Welcome To Abercynon

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

Swallowed Up By The A470This 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.

Post Production

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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The Melingriffith Feeder, circa 2007
View the photos from this shoot as part of my Merthyr Road collection on Flickr.

When it came to working tin in South Wales, Treforrest was the undisputed King. But if Treforrest was King, further south down in the Vale of Glamorgan above Cardiff, the works at Melingriffith were certainly the Crown Prince. Built in 1749, the Melingriffith Tinplate Works sat on or near the site of an old corn mill that had existed as far back as the twelfth century. It was once the largest tin works in the UK, until the construction of the Treforrest Tin Works. The works closed in 1957, and today the only obvious traces that the works ever existed at all are the Melingriffith Feeder that runs down from the River Taff, and the restored Water Pump standing opposite Oak Cottage. The works themselves appear to have been completely cleared, and the site today is a modern housing estate.

Its mills were powered by water taken from the River Taff by the Melingriffith Feeder – a water course that doubled as a canal carrying iron from Pentrych Works until around 1815, when the Pentrych tramroad was completed. The tramroad crossed the River Taff over Iron Bridge. The Feeder lock was permanently closed in 1871 when it was bridged over, but traces of it remain if you don’t mind walking out into the (mostly) dry bed of the Feeder to look.

The Melingriffith Feeder makes its way to the old Glamorganshire Canal, where they run in parallel down to the Tin Works and out the other side at Melingriffith Lock. Where they come together to the north of the Tin Works, any overflow from the Canal was designed to flow into the Feeder. This is now the southern end of the Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve at Forest Farm, and all the water from the Canal now runs into the Feeder before disappearing into a water course that runs underneath the housing estate that has replaced the Tin Works.

At the southern end of the housing estate, the Feeder re-emerges from underground where the Melingriffith Water Pump stands. The Pump was originally designed to pump water from the Feeder into the Canal at Melingriffith Lock. Rowson & Wright’s “The Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals Volume II” has an entire chapter devoted to the many disputes between the Tin Works and the Canal over the supply of water. As I understand it, the Tin Works ran entirely on water throughout its history – water that the Canal itself also needed, as Melingriffith was the last point where the Canal could gather additional water needed for the section down to Sea Lock. Today, the Canal has been totally obliterated (Ty Mawr Road has replaced the Canal here down into Whitchurch), and the Feeder just empties back into the Taff beside the Valley Lines railway bridge just south of Radyr Station.

Melingriffith is a great example of the huge contrast that exists between Cardiff and the Taff Vale in the regeneration of the former industrial sites. Most of the route of the Canal through Cardiff was industrialised, but today you wouldn’t know it. The Canal has gone, and the industry has been replaced by the housing estates of Melingriffith, Gabalfa, and Talybont, plus the regeneration of Cardiff Bay. In the Taff Vale, the Canal has mostly disappeared under the A470 trunk road, but where it hasn’t, the land has mostly just been left unused until you reach Rhydycar at Merthyr Tydfil and the site of the local Welsh Assembly Government office.

It’s a story that mirrors the growth of Cardiff against the decline of Merthyr.

Thoughts On The Day

I’d travelled through the Melingriffith housing estate a couple of years ago cycling the Taff Trail, but back then I’d never heard of the Tin Works, or the Feeder, or really of the Canal itself. I’d stopped at the Water Pump, and read the excellent tourist sign that goes with it, but without any background knowledge, I didn’t really understand what I was looking at. I didn’t know that Oak Cottage on the other side of the road was the old lockkeeper’s cottage from Melingriffith Lock, or that the road itself is where Melingriffith Lock once stood. I didn’t know that the Water Pump stands in the Melingriffith Feeder, whose route can be traced back up to the River Taff at Radyr Weir. And I didn’t know that the Feeder was also used as a canal – with its own lock on the River Taff itself – years before the Glamorganshire Canal was constructed.

