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.
- Cynon Valley, by Areopagus
- Clock School, Abercynon, Wales, also by Areopagus
- Washing Machine above Abercynon, by Voice of Fox