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Middle Usk Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Middle Usk Valley Landscape


The extent to which river transport may have been employed in early times in the middle and upper reaches of the Usk is poorly documented though the use of water craft for fishing, including the use of dugout boats and coracles, is documented on Llangorse Lake from about the 9th century onwards.

The principal lines of communication by land within the historic landscape area have been determined by the topography, notably the axis of the valleys of the Usk and Llynfi and the major blocks of upland, and successive Roman roads, medieval routes, turnpike roads, canals and railways and modern trunk roads have all tended to follow broadly the same routes.


As noted above, the earliest transport and communication system of which there is known evidence is the network of strategic Roman roads which focus on the fort at Brecon Gaer, to the west of Brecon, established in the later 1st century. Road radiate outwards from the fort linking with forts and major settlements elsewhere. The lines of road are known southwards in the direction of Ystradgynlais (Powys), northwards towards Llandrindod Wells, south-eastwards along the Usk valley to Abergavenny (Monmouthshire), north-eastwards to Kenchester (Herefordshire) and south-westwards to Llandovery (Carmarthenshire). Parts of the course of each of these roads are known from fieldwork or excavation though other stretches are more speculative. Inscribed Roman milestones indicate that the road between Brecon Gaer and Llandovery was maintained into at least the later 3rd century and the road between Brecon Gaer and Abergavenny up to at least about the middle of the 4th century.

The Roman road network probably ceased to be maintained and gradually went out of use in the early medieval period, in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, probably to be replaced by a less regular network of unpaved routes and more minor tracks linking larger and smaller nucleated settlements and scattered farmsteads. From at least the late 11th century most of the more major routes have focused on the town of Brecon which became the major market town and commercial centre for the region as well as a staging point for those travelling to and from west Wales via the Usk valley.

A system of drovers’ roads probably became established across Wales from later medieval times onwards, and particularly from their heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries, along which cattle were driven in herds to markets in the midland and southern counties of England, as far afield as London. One of these traditional routes crossed the historic landscape area from west to east, running from the head of the Swansea Valley across the northern flanks of the Brecon Beacons from Hoel Senni to Llanfrynach and from there along the Usk valley to Monmouth via Crickhowell and Abergavenny, more or less along the route of the modern A40.

Improvements were made to many of the major roads in the historic landscape area during the course of the later 18th and early 19th century as a result of the creation of turnpike roads largely from the efforts of the Breconshire Agricultural Society whose members were keen to encourage an expansion in commercial activity. An Act of Parliament was passed in 1767 for the widening and repair of the principal roads in the county of Brecknock and the setting up of a system of tolls and gates and toll-houses, which were consolidated into a single trust by a second Act in 1830. By the 1830s, for example, toll houses had been set up on each of the principal roads out of Brecon — on the road north to Llandefaelog, the roads north-east to Llan-ddew and Felinfach, the south-east to Crickhowell, south-west to Merthyr, and west to Sennybridge and Llandeilo.

As a consequence of the improvements to the turnpike roads coach services from London via Gloucester, Monmouth and Abergavenny were extended from Brecon to Carmarthen and Milford Haven in west Wales. Coaching inns were established in Brecon for travellers and large warehouses to accommodate the goods being transported by heavy waggons were erected in the town near St Mary’s Church.

Some notable road bridges of medieval and later date spanning rivers and streams survive within the area. Stone bridges in the town of Brecon include the Castle Bridge of medieval origin and the Priory Bridge of early 19th-century date spanning the Honddu river, the Usk Bridge dating from 1563, and early 19th-century Pont-ar-Darell bridge across the Afon Tarell in Llanfaes. The medieval Watergate Bridge across the Honddu at Brecon was replaced by the present iron bridge in 1873. A series of stone bridges across the Nant Brân stream on the western edge of the historic landscape area include two stone bridges, the late 18th-century Aber Brân Bridge and the early 19th-century Pont-ar-Fran bridge. Other noteworthy stone road bridges in the area include the probably 18th-century Lock Bridge across the Usk at Brynich, the late 18th-century bridge across the Caerfanell stream at Talybont-on-Usk, and Felindre Bridge across the Afon Cynrig next to the former Abercynrig Mill.