If you want to explore this area for yourself, I recommend parking at the southern end of the Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve. There’s a small car park there. Head north into the Reserve, cross the Canal overflow bridge, and follow both the Feeder and Canal until the Feeder starts to veer off to the left. Follow the Feeder all the way up to the River Taff. Here you can see the sluice gate mechanism that once regulated the flow of water into the Feeder, and the remains of the lock. Turn south, past Radyr Weir and its picnic area, and follow the Taff Trail down until it threads its way through the Melingriffith housing estate to Oak Cottage and the Water Pump. If you wish, there’s a muddy footpath down the Feeder’s east bankside that you can follow down to the River Taff and beyond, but that’s really a walk for another day. At the Water Pump, turn north, and follow the road (which lies on top of the old canal bed) back up to the car park. The whole walk will take an hour or two, and should be suitable for most people.

The Feeder is just one of the delights to explore in this area. There’s the Canal itself, which can be followed up to Longwood Drive (and further north up to Tongwynlais, as covered in another article). From Longwood Drive, there’s the disused Cardiff Railway route down to Coryton, which also makes for a great walk. And all of these walks are set in the Local Nature Reserve, which includes two purpose-built hides for watching the local wildlife without disturbing it.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Overflow Into The Feeder

From the two visits I made to Melingriffith, I came away with 305 photos, according to Aperture. Even allowing for the fact I now bracket every shot (so, divide that number by 3), that’s still a lot of photos. It was a tough challenge cutting it down to the 26 photos I finally uploaded to Flickr. Picking just one photo as a favourite was harder still.

In the end, this photo showing the Glamorganshire Canal flowing down into the Melingriffith Feeder is my favourite photo from this shoot. It’s a photo that’s a bit different, for a start. I’m willing to wager there aren’t too many other shots of this scene currently around 🙂 I love the colours too. I think it’s a great advert for what my new Nikon 18-135mm lens can do (more on that lens in a dedicated article later in the year).

Post Production

The photos for this shoot come from two separate visits to the area. Because you have the Canal, the Cardiff Railway, the River Taff and the Taff Trail all in the same area, some of the shots are going to be included in other shoots in the future. Rather than lump all these shots into a single folder, I decided to spend a lot of Mother’s Day tagging my photos in Aperture, with a view to building a set of Smart Albums based on the tags.

Aperture is a great tool, but if there’s one thing that Apple has overlooked, it’s the very simple operation of being able to add one keyword to a group of selected photos. I can use the excellent Lift & Stamp tool to copy keywords from one photo to others, but I can’t drag and drop a keyword onto a group of selected photos. When you try, the keyword gets applied to just one photo in the selection (the photo that you drop the keyword onto). It would be such a time-saver to be able to do this simple task – it would save me up to an hour a week.

Found On Flickr

A search for the term ‘melingriffith’ turned up two great shots of the Water Pump, but no shots of the Feeder at all, and no old photographs showing the Tin Works during their existence.

Maybe my search foo just isn’t good enough. I’m really surprised that there aren’t more photos up on Flickr covering the same subjects as my articles. These places are part of the Welsh heritage, as well as being historically important both to Wales and the UK.

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The Canal Basin At Brown Lenox

My quest to explore the route once taken by the old Glamorganshire Canal recently led me to a surviving stretch of canal hidden in the shadow of the A4054 as it passes from Glyntaff to Coedpenmaen in Pontypridd.

Here canal boats used to load chains made at the Brown, Lenox & Co. Ltd. factory in Newbridge. It was Samuel Brown (the Brown in Brown, Lenox & Co. Ltd) who patented iron chains for securing ships to their anchors (replacing ropes), and with his cousin Samuel Lenox he established a highly successful company to manufacture these chains. Brown and Lenox built their first factory in Millwall, on the River Thames, but increased demand led to them constructing a second factory (the Newbridge Chain Works) on the west bank of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1816.

Brown Lennox and the Canal

Found on the Rhondda Cynon Taff district council’s website, this photo provides a great view of how the canal basin at Brown Lenox looked in years gone by. The bridge that still survives today can be seen just below the canal lock. The second bridge into the Brown Lenox loading dock no longer survives.

Thoughts On The Day

I’ve used the bridge at the northern end of the Brown Lenox basin many times as a cut through from Ynysangharad Road to the Brown Lenox Retail Park, but I never remembered seeing the canal basin itself there before. How could I have missed it?

