational. There is public access alongside the lock. Map reference SS 695 013
Clive Reed January 2008.
Mond International Nickel Works at Clydach.
At one time the largest nickel refinery in the world, erected in 1902 by the Bruner Mond Company. The works was sited at Clydach because of the availability of anthracite coal and sufficient clean water for industrial processes. A large part of the village of Clydach was erected to house the workforce of this factory. A statue of Ludwig Mond stands outside the factory.
This is a working industrial site with no public access.
Map reference SS 695 012 Clive Reed January 2008
Canal locks at Trebanos (Swansea Valley)
A pair of locks constructed circa 1794/95 by the Swansea Canal Navigation Company. The locks are numbered 8 and 9 in the Swansea Canal numbering system. They are known locally as the Green Locks after the nearby Green Farm. They were last used circa 1940. The locks are not operational at the present time.
There is public access along the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 712 027 Clive Reed January 2008
Upper Clydach canal aqueduct Pontardawe.
Grade 11 Listed single span masonry canal aqueduct carrying the Swansea Canal over the Upper Clydach River. The aqueduct contains an overflow to allow excess water to escape to the river. Constructed in 1794/95 by the Swansea Canal Navigation Company.
There is public access along the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 721 039 Clive Reed January 2008
Erected 1837 by John Jones as the new Pontardawe Brewery to replace the old brewery erected circa 1810. Robert Evans operated the brewery from 1848 to 1859, it was then purchased by David Bevan of the Evans Bevan family of Cadoxton Brewery Neath and renamed the Swansea Vale Brewery. The brewery used canal barges to transport its beer to canal side public houses. The brewery closed in 1937. Its use until 2016 was as a vehicle repair business. 2017, sadly it is no longer used.
The building can be viewed from the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 723 041 Clive Reed January 2008
St Peter’s Church Pontardawe
A Grade 11 Listed church erected by the Pontardawe ironmaster William Parsons between 1858- 1860 who is buried adjacent to the western wall of the church. The church is in the Gothic perpendicular style with a spire 197 feet high. The church was consecrated on the 31st July 1862. The first incumbent was the Reverend David Jones who performed the first marriage at the church was on the 11th May 1863.
William Parson’s grave slab and iron railings are also Grade 11 Listed.
The church welcomed visitors.
Map reference SS 724 042 Clive Reed January 2008
Pontardawe Public Hall and Institute
Erected with money subscribed by the workmen of the Pontardawe steel and tinplate works. The hall was completed in 1908 with reading rooms, concert hall, billiards hall and meeting rooms. The building was officially opened by Adelina Patti of Craig y Nos Castle on the 6th May 1909. The concert hall has a barrel vaulted ceiling with elaborate plasterwork whilst the upper gallery with its elaborate cast iron scroll motif handrails is supported on cast iron pillars. The concert hall is a wonderful example of Edwardian splendour. The current use of the hall is as the Pontardawe Arts Centre.
Map reference SS 724 040 Clive Reed January 2008
A Grade 11 Listed 18th century single-span masonry bridge constructed by the celebrated bridge builder William Edwards circa 1760. The bridge has a span of eighty feet and originally had cylindrical openings in both haunches to relieve the weight of stone that could have caused the bridge to collapse. The bridge was widened in 1893 to accommodate the increase in traffic generated by the nearby Pontardawe railway station.
There is public access over the bridge.
Map reference SS 725 037 Clive Reed January 2008
St Peter’s Schoolroom Pontardawe
Grade 11 Listed building constructed in 1856 as a National School and largely paid for by public subscription. William Parsons donated £160, Hywel Gwyn £30, the workmen of the primrose Colliery £25, workmen of the Ynysmeudwy Pottery £20, Mr Henry Hussey Vivian the copper magnate £5. The exterior of the building comprises many items of Terra Cotta wares manufactured at the nearby Ynysmeudwy Pottery. The ornamental window surrounds, lintels, pillars, crosses, wall copings and ridge crests form the largest collection of decorative Terra Cotta wares that survive from the Ynysmeudwy Pottery.
The building can be viewed from adjacent roadways.
