If you are interested in walking disused railways then I recommend walking along a bridleway, at Talybont-on-Usk, that follows the route of one of Wales’ earliest forerunners of the modern railway.
The Bryn Oer tramroad opened in 1815 as a horse-drawn and gravity powered railway. Known as the (anglicised) Brinore Tramroad by its company, it linked the coal fields near Tredegar and the limestone quarries at Trefil with the Talybont Limekilns on the canal at Talybont-on-Usk. The tramroad operated between 1815 and 1864 and was one of the longest in the region at just over 8 miles (13 kilometers).
The system operated on a single line with passing places (turnouts) situated about half a mile apart. Goods were moved in trucks, called trams and the loaded trams were given the right of way over empty ones if they ever met between the turnouts, resulting in the empty trams reversing to the turnouts. There were strict rules regarding the running of the trams from numbering and marking them with the name of the proprietor to a maximum load of no more than 40 Cwt for each truck.
The trams were pulled by horses along L shaped rails called plates which provided a flat running surface, the upright part of the L keeping the wheels on the track. The plates were held together by tiebars mounted on red sandstone blocks which sat on a bed of limestone ballast, not unlike the railways of today. On downhill sections gravity enabled the trams to freewheel and were slowed down by locking the wheels with a piece of wood, if they travelled too fast. All this was controlled by men known as hauliers.
The main cargoes were coal and limestone and were only allowed to be transported in the trams, no other carts or carriages were allowed on the tramroad. Independent tram owners were charged tolls by the Company for using the track. A variety of other goods were also carried, including livestock, although they were driven by foot along the route. Rates varied depending on the cargo, iron and limestone was charged at 1d per ton per mile, whereas coal and charcoal was charged at 2d per ton per mile.
By the mid 1860s steam operated railways had been well established and the use of the tramroad went into decline. At it’s peak there would have been a near constant stream of horse-drawn trams bringing limestone and coal down from the South Wales coalfield, today the tramroad is enjoyed by walkers and ramblers alike, I’ve even used it to ride my mountain bike… but I’d imagine the trams ran a lot smoother!
The Engineer of the Bryn Oer Tramroad, between 1814 and 1815, was a Welshman by the name of George Overton (born in 1774 in Glamorgan), a leading builder of iron tramroads. He was strongly connected to the early days of steam working on both the Merthyr Tramroad and what became the Stockton & Darlington Railway. Overton died in 1827 and is buried nearby to the Bryn Oer Tramroad in the grounds of Llanddetty Church near Talybont-on-Usk.