View all the photos from this set as part of my Merthyr Road collection on Flickr.
On 21st February, 1804, Cornishman Richard Trevithick successfully brought 10 tons of iron, and 70 men, down from the Penydaren Iron Works in Merthyr Tydfil to the Glamorganshire Canal’s wharves at Navigation by pulling the wagons along an existing tramroad using a steam-powered engine.
It was the first time, anywhere in the world, that a steam engine had been used to pull anything along a railed track.
The Penydaren Mining Railway, also known as the Penydaren Tramroad, or the Penydaren Tramway, or the Merthyr Tramroad, was the setting for this historical event. (Penydaren is also often spelt as Penydarren, and the tramroad is often called the Penydarren Tramroad. Which spelling is right I leave to others to decide). The tramroad had been built because the Dowlais Company’s railroad ran past the Penydaren Ironworks on a high level course, making it impossible to build a junction for the Penydaren Ironworks to use. In response, Samuel Homfray commissioned the tramroad to follow the eastern bank of the River Taff down to Navigation (modern day Abercynon). The tramroad was completed in 1802, and was in use until 1875, except for a period of uncertain length starting in 1815 (and maybe continuing to 1825) because of the collapse of a bridge at Edwardsville just north of Quakers Yard.
Although it was the route used for the first-ever steam-powered railway journey, those early iron rails couldn’t take the weight of the engine. Just as it had been before Trevithick, after he’d left South Wales (he was notorious for losing interest in his inventions; it was his great character flaw) the tramroad reverted back to using horses to draw the wagons down to Navigation.
To accomodate the horses, the tramroad didn’t use sleepers as we’re now used to from our modern railways. The rails sat on two lines of stones, allowing the horses to walk between the rails without difficulty. It also made things easier for the man who led the horse throughout the journey! There are several good examples of the tramroad stones still in existence along the route.
Today, the rails are gone, but the tramroad used in that historical journey still exists, and can be followed from Abercynon up to Merthyr Tydfil. The entire length up to Pontygwaith is part of the Taff Trail route of the National Cycle Way.
Thoughts On The Day
With blue skies overhead, this route makes for a very relaxing walk through some of the most beautiful parts of the Taff Valley. Although neither the A470 nor the Valley Line service up to Merthyr Tydfil are ever far from the tramroad, the calming lull of the River Taff bubbling along in the opposite direction more than makes up for the dull background noise of road and rail.
My original plan was to follow the tramroad all the way up from Navigation to Merthyr Tydfil and then catch the train back to Abercynon, but I didn’t make it all the way. I spent far too long along the way stopping for photos, which meant that a journey that takes the train just 9 minutes took me nearly six hours! (By contrast, it took me only two hours to make the return trip, including a photo stop at the Giant’s Bite). The other problem is that the tramroad unfortunately hasn’t completely survived. The section from Navigation ends at Merthyr Vale. It is possible to pick up the trail again from Troedyrhiw, but it seemed sensible to leave that for a follow-up visit, when maybe I wouldn’t get lost!
The route’s in various conditions. From Navigation to Quakers Yard, it has become a single-track road serving a few houses that lie along the route. From Quakers Yard to Pontygwaith Bridge it’s a stony track, similar to many now used by the Taff Trail. I was struck by the difference from Pontygwaith Bridge to the southern end of Merthyr Vale, where the track is packed hardcore showing off the original stones that the rails sat on to perfection. And then you get to Merthyr Vale, where the tramroad is in various states of having been tarmaced over, or completely buried under some form of building work that I don’t recognise. At some point in the middle of all this, the tramroad actually crosses the railway line. I completely failed to spot this, and ended up walking along the old Merthyr Vale Colliery branch line instead until it came to an end. (I only realised my mistake during the post-production research for this article).
There are magnificient views to be had, especially through the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve. This hidden valley used to be crossed by three great viaducts. Two of them (the Joint Line’s viaduct to Cefn Glas, and the GWR’s viaduct to the Cynon Valley) no longer stand (they were demolished in 1969 – GaAC Volume 1 has a photo of both viaducts still in place taken in the 1950’s), but Brunel’s Goitre Coid Viaduct still stands, and is still in use by the Valley Lines service between Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil. Although all three viaducts were built to cross the tramroad, the best view is to be had from the top of Giant’s Bite on the other side of the valley.
The whole hidden valley takes its name from Pont-Y-Gwaith – the Works Bridge – which crosses the River Taff in the shadow of the A470. If you’re following the Taff Trail, the trail leaves the tramroad to cross Pontygwaith and duck under the A470 before heading north to Aberfan on the western side of the A470. If you’re heading south along the tramroad instead of north, you can cross Pont-Y-Gwaith, make your way under the A470, and then head up the hill to Giant’s Bite, or follow the dried up Glamorganshire Canal bed south around the foot of the hill.
