There was a time when a heady brew of soot and lime and the saccharine scent of fresh horse muck sat heavy in the air above the Caerfanell river in south Powys.
Stone sleepers grumbled beneath load-bearing carts, hooves clapped on September mud, and crows – spooked by the hollers of rail workers – blew free from aged oaks, setting wing across the vale towards the floodplains of the Usk.
Responsible for all this industrial clamour was the eight-mile-long Brinore Tramroad, built in 1815 to carry limestone south from Trefil Quarry to the Rhymney Valley ironworks, and iron and coal north to Talybont-on-Usk. The latter, loaded on to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, then continued its journey by barge to the profitable markets of Brecon.
Life of a rail worker
There are few records of what life was like on the tramroad, but it would have been tough for both human and beast.
The wrought-iron carts, fully loaded, weighed over two tonnes each, and it was the job of the horse to keep the road moving. These equine engines had the strength to pull a loaded tram on the flat and an empty one uphill, lugging not only coal and limestone but wood and possibly even coffins from rural properties en route.
One report by the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children (1842) stated that “Hannah Jenkins (aged 21) works by the ton, and gets seven or eight shillings for herself and five shillings for her helper (aged 16). They work about 12 hours a day; they begin from six to eight o’clock in the morning, and leave off about six or eight o’clock in the evening.”
A short walk from Talybont-on-Usk along the Brinore Tramroad and back along the Caerfanell River in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
1.7miles/2.8km | 1 hour | easy
The tramroad functioned with little change until 1852, at which point Trefil Quarry was abandoned. Traffic began to fall and, despite reducing the tonnage rates in an attempt to reverse the decline, Brinore closed in the mid-1860s.
The stone-block sleepers that lay beneath the cast-iron rails can still be seen on the track today, half buried in mud and leaf litter. You can walk or cycle the old tramway from Talybont-on-Usk all the way to the Rhymney Valley. Alternatively, for a two-mile circular walk, park at Talybont-on-Usk (serviced by the X43, Brecon to Abergavenny bus) and follow the Taff Trail out of the village. This stretch of the trail was once part of the Brinore Tramroad.
2. Bridge the river
After half a mile, turn right onto the Usk Valley Walk just before Aber hamlet. Cross the Caerfanell River on a small footbridge, turning immediately right to leave the Usk Valley Walk. The footpath follows the river, passing through two fields before crossing a third, diagonally to the left, to a stone stile.
3. Tow return
Climb the stile to join the road. Turn right and follow the road for a few hundred metres to a bridge. Cross over the canal then walk the tow path back to the start.