Thursday, 3 November 2016

76 The Swansea Canal

Step back to time when canal was key to industry

The imposing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO world heritage site, draws visitors’ attention to the Llangollen Canal, which it carries over the River Dee in North Wales.  Far less obvious, with only part of it surviving, is the Swansea Canal, for which Coedgwilym Park in Clydach is a good starting point to explore what remains.  To the south-west only a small section survives beyond the Mond Nickel Works, while to the north-east is the majority of the remaining five-and-a-half miles of what was a 16-mile long canal opened in October 1798. 

From when James Brindley completed the Bridgewater Canal in 1761, canals played a crucial part in the Industrial Revolution, even after the emergence of the railways.  By the 1830s Britain had about 4,250 miles of navigable inland waterways. 

After the opening of the Neath and Tennant canal in 1791, a public meeting was called to discuss a proposal for a canal to transport coal from the upper Swansea Valley to the port of Swansea.  Opinions differed as to whether the canal should lock into the river Tawe at Landore, or extend to near the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea, though either way as the principal landowner the Duke of Beaufort stood to benefit.  Canal engineer Thomas Sheasby was appointed to conduct a survey for a possible route.  On 23 May 1794 the Swansea Canal Act was passed, which also permitted connections to tramroads and canal branches - as with Pontardawe’s branch to the river.  Rather than using contractors, the canal was built by direct labour, with Charles Roberts being engineer in charge of the project, assisted by Sheasby.  The first section from Swansea to Godre'r Graig was opened in 1796, with the whole 16-mile length completed two years later.  Thirty-six locks enabled the Swansea Canal to ascend 372 feet from sea level at Swansea to the terminus at Hen Neuadd, near Abercrave in Breconshire.  The project was within budget, at a cost of £51,602.  Narrow boats 5’9” by 7’7” were designed so that two could pass on the canal, and these were often built at yards along the route.  The last one to be built on the canal was the 'Grace Darling' at the Godre'r Graig boatyard in 1918.   The narrow boats could carry 75 tons of coal, either for use by smelting industries in the Lower Swansea Valley, or for export.  Wharfs were built alongside the River Tawe at Swansea, so that cargo could be transferred from the narrow boats into ships.  

Inevitably rail transport brought about decline in canal usage, and in 1873 the Swansea Canal was sold to the Great Western Railway, though the canal remained profitable until 1895; from 1904 only the lower six miles continued in use.  The last commercial cargo - transporting coal from Clydach to Swansea - was carried on the Swansea Canal in 1931.  Horse-drawn boats were last recorded at Clydach in 1958, before the canal closed for navigation four years later, and the section south of Morriston was filled in.  But a section of five-and-a-half miles survives, from beside the Mond Nickel Works in Clydach to Ynysmeudwy, where the only surviving lock-keeper’s hut has been restored. 

The Swansea Canal Society was formed in 1981, and inspired by Clive Reed this voluntary group continues restoration and preservation of the canal.  A spokesperson pointed out that many of the canal’s bridges, aqueducts and locks are listed buildings or scheduled ancient monuments, and part of Swansea’s unique heritage.  As reported recently, members of the society aim to reinstate a section of the towpath which was covered up to make a council highways depot at Clydach in 1973. 

Along the towpath where two centuries ago a horse would have ambled pulling a narrow boat, people can now walk their dogs, cycle, jog and enjoy the scenery - even if the views cannot rival those from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.


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