Myself, I went up to Giant’s Bite, so that I could take some photos of the three viaducts from across the valley. I was pleasantly surprised with how close in I managed to get with just a 135mm DX lens (equivalent to a 200mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera). When the sunny weather returns later in the year, I’ll have to head back up there with my Sigma 80-400mm lens to see what detail it can capture 🙂
Favourite Photo From The Shoot
This shot of the A472 road bridge is my favourite shot from this shoot. When composing photos, I’m always looking for lines that will draw the eye along, and this photo is a fantastic example of how converging lines catch my attention. Unlike the natural landscape shots that make up the rest of the shoot, this photo feels clean and uncluttered. I don’t know … it just makes me want to go out and take more photos!
A close second is this shot taken just before reaching the bridge at Edwardsville that carries the tramroad across the River Taff, just south of the Goitre Coed Viaduct. My recent shoot down at Sea Lock, whilst very satisfying to that part of me that is really enjoying the history side of things, had left me feeling that the photography was getting lost amidst it all. I’ve been playing around with this basic shot design – a plain subject in focus in the foreground, with the more interesting subject further back out of the depth of field – since I first thought of it during my trip up to Snowdonia in 2003, and it’s always my fallback strategy when I’m not enjoying my photography as I’d like to.
Also a close second is this shot looking south at Goitre Coed Viaduct. I always find the Viaduct a complete bugger to photograph – the best place to actually see the damn thing seems to be across the valley sat atop Giant’s Bite. The Viaduct’s simply too big, and the valley too small, to get a great picture from the tramroad itself looking north. Going under the Viaduct, and looking south back to Quakers Yard, I managed to snag this shot which I feel gives a good idea of just how the viaduct appears out of nowhere to completely dominate the scene. But don’t take my word for it – get out and about and go see it for yourself.
After the eye-popping colours from my Sea Lock photoshoot, I didn’t want to do another set of photos looking like that. But equally I didn’t want to do a black and white shoot if I could avoid it. It was a great day, blue skies and hot sun, and I’d been careful to avoid burnt-out skies as much as possible (which is why many of the photos in this set are looking south even though my journey was heading north!)
It was during the post work on the railway car shot that I decided to try desaturating the colours in the photo instead of saturating them. It seems obvious now that the problem was the unbalance I was creating through boosting the colours, but equally the same colour boosting really improved the photos I took on the Sculpture Trail walk on Good Friday. Go figure! I managed to drag Kristi away from the gardening to help, and together we produced a set of Aperture colour presets to desaturate the colours in different ways depending on the scene.
I’m sure that the most important factor with these photos was that they were all taken on a bright sunny day, but after readjusting all the colours from the shoot using the new desaturated presets, this is the first colour shoot in the Merthyr Road collection that I’m happy with. I’m planning to re-publish each of these articles as a free-to-download PDF ebook; I’ll need to reprocess all the colour photos that I’ve already published before I do.
The write-up for this shoot has taken me a lot longer than any of the previous articles in the Merthyr Road series. This shoot consists of more photos than previous ones, and the Merthyr Tramroad touches so much of the history of the valley that it travels through that there’s simply so much more to see and learn about. I’ve added a new section to the article, listing all of the resources used to compile both this article and the write-ups for the individual photos on Flickr. I highly recommend that you visit all of referenced websites; they contain far more information than I can include here, and there are also many old photos from a time when the Merthyr Tramroad was still in use.
Although the history is such a major part of this project, looking through the photo set one last time before making it public, I’m happy that the photography hasn’t been lost this time out.
Found on Flickr
I can understand a shortage of photos on Flickr about the Glamorganshire Canal, but I was surprised by the lack of photos covering the Trevithick Tramroad and the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve. Practically every other walker I passed on the day was carrying a camera. Maybe there’s something wrong with the way I search Flickr for photos?
Mmm. I did manage to find these two photos which I liked.
They both make me want to go back at the height of summer, when everything will be much greener than now.
If you’d like to learn more about Richard Trevithick, the Merthyr Tramroad, or the areas that the Tramroad runs through, the sources used for this article and the photo write-ups on Flickr include:
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- The Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canal – Volume 1, by Rowson and Wright.
- Richard Trevithick: Cornwall’s Pioneer of Steam, by the South Western Electricity Historical Society
- ENGINEERS: Richard Trevithick the Cornish genius, by Cotton Times
- Trevithick 2004, a joint public/private/voluntary sector partnership to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Penydarren Locomotive – the first steam locomotive in the world to haul a load on rails.
