Sometimes the ends of the earth are on your doorstep, as Bay’s Nick Smith discovered when he ventured little more than an hour’s drive from Swansea to explore the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal – the ‘Mon and Brec’ – in an old-fashioned narrowboat called Ffion.
Not that I needed a GPS to tell me how to get to the Brecon Beacons, but I switched it on out of curiosity anyway. My journey, the device informed me, would take a little over an hour northeast along the A465 from my terraced house by Cwmdonkin Park to the boatyard in Pencelli, just south of Brecon. I’d known about the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal – often called the ‘Mon and Brec’ – for some time, and I’d always intended to investigate, one of these days. But what with one thing and another – but mostly covid – like many of us, I’d been forced to put my travel plans on the back burner. This picturesque part of South Wales, so close to home, where I’d once camped as a teenager under the shadow of Pen y Fan, had faded away into the recesses of the imagination. And there it stayed until spring of this year when, feeling the urge to see something beyond the five-mile radius of home, I decided it was high time to get on the road or, more accurately, the canal again. Although I’ve travelled the world perhaps more than some and should be used to it by now, I’ve always disliked airports with something of a passion mixed with phobia. With this in mind, I decided that the first time I crawled out from under the lockdown stone would involve something considerably less ambitious than running the gauntlet of Heathrow or Gatwick. Besides, I reasoned, what could be more fun than exploring on your doorstep?
I looked at the GPS again and saw that the distance to my destination was a mere 49 miles, and I remembered the old saying in the exploration fraternity that anywhere is a long way off providing you start on the other side of the world. Which means that to people in the southern hemisphere, I was about to embark on an expedition of epic proportions. Encouraged, I made a checklist of all the advantages of hiring a narrowboat and spending a week messing about on this famous old canal. First, there was no need for a passport, no nail-biting against-the-clock dash to the airport, no check-in, currency exchange or tedious delays before sitting in economy folded up like a paper clip waiting for a tray of poison to arrive. I could load the car with any amount of provisions, take as many clothes as I wanted, a fishing rod, plenty of heavy camera gear, those books I’d been meaning to read and a radio to listen to the cricket on. In short, it felt more like going camping. So I chucked all the kit in the car and rolled down the hill to Mainwaring’s in Sketty, where I bought a quart of maggots and a few other supplies and had a chat with the man behind the counter, who turned out to be one of my teachers at Olchfa many years ago. With his advice on how to catch dace, perch and carp on the Mon and Brec ringing in my ears, I pointed the vehicle’s nose towards the hills, happy that my forthcoming adventure was going to be as easy as picking apples off a tree.
As I drove through farmland peering at the majestic peaks of Old Red Sandstone that I remembered from my A-level geology field trips with Mr Burton, I became ever more convinced that I was right to be in an optimistic frame of mind, because the whole process of hiring a narrowboat could not be easier. When I arrived at Cambrian Cruisers, their helpful people sat me down and patiently explained a few do’s and don’ts, gave me a couple of disclaimer forms to sign along with a long serious sermon on where all the pubs and restaurants on the canal were to be found. Feeling myself tuning out, I was grateful when I was handed a small and (what turned out to be) extremely useful canal guide and was informed that once I’d unloaded the car I would be on my way. The process took less than an hour, and I smiled inwardly at the thought that if I’d been at an airport I’d currently be craning my neck scanning the departure board and seething with rage at the inevitable delay to my flight. Eager to get moving, I hopped on to a lovely narrowboat called Ffion – all smartly painted for the season in primrose yellow and bottle green – while one of the lads steered us out of the basin and pointed me in the direction of Pontypool. In the distance the mighty Pen y Fan rose out of the crisp blue sky, its upper slopes dusted with snow. New-born lambs bleated in the spring morning, red kites circled on the rising air and a heron flapped its unhurried way along to nowhere in particular.
