Usk Valley Walk

by Christine Saul

This March I had the opportunity to get out of the office and update our route notes for the Usk Valley Walk. This trail, from Usk to Brecon, would be my ‘outdoor office’ for a few days.

Lying between the Brecon Beacons to the west and the Black Mountains to the east, the Usk Valley is a wide valley in the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park.  Often overlooked in favour of the more popular Wye Valley Walk, the Usk Valley Walk is just as spectacular. It passes through beautiful countryside, historic towns and villages and along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, often voted Britain’s prettiest canal.

Due to its efforts to reduce light pollution, the Brecon Beacons National Park was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve in 2012 — the first in Wales and only the fifth location in the world to be given this status at the time.  On a clear night, you can see the Milky Way.

Departing UskUsk Valley Walk: Usk

The walk starts from the historic market town of Usk with its Norman Castle. Usk Castle is actually in someone’s garden but they like sharing it. Usk itself is known as the ‘town of flowers’ and regularly wins awards for Wales in Bloom.

The River Usk, which gives the town its name, is one of the finest salmon and wild brown trout fishing rivers in the UK. Otters have also made a recent return to the river.

From Usk, the walk follows pleasant riverside, field and woodland paths towards Abergavenny, never straying too far away from the river itself.  I was blessed with warm spring weather, misty over the river at first but soon clearing to a beautiful sunny day.  Being spring, there were lots of cute lambs around and someone had also amused themselves for a while stacking stones and building pebble statues beside the river.

Usk Valley Walk: Clearing Mist Usk Valley Walk: Lambs Usk Valley Walk: Balanced Rocks

The first bluebells of the season were starting to flower in sunny spots and there were a few butterflies around too. Heading towards Llenellen, a fox appeared in front of me, its beautiful red coat glistening in the sunshine. It ran ahead briefly but kept stopping to look back to see if I was following it. Eventually it disappeared into the undergrowth.

Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal

Just before Abergavenny, at Llenellen, the walk joins the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.  Known locally as the Mon and Brec, the canal has been restored and is now fully navigable for 35 miles.  It is a locked-in canal and does not connect to any of the other UK canal network.  The canal twists and bends, following the contours of the hills high up above the Usk Valley through leafy woodlands, giving lovely glimpses through the trees of the Gavenny Valley below.

It was very peaceful whilst I was there, with only a handful of boats active on the water.  Judging by the number of narrowboat hire companies I passed, though, I can imagine the canal gets very active during the summer months albeit at a very slow pace.  I passed a group of school kids in canoes — there are a few canoe launch areas along the canal. They were having a great time splashing each other!

A short walk from the canal down to meet the River Usk takes you to the historic market town of Abergavenny, The Gateway to Wales. It sits at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain, a popular local climb not to be confused with the Brazilian mountain of the same name! As I was heading down to Abergavenny I passed some very fit walkers competing in the Three Peaks Trial, a 20-mile challenge walk taking in the three prominent local peaks of Blorenge, Sugar Loaf and Skirrid.

Usk Valley Walk: Llanfoist Boat HouseAbergavenny is a foodie town with plenty of independent food shops, cafes and coffee shops. It holds a large Food Festival each September. The ruined Norman Abergavenny Castle, which is free to enter, sits beside the pleasant Castle Meadows, a large open grassland area adjacent to the river where I passed families, dog walkers and cyclists relaxing and enjoying the afternoon sun.

Abergavenny to Llangattock

From Abergavenny, the walk re-joins the canal at the very picturesque Llanfoist Boat House Wharf and heads for Talybont-on-Usk, mainly along the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

This was a very pretty section of canal, stretches of bank smothered in flowering celandine. The trees lining the canal, not yet in full leaf, allowed good views of the valley below and I passed through a section of flowering rhododendrons.  Playful young squirrels were having a game of chase in the beech woodland on the opposite banks of the canal and the woodland was alive with birdsong. I also got within a couple of metres of a heron transfixed on its prey in the water.

Usk Valley Walk: Canalside Flowers Usk Valley Walk: The Canal Usk Valley Walk: Heron

The canal also passes a few attractive boatyards and marinas and under numerous old stone bridges.

Soon after Llangattock, the walk offers an optional alternate route that climbs steeply up a stony bridle track. The views from the top of the Black Mountains proved worth the effort. It was a nice contrast, walking high above the valley for a few miles.