- Cynon Culture, a website dedicated to the history and culture of the Cynon Valley.
- Victoria Bridge, Quakers Yard – Restoration Works Contract Payment, a report to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council.
- Our Woods in Focus, a website by the Woodland Trust.
- Taff Vale Railway entry on Wikipedia.
- Map of the Taff Vale Railway, on the GWR modellers website.
- Isambard Kingdom Brunel 200th Anniversary Exhibitions, from the Heritage In Action (Herian) website.
- Discover South Wales, a map of heritage sites from the Heritage In Action (Herian) website.
- The Taff Vale Railway – Volume 1 by John Hutton, ISBN 1-85794-249-3.
- Newsletter 110 June 2006 [PDF], from the Institution of Civil Engineers.
- Merthyr Tydfil Tramroads and their Locomotives, by Gordon Rattenbury and M. J. T. Lewis, ISBN 090146152-0.
- Pontygwaith entry on Wikipedia.
- Bringing the people of Merthyr closer to nature, the Forestry Commission press release from 29 August 2003 announcing the plan to create the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve.
- Pontygwaith on Alan George’s website.
- Cefn Glas Tunnel, on the excellent Cardiff Rail website.
- Quakers Yard and Merthyr Joint Railway, on the excellent RAILSCOT website.
- The Taff Vale Railway by D.S.M. Barrie, published on the Trackbed website.
- The Edwardsville Viaducts on Alan George’s website.
- Building Control Regulations for Merthyr County Borough Council, which includes a list of listed buildings in the borough.
- Trevithick and the Penydarren Tramroad on Deryck Lewis’ WalesRails website.
- ST0799 on the Geograph.org.uk website.
View this set of photos as part of my Merthyr Road project on Flickr.
For most of its life, the Glamorganshire Canal reached the Bristol Channel via a Sea Lock built at Lower Layer, part of the tidal estuary formed by the mouth of the River Taff. Authorised by a second Act of Parliament (the Glamorganshire Canal Act, which passed through the Lords on 26th April 1796, a year which included such notable company as the Duty on Hats Act), this Sea Lock replaced an earlier lock (also known as Sea Lock) which had been operating since the 29th of June, 1793. (The earlier lock had stood on the river bend to the north of where Clarence Road now crosses the Taff). The new lock opened on 27th June, 1798.
Between the new Sea Lock and the southern end of St Mary’s Street was the stretch of canal known as Sea Lock Pond. Here, the wharves were built to transfer iron and coal, from the canal boats to the larger, ocean-going vessels that came into the Pond through the Sea Lock. Some of the land for these wharves fell under the compulsory purchase provisions of the Act, but most of it did not, guaranteeing local landowners (principly the Marquess of Bute) good incomes on what had previously been open moorland.
The northern end of Sea Lock Pond terminated at Cardiff’s South Gate. (Cardiff was a small walled town of little importance before the Canal and docks arrived). In 1802, permission was given to remove the Gate, and connect St Mary’s Street with the canal wharves beyond.
Trade down the Canal was to transform both Cardiff itself and the moorland south of the town. Bute Street was laid down in around 1830, forming the eastern edge of Butetown (work on which began in 1846). The new TVR railway (which still exists today as the rail link between Cardiff Bay and Cardiff Queen Street Station) made its way directly to the east of Bute Street. This, in combination with the two huge docks built by the Bute Estate to the east of the Canal, was eventually able to ship millions of tonnes of materials and goods from Cardiff Docks, as opposed to just hundreds of thousands of tonnes through the Canal.
Although the Canal gradually fell into disuse from the late 1800’s as both iron and coal began to run out, it was the aquisition by the Cardiff Corporation on 1st January 1944 which spelt the end of Sea Lock, and hence the Canal as a whole. The City of Cardiff looked on the Sea Lock Pond as prime land for redevelopment. By now much of the Canal was unpassable, effectively leaving Sea Lock Pond (or Sea Lock Pound as it was now known) as just another harbour in the Cardiff docklands, but wartime decree forced the Corporation to continue to run Sea Lock Pond until the early 1950’s.
Late at night on 5th December 1951, the sand dredger Catherine Ethel collided with the lock gates at Sea Lock. With the lock gates destroyed in this unfortunate accident, the Canal waters (which, by this time, appear to have only been the water left in the Sea Lock Pond) emptied out into the Taff in a tidal wave.
The Canal’s 158 years of operation had finally come to an end. Within 50 years, the rest of the Cardiff Dock area too would close, leaving Cardiff – a small town that became a capital city on the back of its links between the industrial valleys and the sea – to once again revert back to being a market town.
