Heritage of Wales


This article introduces the history of transport in Wales. Road and maritime links date from the earliest times; however the biggest changes came about with the increase of industrialisation from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, represented across Wales by the network of canals, tramroads, railways, ports and harbours.


  • Crossing wide estuaries always posed problems for lines of transport.  At Conwy, centre are the three bridges crossing the river channel at the end of a long causeway: nearest is Robert Stephenson’s railway bridge of 1850 with Thomas Telford’s road bridge of 1826 beyond it.  Furthest away is the replacement road bridge of 1958.  The late 20th Century solution can be seen in the approach to the Conwy Road Tunnel, upper right. (Image: GTJ22545 / NPRN: 43083)
  • A milestone near Dyffryn Mymbyr, Gwynydd, carved in sawn slate.  Milestones had to be displayed along turnpike roads by law and although this is a later 19th Century replacement, it retains archaic spelling and a curiously precise measurement. (Image: CD2004_311_2005 / NPRN: 284624)
  • William Edwards’ bridge across the River Taff at Pontypridd, was built in 1756.  At the time of its construction it was the largest single span bridge in the world at 140 feet (42.5 metres).  The circular holes in the spandrels serve to relieve the stresses on the crown of the arch, the cause of collapse of earlier attempts. (Image: CD2005_612_013 / NPRN: 24145)

Tracks and paths date back to the earliest times. It is clear that the present pattern of roads does not replicate exactly the older routes, and the vestiges of many of these may be seen today. A number of tracks in the mountain areas may have prehistoric origins. The Romans developed a network of roads across Wales, linking their forts and towns. Probably the best known of these is Sarn Helen, running the length of the country from South Wales to Conwy, although the exact route has yet to be established in its entirety. Another important route ran across South Wales to Carmarthen, and recent investigations from the air and on the ground are pushing it even farther west. In medieval times cross-country routes such as the Monk’s Way, connecting the Cistercian abbeys of Strata Florida and Cwmhir developed. The discovery and excavation of a timber-built trackway across Borth Bog, dating from around the eleventh century, show that even local links could be part of a reasonably sophisticated infrastructure. Belonging to later in the period, drovers’ roads, along which cattle were driven to the English markets, can be seen striding across the mountain vastness of mid-Wales.

In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries turnpike trusts were established to construct and improve the roads. Many of their routes are occupied by modern roads, the old milestones often providing a clue to their origin, but examples of superseded routes can be found throughout Wales. The present Llangurig to Aberystwyth road is paralleled on its climb along the Wye and Tarenig valleys to Eisteddfa Gurig by the earlier formations. The original Llangadog and Brynamman turnpike cuts across the Black Mountain as a broad green swathe, a kilometre or so west of the present road. In the early nineteenth century many of the toll houses on these roads became the focus for civil unrest – the Rebecca Riots.

A consequence of the Act of Union of 1801, between Britain and Ireland, was the improvement of road communication between London and Dublin. The refurbishment of the road between London and Shrewsbury was put in the hands of existing turnpike trusts, but the section onwards to Holyhead, together with the Conwy to Bangor link, was a state-sponsored project engineered by Thomas Telford. The construction and improvement was carried out between 1815 and 1826 and included a number of major monuments, the most significant of which are the Waterloo Bridge at Betws y Coed, the Conwy Suspension Bridge, the Stanley Embankment and the Menai Suspension Bridge. Telford’s magnificent bridge across the Menai Strait was opened on 30 January 1826. It is 579 feet (176.5 metres) long and rises 100 feet (30.5 metres) above the water so as not to interrupt the passage of the tall-masted sailing ships of the day.


During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries canals were constructed along many of the major valleys of south Wales. They never developed into a fully interconnected network, remaining as a series of individual systems; nevertheless, they contributed greatly to the industrialisation of the area. A particular feature of the main canals in south Wales was the heavy lockage; there were fifteen locks between Cardiff and Merthyr on the Glamorganshire Canal, forty-two on the main line of the Monmouthshire Canal between Newport and Pontnewynydd with a further thirty-six on the branch to Crumlin. On the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal the desire to avoid locks resulted in a spectacular level section that hugs the contours for thirty-six kilometres.

