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Living in Bristol I’m lucky to have access to the fantastic countryside of South Wales, which has become even more accessible now that the Severn Bridge tolls have been lifted and it’s free to cross Over the bridge to Wales. On a recent weekend break I explored the industrial heritage of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal which offers easy walking, combined with a fascinating insight into the coal and iron ore of South Wales and the canals that were used to transport it to Newport.
A guide to walking the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal near Newport, Wales
The Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal in South Wales was once a hub of industry, with two major branches built to transport the rich minerals of iron ore and coal from the South Wales Valleys to Newport, where they could be shipped around the world.
These days the canal is a peaceful place, with a northern branch from Brecon to Pontypool offering canal boat hire and the Crumlin arm closer to Newport making a great walking trail that connects with the River Usk. The Mon & Brec as it’s affectionately known, makes a great half day outing to walk from the Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre to Roman Caerleon and is only just “Over the bridge to Wales” from Bristol where I live.
Our walk starts at the Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre
Our walk started at the Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre, which is open daily with a large car park and café, making it an ideal point from which to explore the section of canal that runs down to Newport, where the two branches of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal meet.
The centre is named for the fourteen locks known as the Cefyn flight, that are a feature of the canal between here and Newport. Two of the locks have been restored and the restoration of the canal is in progress with events, walks and education days running throughout the year.
Even for those who don’t want to walk far, the Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre makes a great place to stop, with a large pond with ducks, from which you can walk in either direction along the canal.
I joined one of the free public walks that take each month from the visitor centre, covering different routes and sections of the canal system. Our group of around 20 people was led by canal wardens Marc and Liz and centre manager Kate, who were able to keep our group on track and explain about the canal’s history.
The locks give a fascinating glimpse into the coal mining heritage of this area, that created enormous wealth for mine owners and brought prosperity to the whole of South Wales, although most of the money stayed at the top of the chain. At the end of the 18th century as coal production grew, waterways were seen as a much better method than roads to move the raw materials and the canals in Wales were dug by hand, using an enormous amount of manual labour armed with only spades and pickaxes.
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Our walk along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
In 1795 work started on the Crumlin arm of the canal and the drop in level of 167 feet within half a mile meant that a series of steps be built in the canal. Each step was marked by a lock that the boats could pass through, although the process of filling and emptying each lock must have been very time consuming. At the height of its use through the early 19th century, boats would transport foods down to Newport during the day and then be hauled up the canal empty throughout the night by the light of gas lamps.
Walking along this section of the canal, with steep stone sides and water cascading over the step of each lock, it was difficult to believe that boats could pass through such a narrow width of water – I guess they were known as narrowboats for a reason!
The canal was used until 1938 for working boats and until the 1960s there were still pleasure boats running along a section of the canal, but after that the locks fell into disrepair. The section of the walk that took us from the centre to the end of the canal near Newport is an easy and mostly flat walk on tarmac paths, and in the latter part of the canal walk we were running parallel with the M4 with some road noise.
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More info: Fourteen Locks Visitor Centre Website | Address:Cwm Lane, Rogerstone, Newport NP10 9GN | Open Daily 10am – 4pm|Instagram @fourteenlockscanalcentre | Twitter @FourteenLocks | Facebook @fourteenlockscanalcentre | Parking £1 for 4 hours, £3 for 5 hours, £5 for all day
Walking through Newport to join the River Usk
Although the canal once continued to join the River Usk near Newport, it is now blocked off so we walked through a less attractive section of paths under the motorway and through residential areas, until we reached the River Usk that meanders towards Carleon, our end point for this walk.
Looking for somewhere to stay? Check out these Hotels in Newport
Walking by the River Usk near Newport
The path by the river was very peaceful as the landscape opened up from the enclosed canal path to the wide flowing river and open skies along the river bank, overhung by bare winter branches. This section of path is also a cycleway, so we had to take care as cyclists whizzed by us as we walked.
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As the river curved, the path turned into a long, open footbridge, built above the floodplain of the river and we could see the waterlogged fields to one side, with the river on the other.
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The views here were beautiful and I also enjoyed stopping at the Portrait Bench, with metal sculptures of the people who inhabited this lush green landscape centuries ago. The river meandered onwards but soon the path turned away from the river bank to cut through to Caerleon, known for its Roman Baths and other remains that are a popular visitor attraction of the town.