Although all the literature, advertisements and websites will enthusiastically tell you that a trip down the canal is for everyone, be assured that this is not the case. If you feel carsick at the thought of being without the internet for more than five minutes, life on the canal is not for you. If you can’t bear the thought of hours of silence with only the occasional moorhen or mallard for company, then you’ll probably prefer a city break. If wearing the same clothes day-in day-out gives you the creeps – it doesn’t matter how many spares you pack, unless they get wet, you won’t change – then you probably need to think again. If cooking your own food in a tiny galley feels like hard work, sleeping on a gently rocking boat makes you nauseous, or having to make your own entertainment in the evenings seems a bit lame, then life on the canal is definitely for other people. If the challenge of working out how to get through locks feels more like a maths exam than a cool outdoor pursuit, or learning how to steer, read a map or moor up for the night is in the realm of somebody else’s problem, then you might want to think about a hotel break by the pool. If on the other hand, travelling at two miles per hour – overtaken by joggers, dogwalkers and even mothers with prams – is more your speed, you’re in for a whale of a time. If you enjoy birdwatching, fishing or just synchronising with the rhythms of the countryside, then a treat awaits you.
I know there will be readers that want me to give details about every bridge, lock, tunnel, wharf and watering hole. But there’s no need to here, because this is all covered in the meticulous Mon and Brec Canal Guide that tells you everything you need to know and lots more besides. And while this manual in its various editions represents a long-established authority on the industrial history, wildlife, points of interest, place names and all the rest of it, what it can’t help you with are the travel insights that you can only discover for yourself. First of which is that pootling along a canal is one of the great moments in life: time stands still in the fresh air, awakening in you the spirit of a pre-digital world. You stop worrying about networks, Bluetooth, social media, battery levels (at one point I mislaid my phone for several days and realised that I could live without it). Second is that you stop rushing: although you start out with deadlines and targets for your daily progress, after a short while these become increasingly irrelevant. You begin to realise that one stretch of the canal is just as scenic as any other, so why hurry? Third is that you do things that are so completely different from everyday life in the modern world that you start to think differently about your surroundings. I spent hours wondering why there’s a canal on the side of a mountain, before looking it up in my guidebook. Way above the River Usk, the old Mon and Brec feels like a canal in the sky, threading its way through the hills, connecting fragments of ancient rivers and even at one point a castle moat. Far away from, and above the hum of road traffic, it dawns on you that the modern world hasn’t really rescued us from anything: it just makes a lot of noise and distracts us from thinking about what really matters. Which for me was fishing. But I soon gave that up as a bad job, as I faced the reality of the situation. For a fair-weather fisherman, the canal was simply too cold to enjoy. I didn’t catch a single fish and I couldn’t have cared less.
For all these poetic musings, there was one absolutely critical factor to keep on top of: when to turn around. And as the time approached for swinging the 55-foot, 20-ton Ffion through 180 degrees, the glaring importance of the moment started to loom large. Of course, there are plenty of practical considerations to keep you busy while contemplating nature – checking the oil and water, clearing gunk out of the propellor and so on – but turning around is where you need your sharpest wits about you. This is because for all the fine talk of time standing still, there remains what journalists call a ‘drop dead’ deadline: that of returning the boat to the basin. I’m not sure why I made the assumption, but it seemed reasonable to turn back after half of the allotted time. I looked at the map in search of a winding hole, a rare stretch of canal wide enough to turn in, usually with a large indent in the bank where you pivot the prow. Such a place was hours away, and when I eventually fetched up, a strong headwind meant that the flat-hulled Ffion simply refused to turn, with the result that she had to be manhandled around with bargepoles in a process made hugely embarrassing by the presence of narrowboats waiting to pass. An hour later, sweating like a coal miner, I had Ffion pointing in the right direction battling against a wind that was to buffet and thwart my every waking moment all the way back to Pencelli. When reached a place named Windy Corner, I realised that the boatmen of yore who hauled coal and rock, livestock and fodder up and down the canal all day along had called it that for a reason. It was also where I discovered the journey home takes much longer than the outward section.
Although I got back to Cambrian Cruisers with time to spare, retracing my route was hardly the peaceful, reflective sequence of events that had made the first few days so dreamily pleasant. When I’d figuratively set sail, I was captain of the first narrowboat of the season, with no traffic ahead. But travelling home there were countless oncoming vessels to contend with. By the time I’d reached the magnificent Llangynidr Locks – that on my southbound journey seemed such a marvel of bygone engineering – there were long queues. As I waited for my slot, I thought about how the canal really is another world, and when I gave Ffion back, I was sorry to say goodbye. I was even more sorry to go ashore, the dry land hard under my feet. Compared with the boat, the car was horribly loud and fast, while the almost empty A465 seemed like the M25 at Heathrow. By the time I could see Swansea Bay in the distance, I was ready to return to Pencelli to ask if they could fit me in for another week.