In truth, there’s hardly anything left of the canal at this stretch – especially when you look at old photos like the one above. The canal has been completely filled in to the north of the bridge, and after less than fifty yards to the south the basin begins to narrow where the path has been moved to make way for the factory’s car park. Although today’s footpath is cement or tarmac its entire length, the path is surprisingly muddy in several places.

As you head south, the basin quickly disappears. The footpath ends up roughly where the east bank of the canal once stood, as the path squeezes past the shadow of the abandoned Brown Lenox factory. I walked the path south to its end and then back north; by the time I came past Brown Lenox for the second time, the path was obstructed with wooden palettes apparently being lifted from the Brown Lenox site!

Past Brown Lenox, the footpath crosses an ugly little bridge, and joins up with the old towpath once more. This stretch of the canal is quite a bit longer than the Brown Lenox basin, running past some cottages on the west bank before disappearing once more under modern concrete and cement. To the best of my knowledge, the canal doesn’t re-appear again until the pottery at Nantgarw, and can’t be walked along once more until Tongwynlais (see my earlier posting on that surviving section).

All the surviving sections of the canal that I’ve found so far all survive for three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, they haven’t disappeared under the A470 trunk road; secondly, they haven’t disappeared under post-war housing estates or shopping (which is what happened to the canal from Melingriffith southwards), and thirdly, they’re south of Pontypridd.

This section hasn’t disappeared under the A470 because the A470 goes around the other side of the Brown Lenox factory. I took some photos on this shoot which show just how close the A470 is, and that the line of the canal south disappears under the A470 at Glyntaff. When Lord Bute finally bought the canal, he originally wanted to close it and use the route for a railway line. He ended up being forced to make a go of the canal against his wishes. Today, much of the route of the canal has been taken by the A470 … just has road has replaced rail as the main form of transport in the UK.

I wonder what will replace the A470 in a hundred year’s time?

Pontypridd sits in a bowl, surrounded by hills and mountains on all sides. The A470 squeezes through a narrow gap between the River Taff and the Brown Lenox site as it heads down to Treforrest. Between the three of them, they left no room for anyone to build over the canal with housing or shopping. However, standing on the surviving canal bridge, you can immediately see that this wasn’t the case to the north, where the canal, the locks and Canal Bridge have all disappeared under the Brown Lenox Retail Park and the A470 to its immediate north. The future of the Brown Lenox site isn’t clear. At least one out-of-town supermarket chain wanted to buy the site to use for a new store, but that appears to have fallen through. Whatever happens to the site, there’ll always be the threat that some modern development will seek to erase this section of the canal. If that happens, that’ll leave the section at Tongwynlais as the most northern surviving section of the Canal.

The canal north of Pontypridd fell into disuse in 1915, and north of Abercynon it fell into disuse in 1898 I understand. When you walk the Taff Trail up to Merthyr Tydfil, what strikes me is that, although the canal has been filled in, it isn’t as if the land has been reclaimed for any other use until you get into Merthyr itself. It makes me wonder whether the canal was filled in by human effort, or whether it just silted up and was eventually reclaimed by Mother Nature. (I suspect the truth is a little of both).

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

A Lost Right Of Way?I’m spoilt for choice from this shoot. I really like this quirky shot of the footpath behind the abandoned Brown Lenox factory. It’s an unusual shot, and one that seems to have a bit of energy to it. I also love this shot of the row of cottages at the southern end of this surviving stretch of canal, and this shot of the canal basin hidden behind Brown Lenox, and this shot looking north towards Brown Lenox from beside the surviving towpath.

But my favourite is this shot of the bridge and Ynysangharad Road beyond, taken from just inside the Brown Lenox site. Whilst taking the shot, I got chatting to a lovely old couple who could remember times when the canal was still in use. I really hope they’re successful in their work to have the War Memorial up on Coedpenmaen Common floodlit on an evening. That’ll make for a spectacular sight indeed.