The rest of the walkers in our group were planning to stop for lunch at the Hanbury Arms, a 16th century coaching inn overlooking the river, before returning by the same route to Fourteen Locks centre, although we were heading for lunch at The Priory Hotel.
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Lunch at The Priory Hotel in Caerleon
Our walk from Fourteen Locks had taken around 3 hours and we were definitely ready for a break and some lunch, which was planned at The Priory Hotel in Caerleon. The boutique hotel was formerly a 12th century Cistercian Priory and its old stone walls, oak panelling and stained glass partitions oozed with character and history.
The front of the hotel facing the main road looks positively medieval with its arched stone windows, but from the large car park and gardens at the back you can see how the buildings have been added onto with Georgian bay windows. The hotel has a large bar and restaurant that features local and seasonal produce, so it’s an excellent place to stop for refreshments, even if you are not staying there.
A striking feature of the restaurant is the chilled counter full of delicious looking fresh meat and fish, from which you can make a menu selection. Wales is known for its superb lamb and beef and the local produce here really looked delicious.
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The order is taken at the counter from the menu shown on the blackboards, with a good value lunchtime special menu from which we chose with 2 courses only £13. I chose the crispy lamb with chilli jam, tasty pieces of lamb belly coated in crispy breadcrumbs, followed by two generous trout fillets fried in butter with new potatoes.
We loved the ambiance of the Priory Hotel, with friendly service and stylish interiors even though the prices were quite reasonable. In summer tables are set out on the terrace overlooking the lawns at the back, which would be a lovely place to have drinks or lunch when the weather is fine. Although we didn’t stay here, it would be a stylish choice to base yourself for visiting the area, with 27 boutique style bedrooms from £85.
More info: The Priory Hotel Website |Check prices and book for The Priory Hotel in Caerleon | Address:High Street, Caerleon, Newport, Wales NP18 1AG | Instagram @the_priory_caerleon | Twitter @PrioryCaerleon | Facebook @ThePrioryCaerleon | Check out more Hotels in Caerleon
Hotels near Newport: The Parkway Hotel and Spa
As I was planning some more walking on the Newport Wetlands the following day, I stayed at the Parkway Hotel and Spa Newport, a lovely 4 stay hotel at Cwmbran near Newport that’s well located for exploring the area.
The low rise, modern hotel offers a large car park at the front and drops away at the back overlooking open lawns and woodland, where there’s an intriguing Shepherd’s Hut as one of the accommodation options. The four star hotel is a popular choice for locals who love using the spa facilities, business guests from nearby offices and leisure visitors looking for an extremely comfortable base to tour the area.
The Parkway Hotel and Spa is undergoing a gradual uplift and refurbishment and I was lucky to be staying in one of the gorgeous Penthouse Suites called Manobier which has been redecorated in the new scheme. I loved the restful, muted colours that seemed to reflect the peaceful Welsh countryside and the elegant, contemporary furnishings.
My extremely spacious double bedroom with walk in closet was matched by an equally large sitting room with sofa, easy chairs and TV. I loved the thoughtful touches like the complimentary sherry decanter and some miniature paperback books in case you wanted to cosy up with a good book.
My bathroom was huge and certainly had the Wow! factor, with a free standing roll top bath, twin sinks and walk in shower with stylish, contemporary fittings. After the morning’s walk it was a treat to sink into that bath in a cloud of delicious smelling White Company bubble bath.
Downstairs was an indoor swimming pool and spa with sauna and steam rooms which I could see from the reception area – I didn’t have time to try it out but it looked very inviting.
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Dinner and breakfast were in the Ravellos restaurant, which is light and attractive with floral displays and crisp white tablecloths. The restaurant has been awarded 2 AA rosettes and in the evening it features and excellent 3 course carvery menu for £26 with a choice of starters and deserts, while the main course was a carvery choice of beef, turkey or pork and a wide selection of roasties and other veg.
The menus features the fantastic Welsh produce, especially the local local lamb and beef and my starter was a panna cotta with broccoli and candied walnuts using the local Perl Las soft cheese. There’s a large, comfortable bar lounge with a real fire for guests and the Saturday night I was there featured live music from a pianist and singer.