(As always, I’m indebted to the historical research published in the excellent Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals – Volume 2, by Stephen Rowson and Ian L. Wright. If you want to know a lot more about Sea Lock, or any other aspect of the Canal, I can’t recommend their award-winning books highly enough).
The search for the location of Sea Lock starts to the south, in the newly-created Cardiff Bay Wetlands. Like Hamadryad Park further up the river, this area is largely land reclaimed after the construction of the Cardiff Bay Barriage.
One of my personal disappointments about Cardiff Bay is the complete lack of effort to make the new development blend in with existing housing. I don’t think anywhere shows this as well as Windsor Esplanade, with its row of older housing, and the modern Lecuna development tacked on the end like an afterthought.
This is the view of Sea Lock today, standing at the southern end of what is now Canal Park. I’m looking at the eastern end of the A4232 road bridge across the River Taff. Sea Lock would have been where the bridge now touches down.
Because the whole area has been redeveloped, there’s nothing left today of Sea Lock itself, nor the channel that went out from Sea Lock into the tidal estuary formed by the River Taff and Bristol Channel. This is my best guess, based on comparing photos published in GaAC Volume 2 (especially the very last photo in the book) with modern day views from Google Earth.
This is the underside of the A4232 road bridge across the River Taff, looking west towards Grangetown.
Sea Lock itself would probably have been a little ways behind me, with the channel cut from the lock to the River Taff roughly following the line of the modern bridge.
This murial stands at the southern end of Canal Park – at the southern end of what would have been Sea Lock Pond during the days of the Glamorganshire Canal.
I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you what the different scenes on the murial mean. To me, it looks like a telling of the history of the Cardiff Docks, and doesn’t seem to mention the Canal at all. That’d be a bit odd if so, given where it’s located!
Canal Park stands on some of the land reclaimed after the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1951.
This is a view of Canal Park, looking north towards James Street.
Canal Park stands on some of the land reclaimed after the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1951.
This is a view of Canal Park, looking north towards James Street.
Most of the buildings that used to flank the canal are gone, swept away in a frenzy of regeneration. Two of the surviving buildings are the Royal Stuart Warehouses and the Douglas Buildings.
Canal Park stands on some of the land reclaimed after the closure of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1951.
This is a view of Canal Park, looking south from James Street.
Today, there’s nothing left, but back when the Glamorganshire Canal still existed, James Street had to cross the Canal over a swing bridge.
This is the entrance to the length of Canal Park that stands to the south of James Street.
The words in the murial on the ground are "Glamorganshire Canal 1794 – 1951".
1794 is an odd choice of date. From surviving records mentioned in GaAC Volume 2, we know that the original Sea Lock opened in 1793. Back then, the canal didn’t come this far south; the original Sea Lock opened up onto the River Taff further upstream, at the site of the new Century Wharf housing development. The Glamorganshire Canal Act of 1796 authorised the canal company to extend Sea Lock Pond south, through the point in this photo, to a new Sea Lock. The new Sea Lock didn’t open until 1798.
Can anyone else explain why the date chosen for this murial is 1794?
This is the entrance to Canal Park on the north side of James Street.
The murial says "Sea Lock 1798".
This is what the Canal Park entrance on the north side of James Street looks like, if you stand in the Canal Park entrance on the south side of James Street.
When the Canal still operated, there would have been a swing bridge where the road now stands.
Taken just inside the entrance, this shot shows the first section of Canal Park heading north from James Street towards Cardiff City Centre.
Canal Park stands on ground reclaimed when the Glamorganshire Canal was filled in during the 1950’s. This section of the canal was known as Sea Lock Pond, and later as Sea Lock Pound. Essentially, it was a large dock, with Cardiff Town at its northern end, and Sea Lock itself at the southern end.
This play area in Canal Park provides a memory of the Glamorganshire Canal – albeit not a very realistic one! The four capsterns are placed to represent the old towpath, whilst in the gray paving, the outline of a narrow boat can just be made out.
In reality, this section of the canal – known as Sea Lock Pond – was the widest section of the Canal. This area was, from the beginning, built to support the transfer of iron and coal onto the ocean-going vessels of the day.
A view of some of the play areas in Canal Park today. Looking south towards James Street.
Looking north, the play areas in Canal Park give way to playing fields. There were plenty of soccer posts, but I don’t remember seeing any rugby posts up.
If the four capsterns and narrow boat outline are the most obvious reminder of the canal’s days preserved in Canal Park, this must surely be at the other end of the scale as the most obscure!
This is a crane post and base, used on the wharves of Sea Lock Pond for loading and unloading boats. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only one that survives today. I believe that there would have been many more, but the old photos published in GaAC Volume 2 only show one at any one time.
