To those of us who have enjoyed the magic of the top end of the Llangollen Canal since our childhood it came as no surprise that international recognition was given by inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But it was a very long time coming; the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which opened in 1805, was not officially recognised until June 2009.
My aunts lived at nearby Ruabon and, when holidaying there as a young lad, I’d get taken to Llangollen for a ride on the boat pulled by the friendly horse. Sometimes I also got taken to that scary aqueduct! Little did I realise, back in the 40s, the history that had gone before and what was going to happen in terms of the explosion of leisure cruising. It was therefore very exciting in the 70s to actually arrive by boat at both venues. And then to realise that so many canal enthusiasts regarded the area as a sort of Mecca, to be reached at all costs before they died, even speeding past moored boats and disputing turns at locks.
So what special qualities does this length of water have? Firstly, the magnificent hill views seen from the canal – bare rocky escarpments, wooded slopes and a ruined castle on the skyline with valleys below. Surprisingly, the canal itself has no changes of level; it just hugs the contours or disappears through tunnels and tree-canopied cuttings until it flies across two wide river valleys, the Ceiriog and the Dee, on massive, mind-boggling structures. The World Heritage documentation states: ‘The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a highly innovative monumental civil engineering structure, made using metal arches supported by high, slender masonry piers. It is the first great masterpiece of the civil engineer Thomas Telford ...’ Click for more details.
Incidentally the area of this World Heritage Site extends from Gledrid, on the English side of the border, and includes the Chirk Aqueduct, the Chirk Tunnel, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and then the narrow feeder arm which passes through Llangollen to the valve house just beyond the Chain Bridge Hotel. That’s where water from the River Dee enters via the Horseshoe Falls and supplies the whole canal as well as a drinking water reservoir, 46 miles away, just north of Nantwich. World Heritage recognition applies to the first 11 miles of this flagship canal.
The Horseshoe Falls, a semi-circular weir built by Thomas Telford on the River Dee, is the focal point of a wide spectacular waterscape which contrasts with the very narrow start of the Llangollen Canal beneath the valve house wall through which 6 million gallons of water pass each day. Just around the bend of the river is a wonderfully photogenic combination of roads and a railway, perched on massive stone viaducts; there’s a black and white station for the steam railway plus a hotel opposite and a delicate chain bridge; a theatrical circle of interest across the frothy river. The canal isn’t part of this scenario but is just a towpath width away from the Chainbridge Hotel’s main entrance.
The Llangollen Eisteddfod site (huge annual event in July) is overlooked by the canal and so is the town itself. There is a generous mooring basin for visiting boats but a steep descent in order to visit the town shops and conversely passengers for the horse-drawn trip boats have first to negotiate a steep climb.
For boaters en route to Trevor there are some intimate wooded areas alternating with open landscape views and there are two popular stopping points - the Sun Trevor and the Bryn Howel Hotel.
The village of Trevor is home for an Anglo Welsh hire base, an aqueduct trip boat, a museum and another hostelry, the Telford Inn, which provides an opportunity for refreshment before taking in the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Pronunciation is easy; all my talk audiences can say it when I put a phonetical version on the screen: ‘Pont – kuh – suth – te’. If you really can’t manage that then ‘Ponty’ is much better than anything ’silty’.
The aqueduct then provides the sublime drama for a cruise (or towpath walk) at a height of 126 feet above the River Dee and without any protective railings on the water side! Recently some relatives experiencing it for the first time remarked how amazed they were at the height, just as I had first been, some 60 years earlier.
CHIRK TUNNET & AQUEDUCT
At the opposite end is the village of Froncysyllte, home to the best-selling choir, and where canal progress is interrupted by a wind-up lifting bridge. One short tunnel is followed by a deep secluded cutting with wild garlic growing under the trees on the approach to Chirk Tunnel.
After emerging from the drippy confined darkness, there is a small mooring basin, from which Chirk Castle (NT) can be visited by energetic walkers. More drama follows with the other great aqueduct, 70 feet high, and a companion railway railway viaduct, 30 feet higher alongside. These span the River Ceiriog valley and this is the border with England.
At Chirk Bank a canal-side terrace of cottages used to include a shop and that was where Harrison Ford was recognised during his canal cruise with Calista Flockhart in 2004 and a surge of canal media coverage followed. The Poacher’s Pocket at Gledrid is another popular stop at the extent of the World Heritage site.
Visit the whole site and enjoy! Oh, and bring your nephews and nieces.
Peter Brown has written a two page description of a walk at Pontcysyllte which is available to download by following this link.
The source of the water for the Llangollen Canal is the River Dee at Llantisilio.
Thomas Telford's Horseshoe Falls on the River Dee at Llantisilio.
The valve house metering water supply to the Llangollen Canal
The steam railway opposite the Chainbridge Hotel
A visiting narrowboat at Llangollen near the stables
A cruiser crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (note the lack of railings!)
Chirk aqueduct and railway viaduct above
Gledrid and towpath moorings near The Poacher;s Pocket