I found the staff here were exceptionally warm, friendly and welcoming which is very typical of the cheerful welcome I found everywhere in South Wales. The Parkway Hotel and Spa is a great choice as a comfortable and convenient hotel if you are visiting the Newport area with easy road access to walking trails and the other attractions at Caerleon, Tredegar House and Newport Centre.
More info: Parkway Hotel and Spa website | Check prices and book forParkway Hotel and Spa Newport | Address:Cwmbran Drive, Cwmbran, Newport, Torfaen, NP443UW |Instagram @parkwayhotelspa | Twitter @ParkwayHotelSpa | Facebook @parkwayhotelspa | More Hotels in Newport
Other things to do in the Newport area
Visit Tredegar House with the National Trust
Run by the National Trust, Tredegar House was for 500 years the seat of the Morgan family, who grew wealthy through their farming land and as mine owners. The spacious 17th century reception rooms downstairs are designed to impress with gilt and family portraits, while upstairs the bedrooms are from the 1930s when the eccentric owner Evan Morgan held parties and entertained the fashionable set at Tredegar House.
An interesting exhibition that spanned several of the rooms told the story of the Newport Rising in 1839 when 10,000 Chartists marched on Newport to demand political change and a greater political say for the working man.
The Chartist leader John Frost wrote scathing public letters to Tredegar’s owner Sir Charles Morgan in the 1820s, blaming him for disregard of his tenant’s welfare and his extravagance at a time when the working classes were starting to demand a greater share of political power so that they could achieve better working conditions.
Below stairs you can see the servant’s quarters that are laid out in Victorian style when an army of house maids, butlers and cooks would keep the large house running. The gardens and grounds are open free to the public and there were lots of interesting events happening in the barns and the orangery as part of the St David’s Day celebrations when we visited, including some owls meeting the public from the Ebbw Vale Owl Sanctuary.
RSPB Wetlands Centre
The RSPB Wetland Centre near Newport is the place to start exploring the Newport Wetlands that stretch along the coast. It’s open daily with an excellent café that has a prime view of the ponds with birds flying and feeding, with knowledgeable staff and volunteers who can tell you all about the wildlife in the wetlands.
From the centre, walk out through the reedbeds or take one of the different nature trails and circular walks through the wetlands area. If you walk on to the sea wall, you’ll find the East Usk lighthouse that flashes to warn shipping entering the River Usk. From here you can walk along the sea wall itself that stops the wetlands from flooding and creates a controlled environment for wildlife.
More info: RSPB Wetlands Centre Website | Address: Nash Rd, Newport NP18 2BZ | Open Daily 9am – 5pm | Cafe open 10am – 4pm | Instagram: @rspb_love_nature | Twitter: @Natures_Voice | Facebook @RSPBLoveNature
The small town of Caerleon offers narrow streets and pretty Georgian houses, but its main claim to fame is as one of the three largest Roman garrisons of England and Wales. You can visit the site of the Roman Baths, to see the outdoor swimming pool and the remains of the bath houses, while learning about life in Roman Wales.
Also down the road in Caerleon is the Roman Museum where all the artefacts found in the archaeological excavations are on display, including a collection of 88 engraved gemstone from rings that were found in the drains of the Roman Baths. You can also visit the open air site of the Roman amphitheatre and the foundations of the barracks where the soldiers lived nearby.
More info:Caerleon Roman Fortress and Baths Website| Address: High St, Caerleon, Newport NP18 1AE | Instagram @cadwcymruwales | Twitter @cadwwales | Facebook @CadwWales | Open daily 10am – 5pm | Adult £4.50 Family £12.20 | Pay and Display Car Park
Visitor information for visiting Newport and South Wales
How to get to Newport and the Fourteen Locks Centre
Driving: If you are driving from “Over the bridge” such as London, Bristol, Gloucestershire or other parts of the South West, you’ll probably approach on the M4 motorway and exit at Junction 27 near Newport. Then take the High Cross Road B4591 north and after half a mile turn right in to Cefn Walk (signposted Fourteen Locks). Go over the canal bridge, the Centre and its car park are on your right.
International: If flying into Wales from international or regional airports, the closest airport is Cardiff Airport. We recommend Skyscanner to plan flight routes and find the best prices.
This article was sponsored* by Over the Bridge to Wales who provided the hotel stay and experiences mentioned.
* More info on my policies page