The Brecon and Merthyr Railway

By the second half of the 19th century, Merthyr was served by several railway companies, one of which was the Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil Junction Railway (B&M) which, as its name implies, ran from Brecon to Merthyr.

A 1905 map showing the Railways around Merthyr and Dowlais

As early as 1836, Sir John Josiah Guest, of the Dowlais Ironworks, had written of his proposal to construct a railway linking Dowlais to the valley of the River Usk, and possibly also running into Brecon. The line would have pretty nearly covered the same route as was eventually adopted by the B&M. A similar proposal suggested a line running up the Taf Fawr valley over the Brecon Beacons via Storey Arms and thence to Brecon.

The Brecon and Merthyr Railway Company was established by a Bill of 1859, financially supported by several prominent Brecon citizens, and the complete route from Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil was authorised the following year. The first section to open was a 6.75 miles (10.86 km) section between Brecon and Talybont-on-Usk in 1863, which reused a section of a horse-drawn tram line. The Beacons Tunnel at Torpantau opened in 1868. Officially named the Torpantau Tunnel, at 1313 feet above mean sea level, it is the highest railway tunnel in Britain.

The system eventually came to comprise two sections of lines:

  • The Southern section, effectively the consumed Rumney Railway, which linked Bassaleg (where there were connections with the GWR and the London and North Western Railway) and the ironworks town of Rhymney, near the head of the Rhymney Valley.
  • The Northern section linked Deri Junction by means of running powers over a section of the Rhymney Railway in the Bargoed Rhymney Valley to Pant, Pontsticill and Brecon via a tunnel through the Brecon Beacons. From the tunnel the line descended towards Talybont-on-Usk on a continuous 1-in-38 gradient known as the “Seven-Mile Bank”. For southbound trains this presented the steepest continuous ascent on the British railway network.
Pontsticill Station. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

Initially, the only connection to Merthyr Tydfil was by means of a horse-drawn bus from Pant, but by 1868, a connection with Merthyr at Rhydycar Junction had been established by sharing lines with Vale of Neath, London and North Western and Taff Vale railways. This involved the building of nearly seven miles of single line from Pontsticill to Merthyr, with an almost continuous descent of 1 in 45-50, two complete reversals of direction, and the construction of two viaducts to carry the line over the Taf Fechan at Pontsarn, and the Taf Fawr at Cefn Coed.

North of the Pontsarn viaduct, a connection was made with the LNWR’s Merthyr Extension line at Morlais Tunnel Junction from where the latter’s double track entered the 1034 yard Morlais Tunnel and beyond routed along the double line to Dowlais High Street and thence to Tredegar, Brynmawr and Abergavenny. The sections from Merthyr to Pontsticill and Bargoed through to Brecon were laid as single lines with passing loops and usually locomotive watering facilities at principal stations. For those single lines, tokens were issued to drivers from signal boxes at such locations and being essential for safe working over single lines.

A train leaving the Morlais Tunnel. Photo courtesy of http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm

The line was eventually amalgamated with the Great Western Railway in 1923, and by 1958, the line was running three services each way on weekdays, increasing to four on Saturdays, taking around 2½ hours to run from Brecon to Newport. Although surviving nationalisation, the service had run at a substantial loss for most of its lifetime, and was an obvious candidate for closure. Passenger services were closed from Pontsticill Junction to Merthyr Tydfil in November 1961, with the remainder of services stopping at the end of the 1962. The line was closed completely after the withdrawal of goods services in 1964.

Towards the end of the 1970s, a private company, the Brecon Mountain Railway, began to build a narrow-gauge steam-hauled tourist line on the existing 5.5-mile (8.9 km) trackbed from Pant through Pontsticill to Dol-y-gaer. The initial section of 1.75 miles (2.82 km) from Pant to Pontsticill first opened in June 1980. After more than 30 years of hard work and extra-funding, passenger services finally extended to Torpantau in April 2014, bringing the BMR to a total of approximately 5 miles in length.

For more about the Brecon Mountain Railway, please follow the link below:

https://www.bmr.wales/

The Opening of St John’s Church, Cefn

143 years ago today the article transcribed below appeared in the Western Mail:

Opening of Cefn Church

Yesterday the pretty township of Cefncoedycymmer, near Merthyr Tydfil, was all astir, the occasion being the preliminary opening of the church of St. John’s.

Before the days of the iron and coal trade, but a solitary cottage or two marked the now well populated outskirt of Cefn, and in those bygone days the important section of the parish of Vaynor was concentrated at Pontsarn and  Pontsticill. There, in a pleasant little dingle, just above the banks of the Taff vawr, nestled the old parish church. About ten years ago the original building presented a decayed and irreparable appearance, and leading Churchmen of the parish at once decided to introduce another place of worship adjacent to the old site, where Welsh people had worshipped for so many centuries. A sum of money towards the necessary building fund was soon forthcoming; but at the outset Mr. Robert Crawshay, of Cyfarthfa Castle, with characteristic perception, pointed to the more urgent necessities of the people of Cefn with regard to church accommodation, and practically evinced his anxiety to see a want supplied in this direction by the handsome offer, that if the nominal sum already subscribed were transferred for the construction of an edifice at Cefn he would, at his own expense build the Vaynor Church. This was agreed to, and Mr. Crawshay’s idea was speedily verified in the erection and opening of a place of worship at Vaynor.