  • Burgedin Lock on the Montgomeryshire (Shropshire Union) Canal, at the junction of the Guilsfield arm with the main canal.  Authorised in 1794, the canal was opened in 1797.  It was abandoned in 1936 and officially closed in 1944.  The route from Frankton Junction on the Ellesmere Canal, to Newtown is now being restored to navigation. (Image: DI2006_1045 / NPRN: 404045)
  • Llanfoist Wharf on the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal.  This section of the canal was opened in 1812 but the wharf dates from about 1825.  The building on the right was formerly Hill’s Warehouse, used to store iron awaiting transit along the canal.  The wharf was served by a tramroad from Blaenavon Ironworks, which descended by way of two inclined planes.  The Wharfinger’s House in the background incorporates the lower sheeve house of the incline. (Image: DI2005_0530  / NPRN: 91672)
  • On the Crumlin Branch of the Monmouthshire Canal, at Rogerstone near Newport, there was a flight of fourteen locks.  They did not constitute a true staircase, that is, with the top gate of one lock pound doubling as the bottom gate of the next above, but were grouped in pairs with intervening pounds.  The flight was designed by Thomas Dadford junior and was opened in 1798.  The last cargoes were carried on this section of canal in 1930 and it was abandoned in 1949. (Image: DI2005_0466 / NPRN: 34557)

Elsewhere in Wales, the Montgomeryshire Canal penetrated the Severn Valley as far as Newtown, while the Ellesmere Canal’s abortive trunk route to connect the Midlands with the Mersey was only opened as far as Trefor near Ruabon but did result in the spectacular aqueducts at Pontcysyllte and Chirk. Llanfoist Wharf on the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal retains the warehouse formerly used for the storage of pig-iron.


Tramroads extended the influence of canals to areas where it was not practical to bring navigation. The earliest developed as feeders to the canals or ports, such as the Blaenavon Tramroad of 1796. From about 1802 onwards many of the south Wales tramroads were converted to plateways, where the flange was located on the rail rather than attached to the wheels, and most tramroads built from then on were of this type. The Carmarthenshire Tramroad was the second public railway in the world to be authorised, on 3 June 1802, and may have been the first to open. The Oystermouth Tramway introduced a passenger service, the first in the world, on 25 March 1807, three years after its initial opening.

Later a number of cross-country routes developed. From 1829 the Llanfihangel, Grosmont and Hereford Railways linked the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal at Llanfoist to the River Wye at Hereford, twenty-five miles (forty kilometres) away. In the same year the Hay and Kington Railways formed a continuous line almost forty miles (sixty-five kilometres) long linking Brecon and Kington. The seventeen-mile- (twenty-seven-kilometre-) long Brecon Forest Tramroad eventually, from 1834, extended the influence of the Swansea Canal deep into Brecknockshire. Hill’s Tramroad of about 1819 connected the Blaenavon Iron Works with the Brecknock and Abergavenny Canal and includes an impressive hillside route.

  • The limestone quarries, high on the edge of the South Wales coalfield, were linked to the ironworks by tramroads.  The tramroad from the Dysgwylfa Quarries to the Nantyglo Ironworks was laid as a plateway to a nominal gauge of about 2ft. 9ins. (0.84m), with cast-iron rails borne on the stone blocks shown.  It was in use by 1818 and had been abandoned by 1830. (Image: ML2005_219 / NPRN: 921522)
  • Reproductions of typical tramroad wagons used on Hill’s Tramroad of about 1825, at Llanfoist Wharf.  Although here loaded with limestone, they also carried ironstone, iron products, coal and on special days, passengers! They were either pulled by horses or worked by gravity. (Image: DS2006_195_002 / NPRN: 85860)
  • The engineering on some tramroads can be quite spectacular, especially where the route follows the natural contours.  Hill’s Tramroad opened to Garnddyrus Forge circa 1818 and had to negotiate the steep re-entrant of Cwm Ifor, crossing the stream on a stone culvert approached from either side by a revetment walled ledge. (Image: DI2005_1095 / NPRN: 85860)


The first successful operation of a steam locomotive hauling a load on rails occurred on the Merthyr (Penydarren) Tramroad on 21 February 1804. The event did not, however, prompt the rapid and wholesale adoption of steam railways in Wales or elsewhere, and it was another thirty years or more before railways gained a significant foothold in the Principality. The development of trunk railway routes across Wales was prompted by a desire to improve communications between London and Ireland. Robert Stephenson’s Chester & Holyhead Railway of 1848-50 included his innovative tubular bridges at Conwy and the Menai Strait. In the south Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s broad-gauge South Wales Railway of the same period has fewer spectacular engineering works but does possess the last survivor of his timber viaducts at Loughor. Proceeding from Gloucester, via Cardiff and Swansea, the line aimed initially for Fishguard, but was diverted to New Milford (Neyland), where a purpose-built port for the Irish traffic was founded.

