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Horseshoe Falls & the Vale of Llangollen

A perfect day out in the beautiful Vale of Llangollen, with a ride on a steam train and a walk beside the water feeder from the River Dee to the Llangollen Canal.


IWA Shrewsbury District & North Wales Branch


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Location: A round trip from Llangollen.

Distance: The walk is about 2½ miles.

Surface: The towpath is well-surfaced.  The path down from Berwyn Station to the Chain Bridge is quite steep.

Parking: In Llangollen.

Refreshments: The Chain Bridge Hotel.  Tea, coffee and snack food is available on the train and its stations, and also at the Motor Museum.

Catch a steam train on the Llangollen Railway from Llangollen Station to Berwyn (the first station up the line) — or even better, to Corwen and then back to Berwyn.

Berwyn Station

The Llangollen & Corwen Railway opened in 1865, soon afterwards becoming part of the Great Western Railway empire.  Berwyn station was built in a half-timbered style to match a local gentleman’s residence.  The line closed in 1964.  The Llangollen to Berwyn section reopened as a heritage railway in 1986 and has subsequently been extended to Corwen.

From the eastern end of the platform, walk down the path and across the Chain Bridge.

Chain Bridge

The first Chain Bridge was built in 1817 for Exuperius Pickering (there were three people with this name, and this was probably the oldest) who had an extensive coal business up the Dee valley. As first built, the chains supported the deck from beneath.  (Contrary to what one sometimes reads, there is no evidence that Thomas Telford was involved in its construction.)  The bridge has been rebuilt twice with the original chains being re-used, making them the oldest suspension chains in use in the world.  It has recently been well restored.

The wharf here became the head of navigation.  Occasionally horse-drawn trip boats come up this far from Llangollen Wharf.

Chain Bridge Hotel

The Chain Bridge Hotel has been the site of a hostelry since the 1830s, possibly earlier.  It has been extended over the years.

Walk round the eastern end of the hotel to the canal and take the path alongside the water to the left.

World Heritage status

UNESCO made the eleven miles of canal from Chirk Bank to Horseshoe Falls a World Heritage Site in July 2009.  The citation states: … The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal are early and outstanding examples of the innovations brought about by the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where they made decisive development in transport capacities possible. They bear witness to very substantial international interchanges and influences in the fields of inland waterways, civil engineering, land-use planning, and the application of iron in structural design.’

Brief history

As authorised in its 1793 Act of Parliament, the Ellesmere Canal was to go from the River Severn at Shrewsbury to the Dee at Chester and then on to the Mersey at Ellesmere Port.  However, the section from Trevor (just to the north of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct) to Chester was never built, principally because of financial problems.  The plans were changed: a link was made from the Whitchurch Branch to Hurleston Junction, on the summit level of the Chester Canal.

The water supply for the long summit level of the canal was to have come from the hills to the north-west of Wrexham.  With the change in plan, this source was no longer available.  It was therefore decided to build a feeder from the River Dee above Llangollen to Trevor of such dimensions as to be navigable up to the crossing of the Eglwyseg river.  It was opened for traffic in 1808, three years after the completion of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and the Whitchurch–Hurleston section.  At the same time, in order to enable water to be drawn from the Dee during the drier summer months, the dam at Lake Bala was increased in height.

In 1944 an Act was passed closing the canal to all traffic except for the trip boats from Llangollen.  Thanks to lobbying from the Inland Waterways Association and the actions of the local canal management, the canal survived and has become the most popular canal in the country.

King’s Bridge

The five-arched King’s Bridge viaduct was built in 1902–6 by Denbighshire County Council. 

The meter house

The Act which authorised taking water from the Dee contained clauses protecting the water supply for the mills at Llangollen.  It did not give permission for the canal company to sell water to industries but nevertheless by the late 1930s these sales had become significant, the principal users being Monsanto at Cefn Mawr, the creamery at Ellesmere and the London Midland & Scottish Railway (by then the canal’s owner) at Chester.  The position was regularised by an Act in 1944, which allowed water sales for the next ten years (to give time for the industries to make alternative arrangements) and introduced the requirement for accurate monitoring of the volume of water taken into the canal.  As a result, the meter house was built. 

By the time this Act expired, a further Act had been obtained to supply domestic water to south Cheshire, using the Llangollen Canal as a conduit.  This helped ensure that the canal survived.

Horseshoe Falls

The curving weir on the River Dee brings water into the canal through the intake sluice.  The cast-iron cap to the weir was added in the early 1820s. 

Return on the towpath past the Chain Bridge Hotel.

To Llangollen

Ty Craig Bridge (48A) does not have a towing-path as this section of the feeder was not originally intended to be navigable.  It is followed by four limekilns set in the river bank which would have been charged with coal and limestone from the canal, built by Pickering, together with the limekilns manager’s house.

Afon Eglwyseg Aqueduct is built to the traditional canal design with strong masonry retaining walls, the canal being carried in a puddled clay earthen trough.  After the success of Chirk and Pontcysyllte, much lighter structures with partial or full iron troughs, one wonders why they reverted to the concepts of the previous generation of canal builders.

The Oernant slate quarries, in what is now usually called the Horseshoe Pass, have been in production since at least the late 18th century — indeed they were mentioned in one of the Ellesmere Canal’s prospectuses.  In 1852 local entrepreneur Henry Dennis built a tramroad from the quarries to a dressing shed between the canal and the river.  This necessitated an embankment across the valley — still clearly visible — and a lift bridge across the canal.  The dressing shed is now the motor museum and also houses a small canal display including some excellent models showing how canals were constructed.

The towpath continues into Llangollen, this section being used by the horse-drawn trip boats which have operated from Llangollen since the 1880s.

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