Map reference SN 725 043 Clive Reed January 2008
Graveyard monument at Llangiwg Church Pontardawe
Monument erected by the workmen employed at the Primrose Collieries Pontardawe. Inscription reads “To the memory of John Morgan”. The Primrose collieries were owned by John Morgan and Griffith Lewis who worked a number of coal mines in the Pontardawe area including the Primrose Colliery and the Wauncoed Colliery.
The former Llangiwg Church is private property but the churchyard is accessible to the public.
Map reference SS 725 056 Clive Reed January 2008
Pontardawe Steelworks Offices
Large two storey former office block of the former Gilbertson Company (Pontardawe Steel and Tinplate) erected circa 1890 but currently in use as a housing complex. It is a typical industrial office of a large industry of that period. No public access to the interior but it can be viewed from the outside.
Map reference SS 724 035 Clive Reed January 2008
Cwm Clic Brickworks Cilybebill
A rare example of a water-powered industrial site, utilising the water of the Nant Clic and its tributaries to power the machinery in the works. The firebrick works was erected circa 1840 to provide firebricks for the iron furnaces at the Ynyscedwyn ironworks. The factory ceased working circa 1913. The industrial remains consist of a dam, waterwheel pit, tramroads, colliery site, crushing room foundations and part of a kiln.
The works remains can be accessed from the Swansea Valley cycleway. It is not suitable for disabled access.
Map reference SS 746 057 Clive Reed January 2008
Waun-Coed Colliery Incline Cilybebill
A Grade 11 Listed self-acting rope-hauled incline. This was constructed in1828 to convey coal from the Cwm Nant Llwyd Collieries to the Swansea Canal for transporting to the Ynyscedwyn Ironworks. Engineered by William Brunton, the celebrated civil engineer of that time. The supporting walls of the winding drum survive at the head of the incline as do the Nant Llwyd causeway, a rubble-stone causeway at the top of the tramroad.
There is public access along the incline, but it is not suitable for disabled access.
Map reference SS 738 047 Clive Reed January 2008
Waun Coed Colliery Cilybebill
A drift mine sunk in 1828 and connected to the Swansea Canal by a timber trestle bridge and a privately owned branch canal. The mine was sunk by the Ynyscedwyn Ironworks Company to gain access to suitable coal for iron smelting. The drift mine entrance and river bridge abutments are still extant.
Map reference SS 739 049
A later 19th century drift mine is situated above the earlier Waun Coed drift mine. The remains consist of masonry arched drift tunnel, chimney stack, masonry railway loading bay and tramroads.
The mine complex can be viewed from the Swansea Valley cycleway, there is no public access to the mines.
Map reference SS 739 047 Clive Reed January 2008
Colliery magazine Cilybebill
A masonry and brick arched structure with two compartments for the safe storage of blasting powder and fuses. The roof is a brick arch designed to lift upwards in the event of an explosion. The magazine is some distance from the collieries to minimise the risk of an explosion.
The site is not suitable for disabled access.
Map reference SS 738 048 Clive Reed January 2008
Waun Coed canal docks and canal basin
A Grade 11 listed canal complex constructed 1828 by William Brunton for the Ynyscedwyn iron company for the loading and repair of their barges. It is connected to the Swansea Canal by the Waun Coed branch canal. The complex was disused by the 1890’s. The branch canal and dock complex are on private property with no public access.
Map reference SS 737 050 Clive Reed January 2008
Ynysmeudwy Isaf canal over-bridge
A Grade 11 Listed single span Swansea Canal over bridge erected 1795 for the use of the adjacent Ynysmeudwy Isaf farm. The English translation of Isaf is the “lower” farm bridge. One of the original Swansea Canal structures still surviving.
There is public access over the bridge.
Map reference SS 728 047 Clive Reed January 2008
Ynysmeudwy Ganol canal over-bridge
A Grade 11 Listed single span skew Swansea Canal over bridge erected 1795 for the use of the nearby Ynysmeudwy Ganol farm. The English translation of Ganol is the “middle” farm bridge. It is one of the original Swansea Canal Structures still surviving. The local name for this bridge is Bont Niclas, after the sea captain, Captain Nicholas who occupied the farm in the late 20th century.