Meanwhile the committee at Cefn, who themselves had worked hard, and subscribed to the best of their ability, were not so successful, in a financial sense, as was anticipated. Nevertheless, available funds were invested with a view to a commencement of the work at a convenient site near the Brecon and Merthyr Railway, the ground having been gratuitously granted by Mrs. Gwynne Holford.

The designs of the church having been prepared by Mr. G. E. Robinson, architect, Cardiff, the contract was taken by Mr. David Jenkins, builder, Merthyr, for a sum less than £2,000, and he has discharged his obligations most satisfactorily, under, perhaps, trying circumstances. Time does not allow of our entering here either into the circumstances which caused such delay in the completion of this work, or a description of the building itself. We may however say that within a short time since when the work of completion was undertaken under circumstances which will presently appear – the sacred house, partially pledged, remained for a protracted period with the doors and windows barricaded with boarding.

At last Mr. Crawshay, who had long since redeemed his promise by erecting a parish church, was appealed to for further help, and he at once gave directions that the church should be forthwith completed at his expense. This has been done, and a cheque for £200 from the Iron King, with a sum already in hand, satisfies the contractor. Of late a few ladies have rendered assistance to the committee by efforts in the shape of concerts, and solicitations of one shilling subscriptions, in order to provide certain details in connection with the building, which, it is computed, will cost altogether £2,000.

The edifice is substantially built, will accommodate 250 people, and prove a great boon to persons who have hitherto been compelled to either worship under the ministrations of the Rev. J. S. Williams, curate, in a temporary apartment, or journey to Merthyr in one direction, or Vaynor in another. The names of the gentlemen who have assiduously applied themselves in securing the church for Cefn are Messrs. W. T. Crawshay, C. E. Matthews, William Jones, and T. J. Pearce, who have been compelled to carry out the work solely from public subscriptions, not having received the slightest aid from any society.

The interior of the church can be pronounced complete, but the exterior surroundings suggest an unfinished appearance. A preliminary service was conducted in the church on Monday evening, when the Rev. John Jenkins, of Llanfrynach, preached in English, and the Rev. John Cunnick, deputation from the Church Pastoral Aid Society, in Welsh. The services yesterday were choral, and there was not the slightest ostentation displayed; a more appropriate and impressive ceremony being deferred till the grand opening ceremony on occasion of the thorough completion of the building.

The service, which commenced at 11 o’clock before a crowded congregation, was intoned by the Rev. Mr. Jones, rector of Dowlais. The Rev. J. Griffiths, rector of Neath, preached an eloquent discourse. Services were also held in the evening. We were unable at the time of the despatch of our parcel to ascertain the amount realised from offerings. The clergy and visitors were entertained by Mr. Wm. Crawshay, Mr. Matthews, and Mr. William Jones. Mrs. William Crawshay has contributed a beautiful altar cloth, and Mr. C. E. Matthews a Communion service.

Western Mail – 22 April 1874

Bridging the gap

One of the most striking structures in Merthyr if Cefn Viaduct. You can’t miss it, but how much do you know about it?

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Cefn Viaduct photo courtesy of Christopher Surridge

The viaduct was commissioned by the Brecon and Merthyr Railway company to span the Taf Fawr Valley in Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer. Before work began, a special Act of Parliament had to be sought in 1862 to allow construction. The viaduct was designed by Alexander Sutherland and Henry Conybeare, and was built by Thomas Savin and John Ward. In early 1866, the project faced disaster when Savin and Ward suffered serious financial and legal difficulties. It was eventually completed with the assistance of Alexander Sutherland, and was completed on 29 October 1866 at a cost of £25,000.

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Cefn Viaduct under construction courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm)

The viaduct is 770 ft long, and at its highest point stands 115 ft high; it has 15 arches, each one 39 ft 6 inches wide. It was planned to be constructed entirely of limestone , but a strike by stonemasons in February 1866 caused the company to buy 800,000 bricks and use bricklayers to complete the 15 arches. The most striking feature of the viaduct is its elegant curve. The viaduct was apparently designed this way to avoid encroaching on Robert Thompson Crawshay’s land.

Smaller, but no less impressive is Pontsarn Viaduct. This was also designed by Alexander Sutherland and built by Savin and Ward to bridge the Taf Fechan Valley. Opened in 1867, Pontsarn is 455 ft long and 92 ft high at its highest point and comprises seven arches. Unlike Cefn Viaduct, it is built entirely of limestone.

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Pontsarn Viaduct courtesy of Old Merthyr Tydfil (http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/index.htm)

The Merthyr to Brecon Line stopped carrying passenger trains in 1961, but goods trains continued to use the viaducts, with the last train crossing them on 1 August 1966. Both viaducts are now Grade II* listed and form part of the Taff Trail.