Three Lessons From The Shoot

  • The Sigma 15-30mm lens is proving a joy to work with – provided it isn’t pointed anywhere near the sun. There’s a good reason nearly all these photos are pointing north! This lens flares very badly indeed when it catches even a glimpse of the old current bun 🙁
  • Take your time and say ‘Hi’ to the folks you meet. It really made my day chatting with the old couple who could remember back when the canal was still in use – and could recall when Canal Bridge just to the north still existed, before being lost under the A470.
  • Coverage (again)! When I got to the southern end of the path, I stopped. Grrr. I wish I’d gone further and taken some shots of the path beside the motorbike shop. Although I don’t live far from here, I’ll have to wait until the weekend for enough daylight to get the extra shots in the bag.

Post Production

Shock, horror – colour photos from me for a change! All of these photos look gorgeous in black and white (I always convert photos to monochrome in Aperture to adjust contrast and levels) but I really like the colours captured in the photos, such as this one of the cottages between the canal and the A470. I’ve started shooting using the AdobeRGB colour space, and mode colour mode II on the D200. It’s a much more neutral combination than sRGB + colour mode III (my choice throughout my time with the D100, and carried over to the D200 for the first year), and it’s often recommended online as being the best choice for post processing. With a little bit of green and blue boosting for landscapes, or red boosting for industrial ruins, I can see how the result is easier on the eye.

Found On Flickr

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any photos on Flickr of this section of the canal – including my own! I’m really starting to doubt the trustworthiness of the map view on Flickr …

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I went back up to Abercanaid this morning and shot some additional shots of the Graig Chapel Burial Ground. In my original diary entry, one of the lessons I learned was that I hadn’t shot enough coverage – I had no shots of the Burial Ground as a whole, nor really of how the Burial Ground fits in to the surrounding area.

You can see the four additional shots as part of my photo set on Flickr.

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The Graig Chapel Burial Ground, Abercanaid

View all of the photos from this shoot as part of my Merthyr Road collection on Flickr.

After the extremely wet weekend the week before, I was determined to get out and about this weekend, and to continue my exploration of the old Glamorganshire Canal route between Merthyr and Cardiff. Guided by the excellent Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals book, I headed north to Merthyr and traced the canal route south from Chapel Row.

At Abercanaid, I came across the remains of the Graig Chapel burial ground (the east side of Graig Road, the whole section north of Anthony Grove). I’m not exactly sure when the Chapel itself was demolished; it appears to have been still standing in 1996, and it appears to have been demolished due to subsidence. Looking at the photos from 1996, it looks like the burial ground wasn’t adjacent to the Chapel, but without more research I don’t know enough to say for certain.

Today, the burial ground has gone to ruin. Many of the headstones either lie flat in the undergrowth, or have been vandalised and are no longer there. During my visit, I spotted about half a dozen headstones still standing, and I did my best to record the names on the surviving headstones.

Tomorrow, the headstones will be gone. Glenn Kitchen, represented by Hugh James Solicitors of Merthyr Tydfil, has posted notice under the Disused Burial Grounds (Amendment) Act 1981 that he will remove the human remains, headstones and other memorials for re-internment at Pant Cemetery, Dowlais, on 4th May 2007. It is his intention to “erect a building for residential use” where the burial ground currently stands.

Thoughts On The Day

As I came south along the old canal towpath into Abercanaid, it wasn’t the burial ground that caught my eye. On the opposite side of Graig Road stands a pretty detatched house, and it was that house that I originally stopped to photograph.

I’m not sure how I feel about the intention to turn the burial ground into a residential building. I’m not religious, and when my time comes I’d rather be cremated. I don’t particularly want my remains to go into the ground. But, on the flip side, there are plenty of other folks who feel differently, and I was certainly distressed that the local authorities had allowed the burial ground to end up in the condition it is in today.

It’s my intention to return to Graig Road over the coming months to make a record of the building that Glenn will build on this spot. I’m curious to see what sort of house ends up there. It’s not often you stumble across a small piece of history in time to record it happening.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

House And HeadstoneThis photo showing one of the surviving gravestones, with the house on the opposite side of Graig Road, is my favourite photo from this shoot. I like the crispness of the image and the general tonal range of the shot (although the blown highlight of the side of the building lets it down a bit).