There is public access over the bridge.
Map reference SS 733 050 Clive Reed January 2008
Swansea Canal barge
The last surviving example of a Swansea Canal barge, probably constructed circa 1910 of timber planks on iron frames. The barge was used as a maintenance boat on the Swansea Canal up to the mid 1940’s, and was the last barge to pass through Ynysmeudwy locks in 1943. (2017) It is now barely discernable in the vegetation on the off-bank.
Map reference SS 737 056 Clive Reed January 2008
Swansea Canal locks constructed in 1795 as locks numbers 12 and 13 in the Swansea Canal numbering system and last used by barges in 1943. The area around the locks was an important industrial location during the late 19th century with collieries, quarries, patent fuel works and canal wharves.
Alongside the lower lock is the only surviving example of a Swansea Canal Company lock-keepers residence, constructed 1826. The locks are not operational at present.
There is public access to the locks along the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 738 055 Clive Reed January 2008
Ynysmeudwy Uchaf canal over bridge
A Grade 11 Listed single span Swansea Canal over bridge erected 1795 for the use of the adjacent Ynysmeudwy Uchaf farm. The English translation of Uchaf is the “upper” farm bridge. One of the original Swansea Canal structures still surviving. Local name for this bridge is Pottery Bridge or Bryn Bridge after the two industries that formerly existed alongside the bridge, the Ynysmeudwy Pottery and the Bryn Tinplate Works.
There is public access onto the bridge via the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 741 057 Clive Reed January 2008
Cwm Du aqueduct Ynysmeudwy
A Grade 11 Listed, single span masonry aqueduct carrying the Swansea Canal over the Nant Cwm Du (Cwm Du stream). Constructed 1795/96. The parapet walls are no longer extant.
There is public access along the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 741 058 Clive Reed January 2008
Ynysmeudwy Pottery site
Ynysmeudwy Pottery was erected alongside the Swansea Canal in 1844 and worked until 1877 producing fine earthenware and Terra Cotta wares. The pottery company wharves are below and above the Uchaf canal over bridge. Remains of the pottery kilns survive below ground level. A very good collection of Ynysmeudwy wares is on display at Swansea Museum.
The site is very overgrown and difficult to access.
Map reference SS 741 057 Clive Reed January 2008
The kiln was constructed during the early 19th century adjacent to the Swansea Canal. The kiln produced lime for construction and agricultural purposes.
The kiln is in a poor structural condition and it is on private property.
Map reference SS 741 057 Clive Reed January 2008
Constructed between 1794/98 and running the length of the Swansea Valley between the port of Swansea in Glamorganshire and a place known as Hen Neuadd in Breconshire. Hen Neuadd subsequently developed into the village of Abercraf. The Swansea Canal was originally 16 miles long and constructed to access the coal reserves of the mid and upper Swansea Valley. Twenty Two coal mines were eventually opened along the line of the canal along with extensive iron works, tinplate works, copper works, foundries, potteries, brickworks, chemical works and steel works. All the settlements in the Swansea Valley developed around those industries.
The Swansea Canal was abandoned in several stages between 1928 and 1965. Only six miles remain at present between Clydach and Ystalyfera. The remaining canal sections are open for public access.
Map reference SS 689 012 – SS 763 082 Clive Reed January 2008
A masonry and brick canal over-bridge erected circa 1795 to provide access to the nearby Corbwll farmhouse. The canal at this location forms a part of a local nature reserve.
There is public access over the bridge and along the canal towpath.
Map reference SS 743 059 Clive Reed February 2008
Lock number 14 of the Swansea Canal locks. It is in a ruinous condition and it forms a heritage feature in the Local Nature Reserve.
The canal towpath is open to public access.
Map reference SS 745 063 Clive Reed February 2008
Cwmtawe Isaf over bridge
A masonry over-bridge constructed circa 1796 to provide access over the Swansea Canal to the Cwmtawe Isaf farm. The bridge is a private roadway to the farm.