Here, I’ve used the telephoto end of my Nikon 18-135mm lens to flatten this shot of Canal Park and Butetown at the end of the park.
Redevelopment has swept away most of the old buildings that used to stand on the canal wharves at Sea Lock Pond. These two look like they might be survivors from an earlier time.
Canal Park finally comes to an end quite a bit shy of where Sea Lock Pond would have ended. The housing at this end is modern, modern enough that a lot of it doesn’t show up on Google Earth yet.
In the distance are the buildings of Callahan Square, and the Mariott Hotel on Mill Lane. The hotel also stands on land reclaimed from the Glamorganshire Canal, as it made its way through Cardiff City Centre.
This is a shot of Canal Park, taken from its northern end. From here, there’s nothing at all that I can see to indicate that this was once a thriving sea port!
We may have run out of Canal Park, but the journey north towards the northern end of Sea Lock Pond continues along Canal Parade.
Taken from the northern end of Canal Parade, looking south towards Canal Park.
We know that Sea Lock Pond’s northern end was at Custom House, which stands at the other side of the railway bridge in the middle of this shot. The Swansea to London railway came to Cardiff in 1850, and ever since Cardiff has been divided in two.
Cardiff was originally a walled town. The southern wall would have stood a little to the north of the railway bridge, at the end of St Mary’s Street. It was removed at the request of the Glamorganshire Canal Company to allow easier access between Cardiff town and the wharves of Sea Lock Pond.
This bridge is where Sea Lock Pond’s northern end would have been. Note the distinctive way in which the road dips under the bridge. This appears to be a common feature of roads that run under surviving railway bridges along the old canal route, although it’s by no means unique to railway bridges over the canal!
Behind the bridge, on the right, is the York Hotel and Customs House, marking the end of the journey up from Sea Lock.
Thoughts on the Day
It will come as no surprise to hear that Sea Lock itself, and the whole Sea Lock Pond are no more. Sea Lock, the Pond, and Butetown have suffered that most terrible of fates – they have been redeveloped. Despite numerous efforts – including such extreme lengths as siting the Welsh Assembly down in the Cardiff Docks when it should have been sited somewhere like Aberwyswyth) – the whole area south of Cardiff’s old town wall continues to feel disconnected from the rest of the city. I’ll look at the regeneration of Cardiff Docks in a later article in this series.
Sea Lock itself probably lies underneath the bridge that carries the A4232 across the river estuary. That matches up with the last photo published in GaAC Volume 2, on page 352. To the south of the bridge lies the Cardiff Yacht Club and the new wetlands created as part of the official vandalism that created the Cardiff Bay Barriage, whilst the river bank immediately north of the bridge has been redeveloped into Hamadryad Park. It’s actually possible to get from the wetlands to the park by walking under the bridge, and I highly recommend it; the park is a very peaceful place indeed.
Trying to trace the route of the Sea Lock Pond by the surviving buildings is very difficult indeed. Unlike in Taff Vale, where many of the original buildings that were built along the side of the Canal still exist, down here redevelopment and regeneration has swept most of the history away.
The majority of the length of Sea Lock Pond has been turned into an open space called Canal Park. You won’t find this space listed on Cardiff City Council’s website, but it’s there. From Sea Lock at the southern end up to the back of St Mary’s Church in Butetown in the north, Canal Park runs along the route of the old Canal and its wharves, and if you look closely enough, there are memories of the former canal hidden away in plain sight.
Sadly, I couldn’t find a single sign to commemorate the canal. What signs there are are notice boards for the local community. The kids growing up in the area today, and playing in the park itself, have nothing to read to remind them of the past. All that’s left to stimulate an interest in the history of the Canal is the name of the park itself, the names ‘Sea Lock’ and ‘Glamorganshire Canal’ laid out in brick at the point where James Street crosses the Park (the sight of a former swing bridge across the Canal, although to look at it today I think anyone would be amazed to learn that there was once a bridge at that spot), and not much else.
Heading north through the park towards Cardiff city centre, I found a few things to remember the canal by, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. At the obvious end of things is this play area flanked by mooring capsterns. If you look closely at the paving, the outline of a narrow boat has been incorporated into the design. About half-way between obvious and obscure are some of the old buildings that border onto the park. There aren’t many left, but there are just enough to show where the wharves might have originally been. My favourite item, though, is this obscure post set into a concrete base. This is the base and crown post from one of the canalside cranes (see GaAC p. 293), although how anyone growing up in the area is supposed to know that isn’t immediately obvious.
I’m not sure what the merit is of preserving a piece of history whilst at the same time not leaving a message to tell the next generation what has been preserved. It’s a maddingly frustrating story that’s repeated all along the route of the canal, and one that the folks I meet on each of these trips wish would come to an end.
