Cycling the Mon & Brec – Monday 9 January 2023

A rare day of sunshine was promised on Monday 9 January, 2023, and seeking to dispel my winter ennui and sloth, I settled on a ride along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. I’ve had dealings with this canal over the years, as it contours around the hills near Abergavenny, so that coming into the town from the hills to the south (as I did when walking the Cambrian Way) one crosses the canal, sometimes walking a short stretch. There are striking views to the north and east from its vantage point high on the hillsides, so I’ve had the thought of riding its length for some while.

I enjoyed a pleasantly uneventful trip by train from Cheltenham to Newport. I love the line that follows the west bank of the Severn between Gloucester and Chepstow. Light was just appearing over the far bank, and the water was black, viscous and placid in the dawn. In the other half of the sky, a gibbous moon hung at about 10° over the farms and forest. As we crossed the Wye into Wales I was struck that the view over towards Chepstow and its old bridge was probably best from this vantage – since we were on top of the ugly new concrete river crossing and thus spared sighting it.

By Newport the day had properly dawned, and it was easy to follow the railway back a few hundred metres to pick up cycle routes 47 and then 88 which took me parallel to the busy A4042 to a complicated intersection where the canal path can be found.

And so off. National Cycle Route 47 has obviously adopted this stretch of the canal path, and I later discover that this would take me the 195km to Fishguard, if I was so minded, the way before me is clear. It’s also perfect for cycling, being sealed and wide enough to accommodate me, commuters, joggers and early-morning dog-walkers. I soon pass a sign indicated the path is blocked, but seeing no impediment to my progress, I carry on. But after 150m or so, I meet a temporary fence crossing the path and dipping into the waters of the canal. This would be the exit of the closed section, so I dismount and reckon I can hang onto the fence, pivot round it, with my bike gripped in my left hand. It was a great idea, and would have worked but for the fence not being anchored properly, and as it takes my weight, it slips towards the canal. The good news is that the water was only 10cm deep. The bad is that there was 20cm of yielding silt and mud beneath into which I sank. Five minutes in, on an early January day, and my feet are soaked. OK, I’ve both merino and water-proof socks on. But I still spend the rest of the day mindfully ignoring chills and pains.

I trust that’s the last mishap of the day, and cycle on. Actually the sun is shining and there’s a series of fabulous ancient locks, which I admire, even if they are a reminder that canals are not always flat. There are two branches to this canal, the shorter one heading west to Crumlin, and the longer more northwards, ending in Brecon. I plan to take the latter, as I calculate that making Brecon will be work enough, and I’ll still then have to return at least to Abergavenny to catch a train home. But as it happens, I miss the turn north and, after correctly

identifying something’s wrong, establish I’m about 3km into the Crumlin branch. I decide to crack on. The views over the Ebbw valley become more and more breath-taking. The canal never really becomes rural, passing from one small settlement to the next. It’s flat, quiet with a well surfaced track: I fly along. Reaching the terminus at Crumlin, I turn and retrace my route and this time easily find the point at which the two arms branch (hard by the M4).

After a further flight of locks, the canal settles on countouring round the hillsides, I suppose with the river Usk in the distance. There are innumerable low bridges, which certainly require respectful caution – cracking your head on one of those is going to ruin your whole day. I pick up some supplies in Pontypool, after which the canal does now begin to feel more remote, but always there is that fantastic view to the right, whilst to the left there is the changing scenery of woods and pasture. I sight Abergavenny over the valley, and note the time, because how ever much further I go now, I’ll have to return the same distance-and-then-some to get a train.

At Gilwern I puncture and annoyingly discover that my spare tube is somehow also holed and the glue in my repair kit is solidified. Who prepared all this? It takes me far longer than it should to resume the journey, although I’m gratified that the repair holds. I feel like I’m moving fast, but with the Crumlin detour (some 30km) plus the delay for the puncture I realise I’m not going to make Brecon in daylight. And I definitely don’t want some lengthy slog along country A-roads back to Abergavenny. I reach the start of the Ashford Tunnel, about 13km from Brecon, at 15:50, and I figure this is a good turning point. I’m tired too, but I’m happy to enjoy the diminishing light and changing scene along the canal as I retrace my route back to towards my train. I only switch on my lights as I reach the turn off, when I meet a few joggers and dog-walkers.

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In summary, a great day out. A shame the daylight ran out before reaching Brecon, but I’ll come back in summer. Although there’s been a good deal of recent rain, by-and-large the path was good enough and there were only short stretches of mud. I was on my gravel bike, and it turns out I’d been wise the night before to change the tyres for more knobbly ones. I was speckled rather than plastered in mud. Newport to Brecon is about 68km. Newport to Crumlin is about 16km. Overall I cycled something like 92km.