Explore South Wales on foot with a Cicerone guidebook
Walking in the South Wales Valleys
by Mike Dunn
A walking guidebook with 32 day routes and 2 weekend backpacking routes (the Coed Morgannwg Way and Glamorgan Ridgeway) across the valleys, ridges and coast of South Wales. This now-green landscape has superb walking opportunities in an easily accessible area. Packed with Roman, Celtic and other historical interest. More...
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Cwm Clydach and the Swansea Canal
Start/Finish RSPB Cwm Clydach reserve, Lone Lane, Clydach (SS 683 026)
Distance 8 miles (13km)
Ascent 200m (655ft)
Map(s) Explorer 165
Public transport Bus 121 from Swansea to Craig Cefn Parc (hourly) passes the entrance to the RSPB reserve.
The undoubted highlight of this walk is the RSPB’s Cwm Clydach reserve, a delightful area of ancient deciduous woodland alongside the Lower Clydach River. There is also an attractive bridge at Pont Llechart, the lonely Unitarian chapel on the slopes of Mynydd Gellionnen, and the return to Clydach along the towpath of the Swansea Canal, largely disused since the 1930s but now recognised as a valuable leisure resource.
Start at the southern tip of the long and sinuous RSPB reserve, which occupies the deep, well-wooded valley of the Lower Clydach River. Take the wooded riverside path, crossing at the second bridge and turning left on to the Trussler Trail. The path becomes quite rough, eventually climbing away from the river to reach a bridleway just south of Ty-llwydyn Farm. Turn left here, following the lane to a junction a little way above Pont Llechart. The bird life is stunning: dippers and grey wagtail frequent the river, pied flycatchers and redpoll dart among the trees, and buzzards and, increasingly, red kites can be seen and heard overhead.
Drop down to inspect the sturdy bridge at Pont Llechart; there is room for a picnic beside the bridge, where the rushing water of the Nant Llwydyn joins the main river. Cross the bridge and take the minor road as it climbs eastwards, winding through woodland and then running along the edge of Mynydd Gellionnen, an area of classic flat upland common, grazed by both sheep and cattle. There are excellent views here across Cwm Clydach to the whale-backed hill of Mynydd Gelliwastad, an attractive area of common land with heather, bilberry and some woodland. On reaching the plateau, a bridleway leaves the road to the right. Take this broad, rutted track to arrive at the isolated Gellionnen Chapel in its remarkable setting on the edge of the common.
Gellionnen Chapel, often called the ‘white chapel’, was built in 1692 by Protestant dissenters at the junction of the old roads from Swansea to Brecon, and Ammanford to Neath. It was rebuilt in 1801, with the ancient Gellionnen Stone incorporated into the wall. The original stone is now in Swansea Museum, with a copy inserted into the chapel wall. The chapel has suffered because of its isolated position: astonishingly, its historic interior was attacked by vandals in 2008 and it is now being painstakingly restored by the congregation.
Follow the track – waterlogged at times – across the common, which has superb all-round vistas. Pass above the farmhouse of Eithrim (named after an 11th-century Catholic church that was built nearby on the site of a Celtic holy place) and reach the road at the south-west edge of the common. Turn right along the road, then left along a bridleway, which begins as a farm access road but becomes a green lane, descending between hedges.
For a while the going is rough, across exposed bedrock at times, but the path then contours along the hillside, before meeting a tarmac lane at a gate. Descend steeply as the lane enters the suburban village of Trebanos. Go straight across the main road by the Colliers Arms pub to reach the Swansea Canal on its sylvan shelf above the River Tawe.
Built between 1784 and 1798, the Swansea Canal ran for 16 miles (25.5km) to its terminus at Abercraf, rising some 115m by way of 36 locks. Its key role was to transport coal, iron and steel from the upper Tawe Valley to Swansea docks, but its prosperity was short-lived and the upper reaches of the canal were abandoned by the end of the 19th century. The canal remained open as far as Clydach until 1931, and was largely forgotten, except as a source of water for local industry, until its rebirth as a recreational resource.
Turn right alongside the canal and follow it southwards towards Swansea, initially along a narrow tarmac lane as the canal descends through two disused locks. The lock gates have been removed and replaced by little cascades but the collar and anchor straps of the bottom gates of the upper lock are still there. What follows is a delightful stretch of canal, with tall trees to the right and the flat floor of the Tawe Valley to the left. Later, the Tawe runs very close as the path follows a narrow causeway between the canal and river.
As the canal veers away from the river there is an attractive stretch through deciduous trees, running alongside a golf course and a park, and then under a dark road bridge. At this point the towpath has a suburban feel, which is enhanced when the canal suddenly disappears into a culvert and for 200m the path is diverted around an industrial site. Just as suddenly, the canal reappears and the towpath makes for Clydach Lock, crosses the B4291 and rounds a factory to arrive at the aqueduct which carries the canal impressively over the Lower Clydach River just before its confluence with the Tawe.
Cross the canal on the footbridge just before the aqueduct, turn left to reach the main road and take the riverside footpath on the far side, following the Lower Clydach River back to the start of the walk. The river can be seen tumbling down a rock barrier at Forge Fach, with an excellent leat leading from above the cascades to the old forge site. Finally, the path runs between riverside woodland and steep sandstone cliffs to arrive at the entrance to the reserve.