The rugged valleys of South Wales are famous throughout the whole of the United Kingdom through its history of coal mining. The lower valleys are lined with terraced houses built for the now redundant miners. There uniform and austere lines; reminding me of a Lowry painting. Soaring above the streets; are dark but majestic hills, also scarred by remnants of coal mining. Abandoned and rusting structures dot the landscape here and there. With vast slag heaps giving the impression of some faraway planet.
In need of a nearby adventure one late summers day; my father and I researched routes in these same Welsh valleys for they are less than two hours drive from our hometown. Having previously cycled the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal we looked at returning by a different route over the surrounding hills. Sure enough, through the power of the internet we found that a cycle path on a disused railway; crossed the canal at Pontypool and then ran back north but west up a long side valley to the coal mining town of Blaenavon. Studying Google maps we then found a quiet lane that ran from Blaenavon over an in between ridge line back to the canal.
Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
Originally opened as two separate canals in the 1790’s; yet later joined, this canal system joined Brecon to the sea at Newport. Its original purpose being to carry coal and iron down from numerous mines and pitheads spread all over the valley. After closing in the 1960’s; parts of the canal have now been restored for pleasure craft and walkers and cyclists to enjoy the towpath.
So deciding to park in Abergavenny in order to enjoy more of the canal; we set off as a light rain fell from a leaden sky. Using the Llanfoist to Brynmawr railway path to avoid the main road; we climbed up to the canal and set off south. Although is it was a weekend the towpath was quiet with just a few morning dog walkers. Under an avenue of tall leafy beech trees; the canal and towpath ran with sun breaking through the canopy here and there. It felt so tranquil and relaxing cruising along; without a care in the world.
Before too long we passed the idyllic Llanfoist Wharf. Once a place of hard work; you can now hire one of the cottages and watch the world go by.
Stopping for a sip of orange squash and this photo we could momentarily enjoy the tranquillity too. As if in agreement, the rain and clouds lifted and for the rest of the day we were blessed with sun and puffy cumulus clouds. I started to wonder if it was all a dream!
We passed other riders and walkers; with the respect that I would expect too. If approaching a walker from behind; I call out in the mid distance so not to startle them. You can use a bell; yet I feel these are impersonal, as if you cannot be bothered to greet someone.
We cycled past Goytre Wharf; another remnant of a bygone industrial age. Here there are good examples of limekilns; in which limestone was turned into quicklime. A key ingredient for cement as well its use in the steel and iron industry. Here too is a cafe, loo and car parking; if you would prefer to make this the start to your ride.
After a few more dreamy miles on the towpath; trees gave way to houses as we entered Pontypool. After passing through the wharf and under a large bridge; we turned off the canal and on to the old railway line.
Pontypool to Blaenavon Cycle Path
You need to take care after passing through the wharf at Pontypool; the canal narrows and passes under a wide road bridge. If you encounter walkers or other cyclists; be the better person by stopping or even pushing your bike. Giving way to others is rewarding if not always recognised. Besides, the risk of falling into the canal is present; and the thought of riding back cold and wet to your car could ruin your day.
After the aforementioned bridge; you will see the pillars that once supported the old railway bridge. Shortly after this; as the canal towpath opens out you will see on your left a sign post in a gap in the hedge. Take this route and turn left up the wide tarmacked railway path. Beyond this you will have to navigate through a less scenic part of Pontypool. Riding alongside a busy road and a tired looking supermarket; it is easy to focus on the hustle and bustle, the pollution and the less fortunate parts of our lifestyle. However, be brave and ride on; for after a short while you will be back out in open countryside.
Sure enough, after a small steep hill between some terraced houses we arrived on to the railway path. For the next twelve miles we would climb gently up to the town of Blaenavon. Passing the remains of old platforms, through cuttings and tunnels, over viaducts and ornate stone bridges we too huffed and puffed like small steam engines of yesteryear. The tarmac surface is smooth, the route well signposted and every so often welcome wooden benches; make this a testament to what is still possible in this modern age of accountants and budgets! I am not sure if the funding came from the European Union or local government; yet who ever organised the construction it is a great use of public money for the good of the public.
As our legs began to tell us that the constant gradient was starting to tire us out; we arrived in Blaenavon. Here, the cycle path made way for a restored section of the railway. With luck we saw a small steam train pulling away from the station and took this amazing photo.
From here you can cross the railway tracks and head across the town to begin the homeward route. Or if you have the time and energy you can follow the path up to a mine called ‘Big Pit’.
Big Pit was a coal mine that closed in 1980 due to economic reasons. Now you can go on guided tours and see how the miners worked in such dangerous conditions. Visiting the pit is worthy of a whole day out in its self; something I did as a schoolkid thirty years ago. For more information; here is there website: https://museum.wales/bigpit/
Going full circle
From here the canal from which we started our ride is over a long ridge line to the east. Using google maps on our phones we picked a quiet route through the centre of Blaenavon. We pushed our bikes across the main roads and along pavements up a steep hill to get to a quiet lane that runs over the ridge and homeward. Leaving the rows of terraced houses behind the gradient relaxed as we passed open moor land. Here in a low gear, we rode the last half mile to the ridge line.
Looking back we could see the wheel of Big Pit and almost all of Blaenavon. Is it not amazing how far we can travel by bike?
From here we could see as far as the Bristol Channel; over fifteen miles away. Again trying to take just as many photos with our memories than with our camera phones; we paused and tried to take it all in. In terms of relaxing; I feel most relaxed when I am doing natural things surrounded by nature. I guess this natural feeling is what actually forces me out on long bike rides; away from the comforts of home.
From here you should take great care descending a long and steep hill. If your brakes are worn; I would advise walking! Seriously this hill is so steep; you can get into problems fast. Another technique to assist your bikes brakes is to use your shoes as an extra retarder to help in the fight against gravity! When fingers have become numb from holding the brake levers you will come to a small humpback bridge. A bridge over same the canal you cycled along a few hours before. We stopped again here, simply to let blood and feeling back into my fingertips.
If you chose to park in Abergavenny; you have to simply retrace your route back along this silky smooth towpath. So there you have it; a ride with varied and stunning scenery in the Welsh valleys. On a good summers day; a route possible for anyone of reasonable fitness. Try, ride and relax!
Parking, refreshments and other tips:
We parked in a small layby on the outskirts of Abergavenny. However, there are many free and safe places to park along the route. For example: sides roads in Pontypool, the wharf at Pontypool and around Blaenavon and the Big Pit visitor centre. Here is a map of where we parked:
There are many places to eat: cafes along the canal and in Blaenavon. There is a large supermarket in Pontypool; if you prefer. Or have a hearty breakfast and just carry a few bananas and flapjacks.
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