Three Lessons From The Shoot

  • Shoot enough coverage! Lord knows I didn’t. I only have one shot of the plot as a whole, and only one shot showing where the plot sits in relation to its surroundings. That simply isn’t enough. I’ll be going back as soon as opportunity allows to bag some additional shots to complete this shoot.
  • Pay attention to your highlight warnings. Most of the scenes that I shot of the weekend contained shadows and highlights that stretched my D200 beyond its limits. It’s easy enough in Aperture to recover information from the shadows, but blown highlights simply don’t contain any information at all. The usual technique for dealing with this problem is to fit a neutral density gradiated filter (aka an ND grad). I don’t have any ND grads to fit the large diameter of my Sigma 15-30mm lens. Instead, I stopped down by a third (or often more), to try and limit the blown highlights to just the open sky instead.
  • Don’t limit yourself to just one attempt at a shot. I’m not saying go snap-happy – I don’t believe in the idea of quantity over quality – but do remember that you’re shooting digitally. You can take as many shots as you want, and all it costs you (worst case) is a little bit of time to edit out the really rubbish ones on-site (to avoid having no room to take any more shots). If, like me, you prefer to shoot in RAW mode, 8 Gb cards are now very affordable. I reckon you could fit something like 600+ compressed RAW images on a single 8 Gb card.

Post Production

The workflow I briefly mentioned a few weeks ago is working out well for me. I’ve picked up a copy of ScreenSteps, and I hope to post a tutorial about this before the end of March.

Found On Flickr

I’ve been unable to find any photos of Abercanaid on Flickr for this week’s blog posting. As well as using Flickr’s normal search facility, I also tried looking at the geotagged photos map. Although the map insists that there are 9,500+ photos taken in the Merthyr Tydfil area, not a single one actually appeared on the map at all 🙁

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Iron Bridge Road in Tongwynlais - A Photo by Stuart Herbert

View these photos as part of my Merthyr Road set on Flickr. Or, if you prefer, view a map with everyone’s photos taken in the same area.

Although many folks around here know about the remains of the old Glamorganshire Canal preserved at Forest Farm, I doubt that many folks know that there’s still a small stretch of the canal still in existence by Tongwynlais, cut in half by the M4 motorway as it heads west from Junction 32 and the Coryton Roundabout. The route down from Tongywnlais along the Taff Trail and then back to Tongwynlais via the Coryton Roundabout makes for an enjoyable – if very muddy! – circular walk that can be done in an hour or two.

Aim Of The Shoot

Page 144 of the award-winning The Glamorganshire and Aberdare Canals – Volume 2 by Stephen Rowson & Ian I. Wright (ISBN 1-903-59912-1) has a photograph of a steam train crossing a bridge at Middle Lock. The note accompanying the photograph states that the remains of the bridge still exists beside a section of the canal cut off by the M4 to the north and the Forest Farm Industrial Estate access road to the south.

I was out to find and photograph this section of the canal.

Thoughts On The Day

Either last year or the year before, Kristi and I cycled the Taff Trail from Taffs Well down to Cardiff and back. At no time did we realise that there were any remains of the old canal nearby; we certainly didn’t know that at one point our path took us to within 100 yards of a surviving stretch.

You can actually see the stretch on this Google map. The Taff Trail comes south down Iron Bridge Road, under the A470, and then turns north-west (right as you look at things) following Iron Bridge Road around a local playing field. However, after emerging from under the A470, if you turn south-east (left as you look) instead, the path beside the picnic area leads straight to a section of the canal, I’d say no more than 200 yards from where you emerge from under the A470. This section runs maybe 3-400 yards in length before disappearing underneath one of the slip roads for Junction 32 of the M4. At that point, you’re forced to turn west, and follow the embankment down to the River Taff and back to the Taff Trail. (When you get to the Taff Trail, it’s well worth turning right and heading north up the Taff Trail a short distance to the Iron Bridge. Alas, there’s no plaque that I could find to provide any details about the bridge, but it does afford a good view of Castle Coch in sunny weather).