Usk Valley Walk: Bridleway

On to Talybont

Dropping back down to the canal, I soon reached the first of five locks at Llangynidr Locks.  The clever engineering of the canal’s creator, Thomas Dadford, means that the canal runs for 23 lockless miles. The five locks that await at Llangynidr lift the canal 48 feet.

Usk Valley Walk: Llangynidr Locks

Usk Valley Walk: DaffodilsSoon after the locks, the walk leaves the canal for a second time, heading up and across woodland and farmland paths to meet the Brinore Tramroad on the outskirts of Talybont-on-Usk.

Clambering high above Talybont reservoir, with great views of the Brecon Beacons, the tramroad was an early 19th century horse-drawn railway linking limestone quarries near Tredegar to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Talybont-on-Usk.  It is now an eight-mile walking and cycling route.

The walk follows the tramroad for a couple of miles down to the pretty little village of Talybont-on-Usk, sitting between the canal and the River Usk.  It has a lovely café and I can highly recommend the food at the White Hart Inn.

The village seems to have a great community spirit and has set up its own ‘green power station’ by installing a new turbine in an old turbine house below Talybont reservoir. They now create enough electricity for a quarter of the village.  In 2017 and 2018, they planted a new community orchard with trees in four locations around the village. When the trees are fully grown, the fruit will be free for anyone to pick.

The Final Stretch into Brecon

From Talybont-on-Usk, the trail starts its final leg to Brecon with a climb above the canal itself. I ascended through fields and past cherry trees in full blossom, with fantastic views of the Black Mountains.

A sunken track led the way back down towards the canal, where I met a penned-in flock of sheep on the track. The farmer had obviously penned them in for a reason but was nowhere to be seen. I hopped over the low temporary metal fences to continue on my way down through pretty woodland, which had lots of spring primroses flowering in the hedgerows, and rejoined the canal at Pencelli.

Usk Valley Walk: Sunken Track Usk Valley Walk: Penned Sheep Usk Valley Walk: Flowers along the path

The canal eventually converges with the River Usk and the two run parallel. You end up walking with water on both sides, canal to your left and the river down below on the right. The canal crosses 25 feet high above the River Usk over the Brynich Aqueduct, built in 1800, before continuing alongside the river once more. I passed plenty of picnic tables near the aqueduct, a popular location with easy access from a nearby road.

Usk Valley Walk: Between the canal and the river Usk Valley Walk: boat passes under bridge Usk Valley Walk: the river from the canalUsk Valley Walk: Canalside statues

The final stretch of canal walking gets more built up as it nears the historic market town of Brecon, passing Watton Wharf with a lovely carved wooden man and horse statue pulling an old rail wagon.

Past pretty canal side cottages, the trail reaches Brecon Basin and the end of the Usk Valley Walk. Brecon is another historic market town nestled in the backdrop of the Brecon Beacons. It has lots of interesting independent shops, cafes and pubs.

An Overview of the Usk Valley Walk

The Usk Valley Walk wasn’t at the top of my list for a multi-day walking holiday; it’s a lesser-known trail that slipped my mind. What a shame if that had been the end of it. This walk exceeded all my expectations.

Usk Valley Walk: Under a bridgeFor the majority of the time, the Usk Valley Walk is an easy, low-level walk. The three more demanding sections climb away from the canal side and can be avoided simply by continuing along the canal.

The trail boasts plenty of beautiful scenery, wildlife and history along its route and visits the lovely historic market towns of Usk, Abergavenny and Brecon, all popular holiday destinations in their own right, as well as passing by numerous smaller villages.

Copy the slow, relaxed pace of life on the canal whilst you walk the trail: there’s no need to rush. Take your time and make use of the benches scattered along the canal to sit and relax for a while, watch and wave to any passing boats or just sit and soak up the tranquillity and listen to the birdsong. I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to walk the Usk Valley Walk this way and I hope this blog post will encourage more people to enjoy this splendid trail.

Contours Holidays pride ourselves on our expert knowledge of the UK’s trails. We regularly set out to check our routes and directions and to make improvements on the holidays we offer. You can find several write-ups of staff expeditions in our Trail Diaries.

Interested in walking the Usk Valley Walk?

Contours Holidays offer three versions of the Usk Valley walking holiday: the complete route, our short break and a stile-free variation. Find your holiday here:

Originally published 11/06/19

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