The canal towpath beneath the bridge is open to public access.
Map reference SS 745 064 Clive Reed February 2008
Crimea Colliery Godre’r Graig
Remains of a colliery Beam-Engine House erected 1854 during the Crimea War, hence its name. It was connected to the Swansea Canal by a horse-drawn tramroad. Other remains include the winding House, chimney stack, and canal dock.
The complex is very overgrown and access is difficult.
Map reference SS 755 074 Clive Reed January 2008
Pant y Ffynnon boat building yard
A Grade 11 Listed structure comprising a boat building yard and a canal lock. The lock was number 17 along the Swansea Canal. The boat building and boat repair yard was operated by the Great Western Railway Company (owners of the Swansea Canal from 1872) until circa 1930. The last Swansea Canal barge to be constructed was at this boat yard in 1918 and named “Grace Darling”, with boat repairs continuing until the 1930’s. The complex is very overgrown and difficult to access.
Map reference SS 757 074 Clive Reed January 2008
The Squeezed Lock at Pantyffynnon Ystalyfera
Lock number 18 in the Swansea Canal numbering sequence constructed 1795/96. The lock last passed barges circa 1930. The lock was originally about eight and half feet wide but due to geological pressure from the neighbouring mountain Allt y Grug the lock has been squeezed to a width of only seven feet wide along most of its length.
The lock is not operational.
The structure cab be viewed from the public footpath adjacent.
Map reference SS 758 074 Clive Reed January 2008
Gravestones at the former Holy Trinity Church Ystalyfera
Gravestone with monument inscription to William Betton, Ystalyfera fatally injured at the Gurnos Colliery 17 December 1909. Aged 29 years.
Gravestone with monument inscription to John James Lyddon of Ynysmeudwy who was killed at the Tarrenni Colliery 7 November 1911, aged 29 years.
Gravestone with monument inscription to Edward Hughes, rollerman, of Ystalyfera. Died 1902, aged 54 years.
Gravestone with monument inscription of David Evans, rollerman, Ystalyfera. Died 1927, aged 87.
The church has been demolished but the churchyard is still an active burial place. Care must be exercised when visiting the churchyard due to the dangerous condition of some of the monuments.
Map reference SS 762 078 Clive Reed January 2008
Gravestones at Pant-Teg Chapel Ystalyfera
Gravestone with monument inscription to John Morgan, Blacksmith at Onllwyn Works – 1848.
Gravestone with monument inscription to John Williams – Pattern Maker Died 1916 aged 84 years.
Gravestone with monument inscription to Isaac Johns – Blocklayer.
Gravestone with monument inscription to James Clee of Ystalyfera Ironworks. Died 1849.
Gravestone with monument inscription to Hannah, wife of John Owen, Swansea Canal Collector. Gravestones to canal employees are very few in number, and this is a rare survivor of those. The inscription reads in memory of Hannah, the beloved wife of John Owen, Swansea Canal collector, Clydach, late of Ystalyfera who died January 7th 1888, aged 80 years.
The chapel is still an active place of worship. Care must be exercised when visiting the burial ground due to the dangerous condition of some of the monuments.
Map reference SS 761 088 Clive Reed January 2008
Ystalyfera Ironworks was constructed by Benjamin Treacher and Evan James of Swansea in1838 with a single blast furnace, and enlarged by James Palmer Budd over the following 20 years to become the largest combined iron and tinplate works in the world (1858). The works was owned by James Palmer Budd ironmaster from1839 to 1885, and eventually was to consist of 10 blast furnaces, 42 puddling furnaces, 16 rolling mills, tinplate works, forges and collieries. The works declined during the late 1870’s and closed in 1885. Tinplate making continued until 1941.
The furnace charging platforms and retaining walls still survive, although now partially obscured by the new ASDA superstore erected against much local objections c2012. The town of Ystalyfera came into being as an industrial settlement to house persons employed at the works or its collieries. Many of the original industrial dwellings are still extant. These are private property with no public access.
