Embrace the Slow Pace Aboard a Canal Boat in Wales

Reading Time: 

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 navigtion that cuts a swathe through the countryside of South Wales from Brecon to Pontypool.

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 considered among the best and most beautiful cruising waterways in Britain, and one that attracts more than its fair share of people taking to the water in a hire boat. And that’s what my wife and I had planned for a warm week in May. With our two dogs and our pet lizard in tow, we began our journey at Goytre Wharf, an historic highlight and base for ABC Canal Boat Holidays, part of the Drifters group.

From there, it was (mostly) smooth sailing at a pace that provided the perfect tonic to our life in the fast lane back on dry land.


Canal boat wales

The Red-naped Finch was home for a week for the author, his wife, their two dogs and a lizard

Welcome Aboard

Waiting for us when we arrived on a Monday afternoon was “Red Naped Finch”, a 47f-foot 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 cafetière.

After a safety briefing, a few simple lessons in boat etiquette 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.

Running mostly within the Brecon Beacons National Park, which covers more than 500 square miles of South Wales, the canal looked resplendent soaked in the sunshine we were blessed with and cuts through a glorious variety of landscapes, too, giving us glimpses of the Brecon Beacons and plenty of villages off the towpath to explore.

Twists, Turns & Tunnels

From Goytre Wharf, heading West towards Brecon, there are very few obstacles in the way and the cruising is a gentle, straight-forward affair. As it weaves its way through green and idyllic landscapes, 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 (343 metres long and 3.6 metres wide) is an interesting challenge.

While the canal itself does feel fairly wide compared to some, it’s shallow in places and, although it’s blissfully quiet, passing oncoming boats sets you up with the occasional white-knuckle encounter as does navigating set of locks just south of Talybont.


Wales canal boat

Navigating the narrow Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal


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 obstacles keep turning up, and delays are inevitable.

A Day in the Life

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. 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.


Wales Canal boating

Dogs and even lizards are welcome aboard 


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.

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 on the canal. It’s very low in places, as are a few of the bridges, so. 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.


Canal boat Wales

Getting stuck is inevitable and bumping into bridges will happen—and it’s all part of the fun

Make Time for Canal Boating 

When all’s said and done, canal boats cruise along at walking pace, so it’s hard to get anything disastrously wrong. This slow progress will ultimately help you slow down too, 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 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.
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. It will quickly dawn on you why everyone loves the Mon and Brec.

I’ve definitely joined its fan club.


Wales Canal boat

Pets and humans enjoy the slow-paced life of canal boating

How to Hire a Canal Boat

Drifters offers the choice of more than 550 boats from 45 locations in England, Scotland and Wales. Plan your floating holiday at

For more information about travel to Wales, click here


Be Seeing You In: Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, Wales

Good to know: Unlike UK roads, boats keep to the right on the waterways

WOW! Factor: The canal passes through a World Heritage Site, which contains industrial landmarks such as the Big Pit Mining Museum

Tip: Planning to go for it? Read more canal boating tips and watch a video here


Author bio: Gareth Butterfield

Find more travel inspiration at BeSeeingYou

Gareth Butterfield
Gareth Butterfield has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, and has worked on pretty much everything from hard news to consumer features. He specialises in motoring, travel, and technology and currently works as a freelance writer for a selection of UK titles.
He lives in the Derbyshire countryside with his wife, two dogs and a pet lizard and he's at his happiest when he's on holiday with all of them in his motorhome or his boat. Yes, even the lizard.

Related Articles

Top 10 Travel Tips for 2024

Get the top 10 Tips to increase the awesomeness factor of your next UK Travel Adventure. You will also receive updates on new and amazing places to travel to.


Subscribe Now 


Become a BeSeeingYou Member

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Top10 Travel Tips for 2023

Top 10 Travel Tips for 2023

Get the top 10 Tips to increase the awesomeness factor of your next Travel Adventure. You will also receive updates on new and amazing places to travel to.


Subscribe Now 


Become a BeSeeingYou Member

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Top10 Travel Tips for 2023

Top 10 Travel Tips for 2023

Get the top 10 Tips to increase the awesomeness factor of your next Travel Adventure. You will also receive updates on new and amazing places to travel to.


Subscribe Now 


Become a BeSeeingYou Member

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This