Cardiff should be proud of what the Canal (and the railways that came afterwards) did for the place.
Three Lessons From The Shoot
- It often pays to go back to the same place two or three times before doing a shoot. I’m not someone who can just look at a location in a book, and then head straight there to get everything in one go. I’d been down to Sea Lock a couple of times before, and matched up what I’d seen for myself with what I’d read in GaAC Volume 2 before heading down for the final shoot. I’m glad I did – I wouldn’t have thought to include the shots of the A4232 bridge (which stands on the old Sea Lock location) otherwise.
- Google Earth is a real gift for projects like this. It was instrumental in matching up photos published in GaAC with the street layout today to help me find Sea Lock itself.
- During a shoot, take as many photos as you can. Don’t ignore something just because you don’t know what it is at the time. I didn’t find out what the canal crane post was until leafing through GaAC Volume 2 several days after the shoot. It would have been very easy for me to have not photographed it.
It was a cheery sunny morning, and I wanted these photos to reflect that. Butetown is one of those parts of Cardiff that has a certain reputation, and I was very worried that another black and white set would do nothing to show a different side to the place. Canal Park is the major open space in Butetown, and for that I think it’s fantastic.
Looking at the photos a week or so after processing them, I’m not happy with the colour. It’s too eye-popping, and doesn’t sit well with all the black and white shots from other sets in the Merthyr Road series. Time for a re-think before I publish my next article!
Found On Flickr
Whilst there are plenty of photos on Flickr about Cardiff Bay, I had no luck in finding many modern pictures of Canal Park. But I did manage to find a photo of the Sea Lock area taken from a kite, plus two older photos that also appear in GaAC Volume 2.
If you’re reading this in the RSS feed, my original blog post also includes a Google map showing where this photo was taken. Unfortunately I haven’t managed to get the map to appear yet in the RSS feed, so for now you’ll have to click through to my blog if you want to see the map. Sorry.
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See all the photos from my visit to the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail on Flickr.
Usually, public holidays here in the UK are guaranteed to be wet and have generally miserable weather – the sort where you don’t want to leave the house, never mind take your camera with you. Hopefully the weather gods are still looking at last year’s calendar, because today was a beautiful day for some outdoor photography.
We went across the border into England for a leisurely walk round the Royal Forest of Dean’s Sculpture Trail. Started in 1986, the Sculpture Trust has commissioned many artists over the years to create sculptures – both permanent and temporary – to live throughout the forest. There are currently 18 permanent sculptures that make up the trail:
- Place, by Magdelena Jetelova (1986)
- Bois Mort, by Carole Drake (1995)
- The Heart of Stone, by Tim Lees (1988)
- Black Dome, by David Nash (1986)
- Fire and Water Boats, by David Nash (1986)
- Iron Road, by Keir Smith (1986)
- Searcher, by Sophy Ryder (1988)
- In Situ, by Erika Tan (2004)
- Grove of Silence, by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1986)
- Cone & Vessel, by Peter Randall-Page (1988)
- Life Cycle, by Ingemar Thalin (2002)
- House, by Miles Davies (1988)
- Smoke Ring, by Stuart Frost (1986)
- Observatory, by Bruce Allan (1988)
- Raw, by Neville Gabie (2001)
- Cathedral, by Kevin Atherton (1986)
- Hanging Fire, by Cornelia Parker (1986)
- Melissa’s Swing, by Peter Appleton (1986)
To get the most out of a visit, be sure to buy one of the Sculpture Trail leaflets. The leaflet comes with a handy map (which makes up for the signage on the trail itself), plus more information about each of the sculptures on the trail.
I recommend parking at Beechenhurst Lodge, where there are toilets and a cafe. If you go into the cafe, try the bottled apple juice that they sell there. After three hours wandering around the Trail, it really hits the spot!
Favourite Photo From The Shoot
My photo of the sculpture “House” is my personal favourite from this visit. I don’t know why, but I don’t normally get these sort of shots with the Nikon; I normally take shots like this with my Canon Digital IXUS. I just held the camera under the sculpture, prayed that the auto-focus could find something to latch onto, and took the one frame.
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North of Pontypridd, the Taff Vale gives way to three separate valleys, known after the three rivers that flow through them.
To the north west runs the Rhondda Valley up to Treherbert. Tramroads (and later, railways) carried coal down the Rhondda Valley, through Pontypridd (or Newbridge as it was then known), across the River Taff at Machine Bridge to the Glamorganshire Canal just south of Glyntaff. To the best of my knowledge, no-one ever tried to build a canal down the Rhondda Valley; the topology was discouraging at best. Instead, Clause 57 of the Glamorganshire Canal Act granted permission for mine owners whose mines were within four miles of the Canal to lay roads or railways between their mines and the Canal. The most famous of these was the Doctor’s Tramroad, which will be covered in a later article.
