Off The Rails
Rail, Steam and Speed
To begin at the beginning, towards the end of February 1804 as part of a wager or bet between two Merthyr Tydfil-based iron masters, Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick finally perfected his steam powered railway locomotive to run unassisted on a horizontal plane. In other words the railway age had begun. He had designed the first steam railway locomotive.
Follow our trail of some 1¾ miles and discover Merthyr Tydfil’s role in the birth of what would become one of the key drivers of the Industrial Revolution, the golden age of steam.
The stone and iron rail memorial at lower Penydarren, commissioned in 1931 as the nearby war memorial was completed, was finished in 1933 and opened in 1934. It symbolises that first journey of February 21st 1804 from the Penydarren Works, where Trevithick was employed by owner Samuel Homfray, southwards for some ten miles to Navigation, today better known as Abercynon.
Rival iron master William Crawshay thought it could not be done and so wagered a bet of several hundred guineas. A third iron master, Richard Hill of the Plymouth Works held the bet as umpire. Because the return journey was never completed – the brittle railway tracks could not withstand the weight of the locomotive and its carriages brimful of passengers and the stack fell off – therefore the bet was never paid up!
Just around the corner is the actual route, still named the Tramroad today, and a bridge spanning the nearby Morlais Brook – the first railway bridge in the world! Unfortunately, the bridge is almost totally obscured by overhanging trees.
The route can be followed south from here on the Trevithick Trail. This trail, however, recommends proceeding down High Street through the town centre, to take in many features of Merthyr Tydfil’s rich history, outlined in several other themed trails.
Station Café and Woodfired (formerly the New Inn)
Outside what was once the grand main entrance to the town’s railway station is located the Station Café, owned and run by several generations of the Italian Viazzani family.
Opposite is the solid block of what was the New Inn. Much changed in ownership over the last thirty years, it was in effect the station’s hotel providing accommodation for those arriving into the town. After the New Inn closed it became for a few years the town’s first Berni Inn, then two burger outlets and now Woodfired, an excellent local eaterie.
Make your way down High Street and cut to your left through Beacons Place, a busy covered arcade, stopping immediately upon your exit at the far end.
Tesco (site of the former railway station)
On the present site of Tesco superstore and its car park was located the Vale of Neath Railway Station. Opened in 1853, it was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the foremost industrial designer and inventor of the 19th century, and was the town’s second major railway terminus. It provided communication routes westwards, eastwards and northwards – making Merthyr Tydfil by the end of the century a major railway hub.
With numerous platforms, goods yards, parcel room, offices, waiting rooms and refreshment kiosk, local inhabitants with long memories fondly recall the majesty and the bustle of this place.
You can see a fine mural on the pine end of the Tesco building depicting a scene at this railway station. It is undated and unattributed but it is taken from the Illustrated London News of the mid 1870s, a fashionable magazine depicting for its Londonbased readership views of the South Wales valleys. This scene shows a collier with the tools of his trade on his shoulder with family and friends. He is departing but seemingly for good, possibly abroad, to find work as a skilled artisan.
Robert and Lucy Thomas Memorial Fountain
It is suggested that you now walk the remainder of this trail keeping away from busy main roads. From Tesco, make your way along the covered walkway that leads to the current railway station and walk along the right hand side of the platform. At the far end, go down the steps into Gillar Street car park, exiting from the opposite corner.
From here you can see Llys Janice Rowlands and the early 19th century ornamental Robert and Lucy Thomas Memorial Fountain. Take a look at the fine lunettes depicting many aspects of Merthyr Tydfil’s past including a steam locomotive, as well as images of its mining history.
At the Caedraw roundabout turn right and, by the Caedraw Flats (4a), use the pedestrian crossing and then footbridge before turning left onto the Taff Trail. The trail takes you through a pedestrianised underpass, again with railway motifs, this time locally arranged in mosaic; then skirt the edge of Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Village, keeping the River Taff on your left (4b).
To your left is the site (now occupied by Aldi and Castle Bingo) of Merthyr Tydfil’s first railway station, the Taff Vale Railway (TVR) terminus, completed again by Brunel, in 1841. Here was the first railway connecting Merthyr Tydfil at the head of the Taff valley with Cardiff at port. It was brokered by the town’s iron masters, notably Sir Josiah John Guest of the Dowlais Works, to get large quantities of bar iron to port and thence for export to national and international markets.
Numerous branch lines came off this major terminus connecting, for example, this valley and neighbouring Aberdare through a tunnel. Here was also the entrance point into the town centre for the Brecon and Merthyr line which linked in the 1860s finally this town and Brecon. Today’s Brecon Mountain narrow gauge railway line departing from Pant runs along the first six miles of this original track.
Continuing on the Taff Trail heading south, note the fine three arched bridge taking railway lines (notably the Vale of Neath) upwards to Aberdare and on a wide loop towards Cefn Coed, Pontsarn and ultimately Brecon.
At the first major junction on the trail, go left and follow the blue signs for the Trevithick Trail. This takes you over the Brandy Bridge where you can enjoy excellent views along the River Taff both northwards and south. Still following the blue signs, go across the next roundabout and turn left on a narrow path to the Trevithick Tunnel.
Here there is a free car park, information boards and school-inspired artworks telling the story of this, the first railway tunnel ever.
It was Trevithick’s idea to build the tunnel, taking the railway track beneath the Plymouth Ironworks’ calcining kilns. Headroom was restricted so Trevithick ingeniously designed his engine with a chimney stack that could be lowered to accommodate the reduced space.
The Trevithick Trail can be picked up nearby, running parallel and eventually joining the longer Taff Trail; both routes take bikers and walkers through some of the finest and most spectacular scenery in South Wales.
Several miles south near Quakers Yard is the stupendous viaduct which Brunel designed to take the original TVR line on an upwards gradient over the River Taff.
Merthyr Tydfil was once a busy and important railway town: thousands were employed on the railways. Tickets could be raised and goods sent out of Merthyr Tydfil to almost anywhere. Superior bar iron cast at the several local ironworks was exported across the world to form the railways of North America, Russia, several emerging European nation states and even in the Far East.
To return to the town centre you can either retrace your steps along the Taff Trail or return via the less attractive Plymouth Street which takes some 20 minutes at a steady pace.