The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal

The Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal Company was formed following an Act of Parliament of 1793. The section between Gilwern and Llangynidr was opened in 1797, being extended westwards to Talybont-on-Usk in 1799 and finally to Brecon in 1800, designed by the canal engineer Thomas Dadford junior. The canal was finally linked to the coast by the Monmouthshire Canal in 1812 which took it as far as Newport, when it became 42 miles long and was renamed the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Major works included the canal lock at Brynich, the stone-built aqueduct carrying the canal across the river Usk at Brynich, and tunnel just outside the historic landscape area, to the south-east of Talybont-on-Usk. There is a second, rebuilt aqueduct across the Nant Menasgin, north-west of Pencelli and a modern marina at Ty-newydd. Between Talybont-on-Usk and Pencelli are a series of lift bridges, most of which have been replaced or substantially repaired. Many of the original road bridges have been replaced by more modern concrete structures though a number of original stone and brick-built humpbacked bridges survive. The major goods carried northbound to Brecon included coal, iron and limestone from the south Wales coalfield. Wood for use in the collieries was carried in the reverse direction. Much of carrying trade was by the Brecon Boat Company, originally by horse-drawn barges, coal being sold at wharves along the line and at Brecon.

The canal was associated with two horse-drawn tramroad systems. An original scheme to build a branch canal from the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal to Hay-on-Wye and Whitney and there to join the river Wye, was never realised, and was replaced by a tramroad built from the canal at Brecon to Hay, which opened in 1818, and subsequently on to Kington and Eardisley, Herefordshire. The Brinore (Bryn-oer) Tramroad, built in 1814-15, began at the canal wharf at Talybont-on-Usk and running 12 miles southwards outside the historic landscape area to the Trevil limestone quarry and the Bryn-oer colliery near Tredegar.

The canal was taken over by the Great Western Railway in 1880, much of the iron and coal trade by this date having been taken over by the railway companies. Commercial trade continued into the 20th century, finally ceasing in about 1933. Much of the Monmouthshire branch of the canal was abandoned thereafter, but the stretch between Brecon and Abergavenny remained largely open. Restoration work between 1968 and 1970 led to the reopening of the canal to pleasure craft from Pontypool to Brecon, a distance of 33 miles. Today the canal is generally called the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal.

Tramroads and Railways

As noted above, the opening of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal provided the impetus for the construction of several horse-drawn tramroads in the first two decades of the 19th century which carried materials to and from canal-side wharfs. The Brinore Tramroad provided an important link with the limestone quarries and collieries of the south Wales coalfield. The Hay Tramroad, completed in 1818, enabled coal, coke and lime to be carried onwards from the canal terminus at Brecon on to Hay-on-Wye, Kington and finally Eardisley in Herefordshire.

The Hay Tramroad continued in existence for 40 years, competing with the improved turnpike roads for traffic. In 1862 the tramway was superseded by the Hereford, Hay and Brecon Railway Company which reused much of the former course of the tramway, though traces of its former and embankments and culverts survive in places, as in the case of the section just to the south-east of Llanfihangel Tal-y-llyn where a former loop of the tramroad is still visible. Construction of the railway involved the digging of over 500 metres of the now-sealed railway tunnel to the west of Tal-y-llyn. The railway was linked to the Mid Wales Railway line northwards to Llanidloes in 1865s at the Three Cocks junction. The Hereford, Hay and Brecon Railway Company was amalgamated with the Midland Railway Company in 1874 which subsequently became the Mid Wales Railway, which eventually closing in the 1962.

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway which opened in 1865 branched from the Hereford, Hay and Brecon Railway at the Tal-y-llyn junction, east of Brecon, linking southwards to Merthyr and the industrial valleys of south Wales via Talybont-on-Usk, superseding the Brinore Tramroad. The Neath and Brecon Railway running westwards to Neath via Aberbrân was completed by 1872. Both the Brecon and Merthyr line and the Brecon and Neath lines closed in 1963. Attempts to link up the Usk valley in the Crickhowell area by railway with a junction at Tal-y-llyn were considered but abandoned before any construction work was undertaken.

Much of the course of the former railway lines within the historic landscape area survive as distinct landscape feature marked by embankments, cuttings, tracks, field boundaries, and bridge abutments. In many areas the former railway lines simply cut across earlier field systems of medieval or later date, though it is evident that in some areas that significant boundary changes were made following the construction of the railways, most notably in the area just to the west of Brecon. Outside the town of Brecon itself, within the historic landscape area there were formerly stations at Cradoc, west of Brecon, on the Neath and Brecon line, at Tal-y-llyn at the junction between the Brecon and Merthyr and Mid Wales lines and at Talybont-on-Usk on the Brecon and Merthyr line, of which little trace now survives. Intact railway bridges survive at Pennorth and Talybont-on-Usk.

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