Travel review: Wonderful week on the Welsh waterways exploring Monmouthshire and Brecon canal on a canal boat

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is one of the prettiest waterways in the UKThe Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is one of the prettiest waterways in the UK
The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is one of the prettiest waterways in the UK

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Gareth Butterfield spends a memorable week navigating one of the prettiest inland waterways in the country on a hired canal boat

If you speak to any seasoned boater about the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal, they'll rave about it.

I've learned this since I booked a week-long trip up and down a small section of this fascinating rural navigation, which cuts a swathe through the countryside of South Wales from Brecon to Pontypool

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I'm not new to canal boating. I've spent plenty of time on "the cut", but the "Mon and Brec" is an isolated, landlocked 35-mile stretch of waterway that attracts more than its fair share of people taking to the water in a hire boat.

And that was what my wife and I had planned during a warm week in May, with our two dogs and our pet lizard in tow, beginning our journey at Goytre Wharf, an historic highlight of the 35-mile stretch that serves as a base for ABC Canal Boat Holidays, part of the Drifters group.

Waiting for us when we arrived on a Monday afternoon was "Red Naped Finch", a 47ft narrow boat with a cruiser stern, a double bedroom, and all the bits and bobs on board we'd need for a mid-week cruise up and down the canal. Even down to bedding, towels, waterproofs and - to my wife's delight - a cafetiere.

Red Naped Finch came with all the items you would need for a week on the waterRed Naped Finch came with all the items you would need for a week on the water
Red Naped Finch came with all the items you would need for a week on the water

After a safety briefing, a few simple lessons in boatcraft and a gentle, accompanied introduction to the first stretch heading out of the wharf, we were on our own. Quietly chugging past the fields, houses, forests and farms that flank the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

Looking resplendent soaked in the sunshine we were blessed with, this canal cuts through a glorious variety of landscapes, with glimpses of the Brecon Beacons and plenty of villages off the towpath to explore.

From Goytre Wharf, heading West towards Brecon, there are very few obstacles in your way and cruising is a gentle, straight-forward affair until you reach a set of locks just south of Talybont.

That said, such is the nature of the landscape it weaves its way through, the canal is peppered with tight twists and turns. It's not especially narrow, but the bridges often precede a sharp, blind bend, and the lengthy Ashford Tunnel is an interesting challenge.

While the canal itself does feel fairly wide compared to some, it's very shallow in places and, although it's blissfully quiet, passing oncoming boats sets you up with the occasional challenge.

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There are some challenging stretches on the Mon and Brec, but it's wide enough, and relatively quietThere are some challenging stretches on the Mon and Brec, but it's wide enough, and relatively quiet
There are some challenging stretches on the Mon and Brec, but it's wide enough, and relatively quiet

As we were talked through the boat's standard equipment back at Goytre Wharf, we were advised we would definitely become accustomed to using our barge pole, as getting stuck quite a distinct possibility. And, sure enough, we learned just how shallow the canal is within a few hours of setting off.

Becoming unstuck is an acquired skill, it's fair to say. A generous use of the throttle coupled with some well-judged heaving from your crew member soon has you out of the pickle, but it's important not to set yourself a tight schedule on a canal holiday, because the challenges keep turning up, and delays are inevitable.

If you're the sort of person who likes to while away a holiday on a deck chair with a Pina Colada in one hand and a gritty novel in the other, canal boats probably aren't for you.

While you certainly set your own pace, and the only pace you can do will be slow, it's always going to be an active excursion. Locks can be a workout, steering with the tiller is quite hard going at times, and even just mooring up is a physical process.

There are a few locks to navigate, but they're fairly easy to workThere are a few locks to navigate, but they're fairly easy to work
There are a few locks to navigate, but they're fairly easy to work

The skills are quickly mastered though, and the rewards are plenty. Picturesque overnight stop-offs in the quiet countryside will present themselves regularly and, although there were fewer canalside pubs along our particular route than we've seen on other canals, there are some lovely towns and villages to walk to.

Our favourites were Gilwern and Crickhowell. The latter requires a bit of a walk from the towpath, but it's a pretty, rural route and you arrive in a gorgeous little town, with all the shops you need, a few pubs and a friendly, historic feel about the place. Its setting off the River Usk, in the shadow of some impressive mountains and wrapped around the impressive churchyard at St Edmund's Church, makes Crickhowell a very memorable stop-off, especially on the sunny day we were treated to.

It was the nicest stop on the route, but that's not to say Gilwern is any less endearing. Two decent pubs, a couple of shops, a post office and petrol station down the road, and a wonderful gift shop selling canal paraphernalia made this a welcome retreat, and we very much enjoyed a canalside meal at the Towpath Inn, arguably the nicest pub on our route.

Talybont-on-Usk was the turning point in our trip. It's a small settlement with more than its fair share of pubs, along with a small shop and cafe. The canal towers over the bulk of the village on an embankment, and I gather there are some wonderful walks in all directions. But we'd made it a fair way up the canal, and we had a fair way to get back down again, so we didn't stop for long.

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Boating in the sunshine is such a pleasureBoating in the sunshine is such a pleasure
Boating in the sunshine is such a pleasure

To the east of Talybont is a tunnel and four locks, which we encountered twice, once on the way up, once on the way down. The locks are deep and narrow, but easy to operate, and we were helped by Canal and River Trust volunteers on our return leg.

Ashford Tunnel is the longest of two tunnels on the canal, at 343 metres long, and it's very low in places, as are a few of the bridges. You'll find yourself ducking at the tiller on several occasions.

It could be argued, then, that the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal is not an ideal choice for beginners, but all UK canals present their own unique challenges, and any journey takes time to master.

It's probably fairer to suggest that, once you've spent a few days on the Mon and Brec, you'll be ready for any canal on the network, because you encounter a little bit of everything.

Getting stuck is a bit of an inevitability, but not a disaster. Bumping into bridges will happen. They're narrow and tricky to navigate. And passing an oncoming boat might result in you having to make a dive into the branches on the bank, but it's all part of the fun.

When all's said and done, canal boats cruise along at walking pace, so it's hard to get anything disastrously wrong, and that slow progress will ultimately help to slow you down, providing the perfect tonic to a life in the fast lane back on dry land.

Hiring a boat is the perfect introduction to this wonderful way of life, and the fleet of boats offered by ABC at Goytre Wharf have everything you need to soak it up in comfort.

All you need, then, is time to enjoy it. Whether you set out to clock up the miles and reach a target destination, or whether you'd rather go with the flow and take a more relaxed approach, giving yourself time to chill out on the towpath between cruises, you're free to make that choice.

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Pets are always made welcome by ABC Boat HirePets are always made welcome by ABC Boat Hire
Pets are always made welcome by ABC Boat Hire

And it's the freedom of a boating holiday I've become absolutely hooked on. You might well be confined to a bi-directional strip of water, but as the nature rolls by you feel completely immersed in it. And if you fancy exploring it further, you just moor up and take a stroll.

Boating might be a physical activity at times, but you're constantly rewarded with the peace and quiet of the countryside as soon as you turn the engine off. And the Monmouth and Breconshire Canal is one of the best waterways for peace and quiet I've ever been on.

As challenging as it might be for the uninitiated, you'll soon master the skills required to make the most of it and it's lots of fun.

And it will quickly dawn on you why everyone loves the Mon and Brec. I've definitely joined its fan club.