The section of the canal to the north of the M4 seems to be completely invisible on the satellite view on Google Maps. But what is still visible is the clear outline of a railway embankment running north west beside the canal. If I have my bearings right, this is part of the old Cardiff Railway which once ran up to the coking plant at Nantgarw – and is just to the north of the bridge and canal section that I was out to track down on this shoot. The old railway line is (at first) impossible to trace on Google Maps as you move south of the M4. The trick is to go to the other endCoryton Station in Cardiff (where the line ends in this day and age), and then follow the route of the old railway west by north west back up to Long Wood Drive. (The old railway line makes for a nice walk too; I’ll be covering it in a shoot later in the year when we have blue skies once more). Between Long Wood Drive and the M4 lies the remains of the railway bridge that once crossed the Glamorganshire Canal at Middle Lock – the railway bridge from the photograph in the book.

How to find it? As you head south on the Taff Trail from Iron Bridge, you pass under the M4. The Taff Trail continues straight ahead (almost due south) along the bank of the River Taff. There’s another path immediately heading off to the left. Take the path to the left, and follow it along until it ends at another path (which runs west-east along the north side of Longwood Drive – not that you can tell when you’re actually on the walk!) Turn left, heading pretty much due east back towards Coryton Roundabout. The path takes you straight to the section of the canal mentioned in the book, right before it climbs up to the Esso petrol station and the Asda supermarket. The remains of the bridge can be seen to the north of the path, and to the left of the surviving stretch of the canal.

To be honest, there isn’t much to see. This stretch of canal is much more overgrown than the section by Iron Bridge Road, although it doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as silted up. The retaining wall that the bridge must have sprung from can be clearly seen, but nothing else remains at all. Still, I got a bit of a thrill from seeing such a well-hidden remnant of the past – especially as about 100 yards to the south lies the northern end of the Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve, which is much more frequently visited (probably because it’s nowhere near as overgrown). I’ve already made one (very short) trip to the Glamorganshire Canal Local Nature Reserve; I need to make another visit before I have enough photos to publish as a complete shoot.

To complete the walk, leave the canal by the path that leads up the steps, and follow the path around the north side of the Esso petrol station. This path takes you over a footbridge onto Coryton Roundabout (which is fun to explore), and out the other side over another footbridge back to the A4054 and into Tongwynlais. Although all the paths in this section of the walk are modern and tarmac, I managed to lose my footing at one point – a combination of muddy boots and water running down the slope of the path. Once you’re off the roundabout and back in Tongwynlais, you should be fine.

Overall, the walk’s easy going, with no major inclines to worry infrequent walkers. There’s one set of steps immediately after leaving the canal, and the paths are muddy at this time of year. You get to see two surviving sections of what was once one of the most important canals in the whole United Kingdom, and the early heart of the industrialised South Wales Valleys before the trains took over, plus the remains of a bridge that used to carry one of those railways up into the valleys.

That’s not bad for a Sunday stroll.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Back To Nature - A Photo by Stuart Herbert Although the photograph of the Iron Bridge has quickly become the most viewed photograph from this shoot, I personally prefer this photo. Although it was hardly difficult, I’m still pleased that I managed to find some remains of the bridge that I set out to find on this walk. Further up the valley, there are many places where there isn’t a single trace of the canal or the bridges that used to cross it. Don’t get me wrong – the A470 makes a huge difference to folks like me who live up in the valleys – but there hasn’t been any noticable effort (apart from the Nantgarw Pottery) to preserve at least some memory of the industrial heritage of the 1800’s. Maybe even these few remains will be gone within my lifetime; it’s nice to have a record of what’s there today in case they’re gone tomorrow.

Three Lessons From The Shoot

Although I originally wanted to pick out specific photography techniques from each shoot, the truth is that I don’t pay all that much attention to technique when I’m out and about. I mind the basics – shutter speed vs focal length for sharpness and aperture for depth of field – and then forget about them. The section has never lived up to its “Three Techniques” name, so from now on “Three Lessons” it is.

Instead, I’ll be posting regular mid-week articles on individual photography techniques, which will include technical skills (starting with weening off automatic mode), ideas about composition, and the workflow I follow for getting my photos from the camera through Aperture and up onto Flickr. A separate article will allow me to really get into a single aspect of photography, which will help me learn a lot more about photography.