Map reference SS 763 084 Clive Reed January 2017
Ystalyfera Ironworks waste tip
The iron waste of the works was used to reclaim land on the valley floor by creating an embankment of iron slag. The linear slag embankment contains hundreds of thousands of tons of iron slag and runs alongside the River Tawe for several hundred yards.
The tip is not suitable for public access, though it can be seen from the adjacent roadways.
Map reference SS 764 078 Clive Reed January 2008
Twrch aqueduct Ystalyfera
A Grade 11* Listed three-arched canal aqueduct with an attached culvert, built between 1794 and 98. The aqueduct was the largest structure built on the Swansea Canal and took approximately four years to build. The aqueduct carried the Swansea Canal over the Twrch River and out of Glamorganshire into the county of Breconshire. The structure is reputably the earliest known example of the use of hydraulic mortar in canal engineering. The aqueduct was known locally as Capitol Bridge after the adjacent Capitol cinema that operated during the 1930/60’ period.
The aqueduct no longer carries water. It is accessible via the former towpath which forms part of a public footpath.
The canal through Ystalyfera was drained during the mid 1950’s.
Map reference SS 773 094 Clive Reed January 2008
Tareni Colliery waste tips
A rare survivor of the once common conical colliery spoil tips that were a major feature of South Wales in the past. Tareni Colliery, an anthracite mine, was opened in 1890 and close in 1947.
Access to the spoil tip is very difficult, though it can be viewed from the valley floor.
Map reference SS 757 063 Clive Reed January 2008
Cambrian Mercantile Colliery
Two 19th century engine-houses of the former Cambrian Mercantile Colliery Company, situated on the flank of Mynydd Marchywel near Varteg Hill Ystalyfera. The engine houses originally housed steam winding engines that were used to lower coal drams down to the valley floor to the railway sidings below.
The former tramroads offer access to the engine houses, but it is not suitable for disability access.
Map reference SS 765 071, 765 072 Clive Reed January 2008
Ynysci Colliery waste tips
Mountainside spoil heaps of the former Ynysci Colliery at Ystalyfera. These are typical of the smaller collieries that once thrived in the area. The tips are on private property but they can be viewed from the adjacent roadways and valley floor.
Map reference SS 768 078 Clive Reed January 2008
Ynyscedwyn ironworks Ystradgynlais
Remains of the ironworks buildings consisting of a chimney stack, and a masonry and brick multi-arched structure. The buildings were part of the proposed ironworks conversion to a steel making programme of 1872 but never completed. Adjacent are a number of industrial artefacts associated with the Ystradgynlais area.
Ynyscedwyn Ironworks commenced in 1620 as a charcoal fired furnace. By the end of the 19th century the furnace was using coke as a fuel and producing 1498 tons of iron per week. A second furnace was built in 1830 that used anthracite coal as a fuel. Seven blast furnaces were erected by 1856 along with beam blowing engines to provide the blast for the furnaces. Iron making ceased at the works in 1876, but tinplate making continued until 1941.
There is public access onto the site.
Map reference SS 7836 0921 Clive Reed January 2008
The route by which iron was conveyed to the port of Neath in the 18th century. The route commenced at Ynyscedwyn ironworks and followed the River Tawe southwards for about one mile before climbing the Varteg Hill to Cilybebill. The track was narrow and steep and mules with pannier baskets attached would have been used to carry the iron. Richard Parsons, the Ynyscedwyn iron master 1760-90 is recorded as paying twelve shillings per ton for carrying iron from his works to Neath. The mule-train drivers were paid eight pence per day.
The track is difficult to access due to the steep nature of the mountainside. Not suitable for disabled access.
Map reference Clive Reed January 2008
Ynyscedwyn Branch Canal Ystradgynlais
Ynyscedwyn ironworks owned, private branch canal connecting the Ynyscedwyn ironworks to the Swansea Canal. It was constructed circa 1828. The branch canal is presently dry. The Swansea Canal has been infilled at Ystradgynlais leaving the branch canal as an isolated industrial monument.
There is public access along the former branch canal.
