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Canalopolis: Celebrating the 225th Anniversary of the Swansea Canal

The completion of the Swansea Canal in 1798 helped put Swansea on the map, bringing coal down from the valleys to power copper smelting works across the city. Soon, Swansea became known around the world as ‘Copperopolis’. But as the canal fell into decline, memories of its role in the city’s history melted away too. Now in this anniversary year, our charity is working closely with the Swansea Canal Society to reignite the city’s love for its lost waterway.

Copper landed in Swansea in 1720, when two Cornish copper mine owners opened the first smelting works, close to the valley coal mines. Three tonnes of coal were needed to smelt one tonne of copper ore, so it made economic sense to ship the copper to the coal. When a long, straight, navigable canal, cheaply and easily brought coal down to Swansea by barge, the industry and city took off.

A painting of New Cut and North Dock in 1852

As our 225 timeline explains coal mines, potteries and breweries sprang up along the canal, bringing raw materials and finished goods to and from Swansea Harbour. The waterway also carried rottenstone, a pumice-like polishing agent down from valley mines and into the city, where it was used to give copper a distinctive shine.

By this time, the reputation of Swansea coppers was sealed by the coining of a new phrase for excellence, quality and reliability. ‘Copper-bottomed' paid tribute to Lord Nelson's sleek copper-bottomed ships, whose strength and manoeuvrability helped defeat the French at Trafalgar.

But as with so many canals, the arrival of a railway in the Tawe Valley spelled the end for the Swansea Canal. As it fell into disrepair much of the canal in the city itself was built over by trunk roads and development in the last century.

A view down the Swansea Canal surrounded by verdant woodland

Today, just six miles of rural canal remain in water as it winds up the valley north of the M4. But the connection between the canal and industry is still strong. It continues to deliver a vital water supply to the Vale Nickel Refinery at Clydach. And it's the small income that our charity earns from this, that allows us to help maintain, support and develop the waterway.

Yet even this small section of canal might have been lost if it weren't for the heroic efforts of the Swansea Canal Society volunteers. Trustee, Alan Tremlett explains: “40 years ago the canal was a long-forgotten corridor, overgrown, and full of decaying, collapsing structures. But our honorary president Clive Reed had a vision to restore all the recoverable sections. Volunteers dug out rubbish from lock chambers, rebuilt walls, improved bank sides and cleared towpaths to make the canal an accessible attraction for local people to enjoy.”

Today caring for the canal is a real partnership between the Swansea Canal Society and Glândwr Cymru, Canal & River Trust in Wales. Society volunteers care for the day-to-day maintenance of the canal, but if any major engineering works, heritage advice, hydrological or ecological assessments are needed, experts from our charity step into help.

An adult in hi-viz vest rebuilding part of a lock

And it's in this spirit of co-operation that we've come together to celebrate the canal's 225th Anniversary, as David Morgan, our development and engagement manager for Wales, explains:

“I'm a great believer in maximising the power of Anniversaries, because they open a lot of doors. It helps to share the history of the canal and encourage people to enjoy it as a place to walk on the weekend, cycle to work, or canoe along and see the wildlife along the way.”

Throughout the summer, the Canal Society runs Sunday canoe and kayak hire, as well as canoeing sessions for local groups like Cubs and Brownies. There's also an art trail, where a local sculptor has carved owls, foxes and a rabbit into trees to tell the story of canal wildlife along the route, and ramblers and cyclists are a common sight along the towpath.

A wooden sculpture of a fox standing by the Swansea Canal

However, people in Swansea itself aren't so aware of the canal, as so much of it has been lost. That's why we made sure the anniversary celebrated all 16 miles of the canal, right into Swansea Harbour. It's a great opportunity to raise its profile and remind people of how it helped build their city.”

Celebrations began in January with a video project involving primary schools along the valley, and activities are scheduled for most months throughout the year. The signature event is an exhibition of the canal's history and heritage at Swansea's National Waterfront Museum, which runs from April to mid-September.

In May a 'Party in the Park' event at Coed Gwilym Park in Clydach, gave hundreds of people the chance to take part in our 225 Paddle Challenge and canoe for a mile along the Swansea Canal, from the park, discovering the beautiful waterway on their doorstep. More art, oral history and heritage walking trails events are planned throughout the year.

The hope is that the anniversary will spark more interest in the long-term vision of reconnecting the remaining stretches of canal to Swansea Docks by creating a six-mile section of new canal. While this grand ambition may still be decades in the making, in the medium term there are ambitions to restore a mile and half long buried section of canal south of Pontardawe. And right now, work is already underway to uncover a buried lock at Clydach and restore 120m of canal on land donated to the Canal Society by the County Council.

People paddling canoes down the Swansea Canal

When these works are complete, the team hope to run trip boats along the canal, to make the site a regular tourist attraction for residents and visitors to Swansea or the Gower peninsula. So, if you're heading down that way this summer, why not join in the 225th Anniversary celebrations? We're sure you'll want to show your support for the next chapter in the restoration of the Swansea Canal.

Last Edited: 23 June 2023

photo of a location on the canals
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