But that’s to come. For today, the three lessons from this shoot are:

  • When I set out on this walk, I didn’t know exactly where the remains of the canal were to be found. To lighten the load, I left the majority of my kit behind, and set out with the D200 and just a single lens. Although there were plenty of moments where I found myself missing one of my other lenses, I definitely enjoyed myself much more because I wasn’t carting a tonne of glass around on my back. For days like these, you can’t beat having a jack-of-all-trades lens. My wife loves her Tamron 28-300 for just this reason. Unfortunately, I don’t like the results from that lens when paired with the D200. I wonder if supplies of Nikon’s 18-200 VR lens have improved recently …? 🙂
  • If you’re going out and you’re likely to be photographing water, don’t leave your polariser behind. *Cough* I did, and I’m still kicking myself for doing so. On the bright side, it means that I’ll have to go back later in the year (preferably when all the mud has dried out …).
  • If the sign says go one way, try going the other. As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, I’ve been down part of this path before, but I had absolutely no idea how close I was to the old canal.

Post Production

I need to rethink the way I’m organising my photos in Aperture. I’ve decided that I hate keywording all of my photos. Even with creating a metadata preset before doing the import, it still takes hours to go through each individual photo and apply the right keywords for that individual frame. I don’t have that sort of time, so I’ve stopped keywording photos in Aperture, but I still manually tag photos on Flickr.

Instead, my photos go into a Merthyr Road project in Aperture. This project is divided up into several folders based on geography – Taffs Well to Treforest for example – and each folder contains an album for each major subject, such as the Glamorganshire Canal or the Cardiff Railway.

The only problem is, of course, that I’ve ended up with several Glamorganshire Canal albums and several Cardiff Railway albums. As the number of shoots racks up, I’d like to be able to look at all my Glamorganshire Canal photos in one place so that I can see how my coverage is doing and what gaps I need to think about plugging in future. I can’t do that with the way I’m organising my photos in Aperture today.

Aperture supports Smart Albums – albums that can automatically pull in photos based on their keywords. I think I need to restructure my Merthyr Road project to make the most of this feature.

Found On Flickr

There aren’t many photos of the Glamorganshire Canal on Flickr at all, and the few that I’ve found really belong with my upcoming shoot of the Local Nature Reserve section of the canal.

But I did manage to find a couple of shots that seemed appropriate to today’s shoot, especially welshlady’s shot of Castle Coch taken from the Iron Bridge, which looks nicer than my attempt at the same shot today.

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Graffiti Inside The Treforest Tin Works

View this selection of photos in my Merthyr Road set on Flickr.

The old tin works at Treforest were once the largest in the whole of Britain. Today they have long since closed, and the buildings have fallen into disrepair. Much of the site has been levelled, but what remains provides the faintest of hints of the South Wales Valleys at the height of their industrial glory.

Aim Of The Shoot

From the A470, I’ve often caught a glimpse through the trees to the west of the remains of old factories nestling in the shadow of an old railway embankment. Armed with a couple of bottles of Lucozade and a few bars of my favourite chocolate, I walked down through Pontypridd and Treforest, determined to finally find out just what this place is.

Thoughts On The Day

Walking across the cleared ground, and through the ruins that remain, it’s very difficult to imagine that this was once part of the most important industrial complex in Britain – and therefore the world, thanks to the British Empire. The chains for the Titanic were made just to the north. Coal for the Royal Navy came from further north, passing by using the canal and later the crazy rail network that once criss-crossed the valley. Iron came down from Merthyr. Just to the south lay the second-largest tin works in Britain – it’s claim as the biggest stolen by the works here in Treforest.

Now it’s just a handful of ruined sheds surrounded by a security fence that the locals pay no attention to, all buttressed up against the remains of a railway embankment that (it appears) used to end in a viaduct across the valley. There are no signs to mark its passing, save one – a modern sign proclaiming that the local allotments are called the Tin Works Allotments. Indeed, it’s left to the two bricked-up tunnels to the east of the ruins – and an open tunnel that lies immediately to the west that begs a return visit – to provide the only hint that this was once such an important site.