To the north east runs the Taff Valley up to Merthyr, the head of the Glamorganshire Canal. From its origins at Cyfarthfa, the Canal ran down the valley to the west of the River Taff before crossing the Taff on an aquaduct less than a mile to the north of the River Cynon. From there, the Canal remained to the east of the River Taff through the Taff Vale, past Cardiff, and down to Sea Lock in what is now Cardiff Bay.
At the foot of the third valley – the Cynon Valley – stands modern Abercynon, where the River Cynon empties out into the River Taff. From 1812 to 1900, the Aberdare Canal brought iron and coal down the Cynon Valley from Aberdare and Hirwaun (home of Tower Colliery, which was the last deep mine in the whole of Wales), and along the Glamorganshire Canal to the docks at Cardiff. Such was the importance of this junction that a small village grew up here, although it didn’t take the name Abercynon until 1893, and it didn’t become a parish until 1908.
Before becoming Abercynon, it was known to the Taff Valley Railway as “Aberdare Junction”, and to those who worked the Canal it was known as “Y Basin” (The Basin) and “Navigation”.
Navigation House – which still stands today – was the original headquarters of the Glamorganshire Canal company. With the purchase of both Canals by the Butes in the late 1800’s, administration of the Canal was transferred to Customs House in Cardiff, and Navigation House is now a pub which during the week probably caters largely for the people who work at the Valleys Innovation Centre at Navigation Park.
Navigation was also the spot where it is claimed that the world’s first steam-powered railway terminated. In 1804, Richard Trevithick hauled ten tonnes of iron down from Merthyr to the Basin – the first time that a steam locomotive ran on rails. The old tramroad today is part of the Taff Trail cycle network; it also makes for a great afternoon’s walking. There’ll be a article dedicated to Trevithick’s tramroad later in this series.
Thoughts On The Day
Although it’s just up the road from me, I’d never been to Abercynon before, and this trip was really about finding my bearings and taking a first look to see what evidence remains that the old Glamorganshire Canal ever existed here.
When hunting out a long lost past (this section of the Canal closed no later than 1915), there’s always the danger of treating anything you meet with a certain romanticism, and that was certainly my reaction here. Parking at the end of Martins Terrace (which originally backed onto the Glamorganshire Canal), the first thing I noticed was the unusual landscaping of the open ground between Martins Terrace and the road to Navigation Park. There is no surviving hard evidence at the site itself that the Canal originally ran across this ground – the whole area has been completely changed by regeneration work funded in part by the European Union. Thankfully, old photographs published in The Glamorganshire And Aberdare Canals – Volume 1 show exactly where the Canal used to be. There’s a great photo across pages 174-5 showing the Canal running behind Martins Terrace.
Choosing to ignore Navigation House for the moment, I followed the main road past the fire station to where it goes over the Taff and under the Valley Lines track up to Merthyr. Although today this bridge over the River Taff carries cars, it was originally built as an aqueduct to carry the Canal itself over the Taff and into Y Basin, or Navigation. Roadways that run along the old Canal bed all appear to share a common characteristic at the point where they go under rail bridges originally built to carry trains over the Canal. I know of three such bridges (one in the centre of Cardiff by Customs House, one on Ty Mawr Road on the way to Melingriffith, and now this bridge in Abercynon where the Canal crossed the Taff). With each bridge, the modern road dips down to go under the bridge – and it’s a very noticable drop. My guess is that each bridge’s original height clearance was designed for the Canal, with its horse-drawn narrow boats, and when road replaced Canal, the roads had to be lowered to allow vehicles (most likely old-fashioned double decker buses) to fit under the bridge.
On the west bank of the River Taff, to the immediate west of the Valley Lines route up to Merthyr, there’s a walled ditch which it’s easy to imagine as the dried-out Glamorganshire Canal bed leading up the hill. The hopelessly overgrown ditch leads up the hill to the Old Lock Cottage – and then the trail goes cold. Sometimes, it’s possible to trace the route of the Canal by looking for more modern buildings which have sprung up on land reclaimed from the Canal. That approach doesn’t work in Abercynon, as many of the houses here were built circa 1900, around the time that the Canal itself was closed at this point. The only hint that I could find on this first visit was a street called Lock Street running to the north of the Old Lock Cottage. There’s a hint of a walled ditch behind Lock Street that looks just like the one that runs up to Old Lock Cottage from the bridge over the Taff, but it’s just a hint.
