Sunday, 18 December 2016

Before the Railway

Before the railways came the valleys were laced with canals. To feed the canals the side-valleys had horse-drawn tramways. If the mines were the black heart of industrial Wales, the canals and tramways were its veins and arteries – the coal-stained water was its blood.
The Monmouthshire canal ran through Abercarn on its way from Crumlin Wharf down to Malpas Junction and Newport Old Town Wharf. The canal opened in about 1799, carrying coal to the sea, and so to the world.
The Nant Carn springs to life on the mystical slopes of Twmbarlam, east of the Ebbw. At Cwmcarn there was a fine aqueduct on an embankment carrying the canal across the Nant Carn valley. Under it a culvert allowed the Nant Carn to flow into the Ebbw. In the late 18th century the embankment would have been the most impressive structure in the valley, standing like the walls of Troy over the meadows by the Ebbw.
To give the thirsty canal extra water, a reservoir was made by building a large earth dam across the lower Nant Carn valley just south east of St John’s church at Abercarn Fach. However, there are tales that the dam was poorly maintained, and there were planted the grim seeds of tragedy.
In the 19th century a flannel factory was built south west of the aqueduct and another was higher up the valley.
On the night of 14 July 1875 torrential rain fell on South Wales. The Nant Carn overflowed and the dam broke. A great flood raced south-westwards down the valley washing away the upper flannel factory and several cottages.
At the bottom of the valley a haystack jammed in the culvert under the canal embankment. The water could not escape, the level rose and then the embankment gave way, taking with it the road and part of the canal. The water from the canal added to the flood, which washed away the lower flannel factory. Beside Twyncarn Road a metal bench on the embankment is a memorial to the twelve people who lost their lives.

When I was a lad the canal still carved a derelict scar on the valley: still, black, lifeless.

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