It isn’t just the old tunnels that are striking. The local kids have covered some of the walls (both inside the works, and on some of the buildings outside the grounds) with some great graffiti. I know that graffiti is generally considered an nuisance and a menace by today’s society, and I’m sure that there are plenty of folks who wish for less politically-correct days when they could just pack these troublesome miscreants off to one of the colonies … but at the same time, I think the ones I found in the old tin works are really good. Given a choice, I’d rather kids were drawing things than mugging old ladies 🙂
I’m going to save the photos of the site itself for another posting on another day. I took over a hundred and fifty pictures of the site, and I need time to sort through them and process the ones worth publishing.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Graffiti Inside The Treforest Tin Works - A Photo by Stuart HerbertIt feels like I’m cheating. By breaking up this shoot into several postings, I get to have more than just one favourite photo – even though it was all the same shoot 🙂 There were several pieces of great graffiti that I captured during the shoot, but my favourite photo has to be this one. I think it does the best job of getting that balance right between subject and context.

What’s your favourite photo from the shoot? Let me know in the comments below.

Three Tips From The Shoot

  • You can’t beat local knowledge. Families walking their dogs tend to know all the best routes, and where it’s safe to walk (both from a danger point of view, and from a avoiding-trouble-from-landowners point of view).
  • Speaking of danger … you can’t walk around these places with your eye glued to the viewfinder. Apart from the very real risk of tripping over something and cutting yourself on sharp things on the ground, you’re in danger of falling down uncovered shafts at any time.
  • Most photo composition comes down to showing a subject in a context. In this selection of shots, the subject was meant to be the graffiti, and the context was meant to be the ruins that the graffiti has been painted onto. I didn’t maintain the discipline required, and quite a few of my shots [example] ended up the wrong way around.

Post Production

Part-way through processing the images from this shoot, my workflow with Aperture began to take shape. Rather than post the full details here, I’ll put together some example images of the workflow in action and publish them as a separate blog entry in the near future. (I’d like to start posting technique-focused entries mid-week to balance the weekend shoots – this’ll make a good first or second article).

Found On Flickr

I haven’t managed to find any other photos on Flickr of the Treforest Tin Works at all. That’s a real shame, especially when you realise that the University of Glamorgan can be found literally just down the road.

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Cefn Coed Viaduct

If you drive up from Cardiff along the A470 towards Brecon, one of the many great sights that you’ll see is the Cefn Coed Viaduct just to the south of the Heads of the Valleys road. Originally built as part of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway, the viaduct was converted into a public footpath during the late 1990’s with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The viaduct itself is accessible from the two lay-bys just south of the A465 / A470 roundabout. It’s possible to walk over it, or to descend via a rough gravel track down to Tai Mawr Road (itself a muddy track) to walk under it. The viaduct crosses the Taff Fawr (one of the two tributaries of the River Taff); there’s a great view of this from the old bridge at Pont-y-capel.

Thoughts On The Day

Boy was it wet – one of those very Welsh days when it’s not so much raining as just sodden in the air. Although the D200 has excellent weather seals, I didn’t fancy the chore of keeping the lenses dry, so I opted instead to go with the convenience of my trusty IXUS 400.

I’m looking forward to going back to the viaduct during the summer. With leaves on the trees and blue skies overhead, not only will it make for a great day’s photography, but it will also make for a great afternoon’s walk.

Favourite Photo From The Shoot

Cefn Coed Viaduct From Tai Mawr Road

This black and white shot of the arches of the viaduct from down on Tai Mawr Road is my favourite photo from the shoot. It’s the detail of the brickwork that does it for me; I’m really pleased with the results of converting this image in Aperture. The original colour photo is also up on Flickr.

Three Tips From The Shoot

  • Always shoot in colour, even if the final images are to be in black and white. It gives you more options, because you have all those colours available to adjust – those options are gone if you shoot straight to black and white. One example is this image taken from on top of the viaduct. I adjusted the blues in the photo first, to ensure that the wet stone that’s in focus matched the tone of the rest of the wall as it disappears into the distance.
  • Pixel count does matter, to a point. My photo of a man walking his dog is a crop taken from the top corner of the original image. It’s such a small crop, there’s hardly any more detail to be had from the shot. This image would have benefited from a few extra megapixels.
  • Explore a little. When I arrived at the viaduct, I didn’t know about the old bridge slightly upstream. But I’m glad I spotted it, and made my way down to it. In the end, I got more good photos from the walk down to that bridge and back than I did from my original planned journey across the viaduct.
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