Posted by Stuart Herbert on April 22nd, 2007 in A470 Trunk Road, Great Western Railway, Historical, Iron & Steel, Merthyr Road, Merthyr Vale, Navigation (Modern-day Abercynon), Pentyrch and Melingriffith Light Railway, Pontygwaith, Quakers Yard, Quakers Yard and Merthyr Joint Railway, River Taff, Shoot, Taff Trail, Taff Vale Railway (Modern-day Valley Lines), Tramroad.
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:
- 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.