In Memory Of Richard Trevithick

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

On 21st February, 1804, Cornishman Richard Trevithick successfully brought 10 tons of iron, and 70 men, down from the Penydaren Iron Works in Merthyr Tydfil to the Glamorganshire Canal’s wharves at Navigation by pulling the wagons along an existing tramroad using a steam-powered engine.

It was the first time, anywhere in the world, that a steam engine had been used to pull anything along a railed track.

The Penydaren Mining Railway, also known as the Penydaren Tramroad, or the Penydaren Tramway, or the Merthyr Tramroad, was the setting for this historical event. (Penydaren is also often spelt as Penydarren, and the tramroad is often called the Penydarren Tramroad. Which spelling is right I leave to others to decide). The tramroad had been built because the Dowlais Company’s railroad ran past the Penydaren Ironworks on a high level course, making it impossible to build a junction for the Penydaren Ironworks to use. In response, Samuel Homfray commissioned the tramroad to follow the eastern bank of the River Taff down to Navigation (modern day Abercynon). The tramroad was completed in 1802, and was in use until 1875, except for a period of uncertain length starting in 1815 (and maybe continuing to 1825) because of the collapse of a bridge at Edwardsville just north of Quakers Yard.

Although it was the route used for the first-ever steam-powered railway journey, those early iron rails couldn’t take the weight of the engine. Just as it had been before Trevithick, after he’d left South Wales (he was notorious for losing interest in his inventions; it was his great character flaw) the tramroad reverted back to using horses to draw the wagons down to Navigation.

To accomodate the horses, the tramroad didn’t use sleepers as we’re now used to from our modern railways. The rails sat on two lines of stones, allowing the horses to walk between the rails without difficulty. It also made things easier for the man who led the horse throughout the journey! There are several good examples of the tramroad stones still in existence along the route.

Today, the rails are gone, but the tramroad used in that historical journey still exists, and can be followed from Abercynon up to Merthyr Tydfil. The entire length up to Pontygwaith is part of the Taff Trail route of the National Cycle Way.

Thoughts On The Day

With blue skies overhead, this route makes for a very relaxing walk through some of the most beautiful parts of the Taff Valley. Although neither the A470 nor the Valley Line service up to Merthyr Tydfil are ever far from the tramroad, the calming lull of the River Taff bubbling along in the opposite direction more than makes up for the dull background noise of road and rail.

My original plan was to follow the tramroad all the way up from Navigation to Merthyr Tydfil and then catch the train back to Abercynon, but I didn’t make it all the way. I spent far too long along the way stopping for photos, which meant that a journey that takes the train just 9 minutes took me nearly six hours! (By contrast, it took me only two hours to make the return trip, including a photo stop at the Giant’s Bite). The other problem is that the tramroad unfortunately hasn’t completely survived. The section from Navigation ends at Merthyr Vale. It is possible to pick up the trail again from Troedyrhiw, but it seemed sensible to leave that for a follow-up visit, when maybe I wouldn’t get lost!

The route’s in various conditions. From Navigation to Quakers Yard, it has become a single-track road serving a few houses that lie along the route. From Quakers Yard to Pontygwaith Bridge it’s a stony track, similar to many now used by the Taff Trail. I was struck by the difference from Pontygwaith Bridge to the southern end of Merthyr Vale, where the track is packed hardcore showing off the original stones that the rails sat on to perfection. And then you get to Merthyr Vale, where the tramroad is in various states of having been tarmaced over, or completely buried under some form of building work that I don’t recognise. At some point in the middle of all this, the tramroad actually crosses the railway line. I completely failed to spot this, and ended up walking along the old Merthyr Vale Colliery branch line instead until it came to an end. (I only realised my mistake during the post-production research for this article).

There are magnificient views to be had, especially through the Pontygwaith Nature Reserve. This hidden valley used to be crossed by three great viaducts. Two of them (the Joint Line’s viaduct to Cefn Glas, and the GWR’s viaduct to the Cynon Valley) no longer stand (they were demolished in 1969 – GaAC Volume 1 has a photo of both viaducts still in place taken in the 1950’s), but Brunel’s Goitre Coid Viaduct still stands, and is still in use by the Valley Lines service between Pontypridd and Merthyr Tydfil. Although all three viaducts were built to cross the tramroad, the best view is to be had from the top of Giant’s Bite on the other side of the valley.

The whole hidden valley takes its name from Pont-Y-Gwaiththe 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

Crossing Under The A472This 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 Pause For BreathA 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.

Goitre Coid ViaductAlso 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.

Post Production

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.

Sources

If you’d like to learn more about Richard Trevithick, the Merthyr Tramroad, or the areas that the Tramroad runs through, the sources used for this article and the photo write-ups on Flickr include:

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The 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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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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