  • The Llanelly Railway opened its line to Llandeilo on 24 January 1857.  The town was served by both the London & North Western and the Great Western railways.  Unusually, a locomotive from each company double-heads a southbound train in the early years of the 20th Century. (Image: DI2006_0917 / NPRN: 80442)
  • Brunel’s South Wales Railway was planned as an express route to the Irish ferryport of Neyland in Pembrokeshire.  This view of the line running alongside the Afon Tywi at Ferryside in Carmarthenshire, illustrates his use of long, sweeping curves to create a fast and evenly graded alignment. (Image: GTJ22526 / NPRN: 112486)
  • In the 1860s the Manchester & Milford Railway was promoted to build a trunk-line across Mid Wales.  The section between Llanidloes and Llangurig, although completed, was never opened to public traffic but this bridge remains today as a testament to the grand, if sometimes unrealistic aspirations of Victorian entrepreneurs. (Image: DS2006_088_002 / NPRN: 301488)

Fishguard was eventually reached at the end of the nineteenth century and was developed both as an Irish port and as a drop-off point for transatlantic liners, enabling passengers to reach London a day early. In the South Wales valleys the rapid expansion of coal mining led to the evolution of an intense network of lines, most major valleys having two or even three parallel routes along them. The forerunner was Brunel’s Taff Vale Railway of 1836, which remained independent until the grouping of the railways in 1923; many other lines in south and mid-Wales were built by small independent companies such as Rhymney Railway, the Brecon and Merthyr Railway and the Cambrian Railways.

A particular feature in mountainous areas of North Wales was the narrow-gauge railway. Many of these developed from tramroads and were built to track gauges of around two feet as opposed to the standard gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches. The Festiniog Railway, commencing as a horse- and gravity-worked tramroad in 1836, was converted to a locomotive-operated line in 1861 and demonstrated the feasibility of steam traction on sub-standard gauges.

Ships, Ports And Harbours

Surrounded on three sides by the sea, Wales has a strong maritime tradition. Shipbuilding was carried out on many of the river estuaries around the coast, particularly along Cardigan Bay, where Cardigan, Aberystwyth, Aberdovey and Barmouth were all important centres of the craft. Pembroke Dock was developed from 1815-16 onwards as one of the principal construction yards for the Royal Navy and continued in this role until 1926. In 1917 the yard of Finch & Co., general engineers and shipbuilders of Chepstow, was requisitioned by the Government and became National Shipyard No.1.

Ports and harbours developed from earliest times, but generally, because of the distance from markets, they were of only local significance until the mid-eighteenth century. With increasing industrialisation specialist ports developed, concentrating on specific imports or exports. Amongst these were Swansea and Llanelli (copper ores), Milford (whaling), Aberystwyth (lead ores), Porthmadog, Caernarfon, Felinheli, Port Penrhyn and Deganwy (slates), and Amlwch (copper ores), but the most significant examples were the coal ports. Established along the Welsh shore of the Bristol Channel, Newport, Cardiff and Barry all developed major dock estates and were supplemented by several lesser enterprises: Penarth, Port Talbot and Burry Port, as well as the former copper ports of Swansea and Llanelli.

  • The first large dock at Cardiff was the Bute West Dock (1839), now filled in, which lay across the centre foreground.  To the left is the Bute East Dock (1855-9).  Nearer the sea, right, is the smaller Roath Basin (1874) and left, the Roath Dock (1887) and beyond them the Queen Alexandra Dock (1907).  Cardiff Docks exported 11.6 million tons in 1913, of which 10.5 million was coal. (Image: GTJ28635 / NPRN: 34257)
  • Port Penrhyn was built in about 1790 to facilitate the export of slates from Penrhyn Quarries.  The original quay, on the left, was extended in 1830, the mole on the right and the dock between being built in 1855.  The port was served by a tramroad from 1798, a siding from the Chester & Holyhead Railway was laid in 1852, and the tramroad converted into a narrow-gauge railway in 1879. (Image: GTJ26399 / NPRN: 96229)
  • Holyhead’s position as the premier port for Irish traffic was confirmed when its harbour was authorised in 1847 and the Chester & Holyhead Railway received its Act the following year.  The Inner Harbour with the railway station at its head, date from improvements of 1880. (Image: GTJ00135 / NPRN: 41260)

Wales has always been a stepping stone for Ireland. By the mid-eighteenth century Holyhead had emerged as the principal port for Irish traffic, and the authorisation of new harbour works in 1847, followed a few years later by the opening of the Chester & Holyhead Railway, confirmed this position. Attempts to promote Porth Dinlleyn on the Lleyn Peninsula as a rival to Holyhead failed miserably. In the south Fishguard was initially targeted for development as an Irish port, but Neyland on Milford Haven was eventually chosen by the South Wales Railway Company. Only at the end of the nineteenth and early into the twentieth century did Fishguard expand from being a mere fishing village into a major cross-channel, and for a brief time, transatlantic port.