(Looking at old photos and information published in the Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals – Volume 1, it’s clear that this ditch isn’t the old canal bed. The canal actually curved away from the River Taff’s west bank as it headed north. I took this photo, originally to show the “canal bed” ditch. It’s much more likely that the path itself follows the line of the old canal!)
At the top, Lock Street gives way to Fairview, which curves around before disappearing into a single track road that runs up to Quakers Yard. Oddly enough, also up here – apparently in the middle of nowhere – stands a pub called the Royal Oak. From this account of the tornado that struck South Wales in October 1913, we know that the Royal Oak existed back then, and from this 1891 list of Aberdare Enumeration Districts, it appears that the Royal Oak Inn existed back when the Canal did (although I’m not certain). Back in those days, Inns were built along routes used by travellers – road, canal and rail. Whether the Royal Oak stands near the old route of the Canal I can’t say today, but it seems highly likely that it stands near the old route of something. I think a trip to the Glamorgan Record Office is in order 🙂
Coming back down Lock Street, I was unable to find anything to indicate where Junction might have been. Junction was the name given to the spot where the Aberdare Canal emptied into the Glamorganshire Canal. (Since this visit, I’ve seen photos which suggest that Junction is actually in the next street over to the west. I’ll head back there for a later article).
Crossing the Taff once more over the old aquaduct, there are two memorials on the eastern end of the bridge to the pioneering work of Richard Trevithick. One stands at the southern end of his tramroad (which is now part of the Taff Trail), and the other a little ways along in pride of place in front of the local Fire Station. If you ever get the chance, the tramroad makes for a very pleasant walk on a warm afternoon, and you’ve got the choice of following the tramroad up to Merthyr or turning it into a circular walk back to Abercynon.
The thing that struck me most about Navigation House was how plain it looks. There wasn’t even the tiniest hint on the outside that it’s ever been anything other than a pub. I don’t know about inside – the scary “No shirt, no shoes, no service” sign on the outside strongly suggested that my walking gear and muddy boots wouldn’t go down well!
I finished the walk by heading down past Martins Terrace to what’s now called Navigation Park. This provides a great view of Abercynon and the Cynon Valley beyond, standing on a spot where the canal used to run. To the south, all traces of the canal appear to have been swallowed up by the A470 trunk road, and they don’t re-emerge until the basin behind the Brown Lenox site at Pontypridd.
Favourite Photo From The Shoot
This is my favourite photo from my first visit to Navigation. My eye is drawn by the sweeping curve of the A470 as it disappears under the bridge where I’m stood. On the day, I really enjoyed standing there and imagining what the Canal might have looked like, a hundred years ago, as it disappeared south towards Pontypridd.
I also like the shot of Abercynon South Station, taken from the bridge over the railway beside the Old Lock Cottages, and the shot of where the old TVR line (now the Valleys Line) railway bridge crossed the Canal.
Since I first got it, I’ve been using Aperture to manage photos stored on Moby, my purpose-built file server. Most of the time, I’ve been using a 100M/bit network connection (and 802.11g wi-fi the rest of the time), and I’ve found the whole experience to be horribly slow. I thought the problem was with Aperture itself, to be honest, but after relocating all my photos onto a portable hard-drive plugged into my MacBook Pro, I’m happy to say that nearly all the problems were to do with accessing the files over the network.
Alas, this hasn’t cured the horrendous performance of Aperture’s image straightening tool 🙁 Maybe that can be my excuse to buy the 8-core Mac Pro that Apple released today? 🙂
Found On Flickr
I found these great photos on Flickr about Abercynon.
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I haven’t quite finished this week’s article for my Merthyr Road set, so in the meantime I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve just uploaded from my latest visit to Portsmouth. I’ve already been twice to visit the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, thanks to a happy accident involving a trip to Brighton to collect our katanas, bad weather, and Moshi Moshi being closed every Monday. This time, I visited the Submarine Museum (home to HMS Alliance – go on the tour, it’s excellent), and took some shots from up the top of the Spinnaker Tower.
I had my Sigma 80-400mm lens with me up the tower, and was able to get some good shots of HMS Warrior and HMS Victory with it. Whilst queueing for the elevator up the tower, my camera bag was searched by a very polite member of staff. It’s the only time I’ve had my bag searched in all my visits here. I find it amusing that it’s the civilian attraction (Spinnaker Tower) that’s worried about folks with bags and not the Navy base right alongside 🙂 Or maybe I just look scary at the moment? 🙂
Quite a few of the photos of HMS Victory that I took from my last visit in November are proving popular on Flickr, having been viewed over a hundred times. I’ve been noticing the total number of views of my photos steadily increasing, and have been wondering which photos were being viewed (it certainly isn’t my Merthyr Road set, alas). Well, now I know!
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