I wasn’t around in the South Wales valleys when the mines were still here, but fellow Flickr user trelewis was. She’s posted a set of photos of the Abercynon Colliery before it was closed and cleared (the Navigation Park business park sits on the site today). Good historical photos that might interest anyone who enjoys my Merthyr Road series of photographs.59 comments »
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.
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