Map reference SS 778 095 Clive Reed January 2008
Swansea Valley Ystradgynlais
Claypon’s Engine House
A steam operated tramroad incline running up the western slope of Mynydd y Drum. The incline was designed by William Brunton as an extension to the Brecon Forest Tramroad system in 1832/34. Claypon’s tramroad (Joseph Claypon) commenced at Ystradgynlais and climbed up the Drum Mountain to reach the Dulais Valley near Onllwyn. The tramroad was horse-drawn on the level sections with the incline worked by a steam engine at the top of the incline. The steam engine was supplied by the Neath Abbey ironworks and was installed in an engine house known locally as “the machine”.
The incline has public access, but it is difficult for disabled access.
Map reference SS 795 097 Clive Reed February 2008
The Ynyscedwyn Colliery ventilation shaft, a brick and masonry tower that originally housed a Guibal fan. Referred to locally as the “venti”, the abbreviated form of ventilator.
The ventilation shaft is on private property but it can be viewed from adjacent roadways.
Map reference SS 801 110 Clive Reed February 2008
Pont-y-iard/Pont –y-Yard bridge. A large masonry, high-arched structure with pierced spandrels originally constructed as a canal aqueduct in 1824 by Daniel Harper. The aqueduct spans the River Tawe and gives access to the adjacent colliery Lefel Fawr. It was later altered into a tramroad bridge.
Map reference SS 834 127 Clive Reed January 2008
Lefel Fawr Abercraf
A coal mine opened in 1796 with its tunnels excavated by the use of lime and water.
The mine was originally intended as an underground canal connected to the Swansea Canal via the Pont-y-iard aqueduct. The entrance to the mine is protected with an iron grill gate. The mine entrance can be viewed from the adjacent footpath.
Map reference SS 8184 1248 Clive Reed January 2008
The first purposely built iron furnace in the world to use anthracite coal as a fuel to smelt iron ore. Constructed by Daniel Harper in 1824 at the head of the Swansea Canal, the works used water from the River Tawe to drive its 35 feet diameter waterwheel, which provided the blast for the furnace. Surviving features include the charging bank, water leat, part of the furnace hearth and a bear of iron, wheel pit and workers cottages.
The site is overgrown and accessible with difficulty at the present time.
Map reference SS 8099 1260 Clive Reed January 2008
Cribarth Limestone, Silica and Rottenstone Quarries
Extensive industrial remains on the Cribarth Mountain near Abercraf, and consisting of ten miles of engineering features such as tramroads, causeways, inclines and quarries. They were designed to exploit the mineral resources of the mountain, such as silica sand, Rottenstone and limestone. The limestone was used for industrial and agricultural purposes, the silica for brick making and the rottenstone as a polishing agent for the tinplate industry and the jewellery trade.
A large part of the mountain and the structures are open to public access, but other sections are private property. The mountain is quite steep.
Map reference SS 8325 1435 Clive Reed January 2008
Penwyllt village, near Craig y Nos.
A former quarrying settlement which was created around the Penwyllt silica mines and brickworks. A number of workers dwellings survive and also the partial ruins of the brick kilns, limekilns and the track bed and the railway platform of the Neath and Brecon Railway. Extensive remains of limestone quarries, tramroads, cuttings, embankments survive over a wide area of the mountain. Most of the tramroads have public access. The railway was originally constructed 1864 by the Neath and Brecon Railway Company, closed in 1964 but re-opened by Hobbs Quarries to service the limestone quarries. The famous singer Adelina Patti had her own waiting room at the station with her own private railway carriage.
Map reference SS 8565 1573 Clive Reed January 2008
I hope you can make sense of all this historical information.
I am sending you one of the Ynysmeudwy – Pontardawe canal trail leaflets I researched and wrote, and one of John Thomas Rees. Most of his life story is in the enclosed leaflet, but I knew his grand niece and she told me the story of how he loved music, and as a young colliery boy, saved up his pennies until he had enough to buy a piano. He travelled down to Swansea from the little village of Cwm Giedd, purchased his piano and had it taken to the canal basin at Swansea. It was placed in a canal barge and carried back to Cwm Giedd. This boy later became a nationally renowned composer in Wales.
Clive 4 February 2017