Monday, 24 August 2015

Llangollen Canal

Chirk Tunnel
After finishing our walk on the Kennet and Avon Canal a few weeks ago we were really please to have another opportunity for a canal walk.  The day didn't start too promisingly though - the early part of the day was wet and miserable.  By early afternoon though the weather had relented enough for us to consider this as a definite possibility especially with light evenings helping our cause.  We took the bus from our base in Llangollen to Chirk, where we had visited the day before.  The bus journey was pretty short and dropped us off at Chirk station before it would wend its way up the Ceiriog Valley where we had walked the day before.

Purple Loosestrife
We crossed the railway line and headed down into the dark tree lined cutting of the canal just north of Chirk Tunnel.  This tunnel of more than 450 yards was luckily not on our route for otherwise we would have had to either pick our way through holding the handrail or bring a torch.  The tunnel appears to be something of a bottleneck on the canal for there were a large number of boats waiting to enter.  I'm not sure what the protocol is for entering the tunnel but a number of boats were waiting to pass through.  I suspect that this is a popular mooring spot for the town of Chirk also.

Chirk Marina
The cutting was rather damp from the earlier rainfall and we had to pick our way past some of the muddier spots as we headed along the first section of canal.  It was difficult to get a feel for the outside world along this stretch as the cutting is surprisingly deep.  When we couldn't hear the chatter of the crews on the boats though we were aware of the hum of factories that are just outside the woods on our right hand side.  One of them is a chocolate factory although sadly there was no giveaway smell to confirm that.
Whitehouse Tunnel

Eventually we left the cutting and the trees on either side of the canal relented a bit.  The view each side was still rather obscured though from tall flowering plants this time.  Rosebay and Greater Willowherbs dominated but Purple Loosestrife also got involved too.  This made for very pleasant walking and for a time at least the number of boats passing calmed down giving us some peace and quiet.  This is apparently the most popular section of canal in the whole of the country and I guess with aqueducts, great views and no locks between here and Whitchurch (a popular point for starting cruises) it was easy to understand why.

Dee Viaduct
Soon we came upon Chirk Marina.  I am guessing from the number of boats moored here that this is an extremely popular place to stop along the way.  Getting in and out of the narrow entrance did not seem to be that easy for some of the crews though - we saw at least two craft really struggling to negotiate the entrance.  A little further past and around the next corner was another tunnel - the rather shorter Whitehouse Tunnel.  This was dead straight and so we were able to negotiate without too much of a problem.  It added a bit of spice for the girls, who loved the adventure of passing through the darkness hanging onto the handrail as we did so.  That was the little bit of security we all wanted for the tunnel itself is unlit.

First Glimpse of Pontcysyllte
Once through the tunnel the canal opened out quite a bit and was easily wide enough for two boats to pass each other easily although strangely we saw most boats heading southwards and almost none heading in our direction.  I twigged that it was a Wednesday and for most boaters on a week's cruise they would be heading back to Whitchurch today to ensure they got back in time.  Some of the boaters abilities seemed a bit varied; some still hadn't got the hang of steering straight.  Perhaps it was good that they didn't need to negotiate flights of locks as well!
Crossing the Aqueduct
At Irish Bridge there was a sharp turn to the left as we reached the Dee Valley.  Here, the railway line that we had been following since Chirk headed off across the valley on a large and impressive looking viaduct as it headed north towards Chester and Wrexham.  For us though the canal took a course on a shelf high on the valley side to the village of Froncysyllte.  Although our side of the valley was very rural (perhaps because it is in shade a lot of the time) the other side was pretty built up.  The trees flanking the side of the canal largely blocked our views across the Dee Valley however, with only glimpses to be had from time to time.  It was just after we had turned to head westwards briefly that we got the first glimpse of one of the reasons for taking this walk - the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
Trevor Basin
In Froncysyllte we passed a couple of tea houses that we perhaps should have made use of.  In our excitement to get across the upcoming aqueduct we by-passed them in favour of a refreshment stop the other side.  If you decide to take this walk I would suggest you don't wait - what is available here looks far more promising than what we found on the other side.  I cannot say that the walk to the aqueduct was particularly enjoyable either as we had to put up with a couple of young girls talking inanely on the phone as they wandered along the towpath.  It rather spoiled the ambience!

Completing the Crossing
When we got to the aqueduct we paused and let them continue on their way while we inspected the way forward.  This aqueduct took 10 years to build and was essentially a white elephant straight away for the canal stops on the other side of the valley.  By the time the aqueduct was completed the costs for continuing the canal to Chester had spiralled and it was no longer considered to be cost-effective to continue.  Yet, Thomas Telford and William Jessop constructed the tallest and longest aqueduct in Britain and did such a brilliant job that the structure is still almost exactly as it was back in those days.  Apart from routine maintenance no major reconstruction has been needed in the intervening time.  It is an awe-inspiring sight even in the 21st Century - goodness only knows what the Georgian public made of it.  Back then railways were unheard of and roads were very rudimentary.
Heading Along Llangollen Branch

Crossing the aqueduct was rather scarier than I imagined.  None of my girls are particularly good with heights but I don't normally struggle.  Yet the narrowness of the path and the fact that there was just a thin metal railing between us and oblivion was definitely something more than my comfort zone.  I cannot begin to imagine what it is like to take a boat across for on the non-towpath side of the canal there isn't even so much as a fence but a sheer drop!  Definitely not for the faint-hearted and yet there was something very exhilarating about the whole experience!  My girls were on for an ice-cream on the other side so for them it was just about reaching the destination - I'm not even sure they looked at the view!

Dee Valley
It was quite a relief to reach the Trevor side of the aqueduct and the boatyard there is a good place for boats to moor and there are enough facilities to keep most boat owners happy.  There is a public loo, a pub and a little shop.  Sadly for us no tea room - the little shop sells machine made hot drinks only which was a disappointment.  Luckily there was enough sun around to make an ice cream a good alternative.  We sat looking at the strip of water that seemingly flies through the air as we ate our ice-creams.  Just our luck that a flurry of boats went through where none had done during our crossing.

Behind us the boatyard seemed a bit incongruous.  This was what should have been the main line of the canal to Chester but was abandoned shortly after the completion of the aqueduct.  Where there should have been a water source near Wrexham the canal builders had a slightly interesting problem.  They needed a new water source and so a decision was taken to drive a branch line of the canal through to Llangollen and slightly beyond to reach the River Dee.  Considering that we had just crossed the Dee 126 feet above it seemed almost impossible that in a few short miles the canal and river would meet a confluence at level.  The branch line is of course now the main line and it seem especially ironic that the whole canal is named after this five mile afterthought. 

Former Railway Bridge
It certainly isn't easy for boats to deal with the immediate right hand turn after the aqueduct - many struggled as we watched, having to do 3, 4 and even 5 point turns to get around.  We eventually decided to follow one as we finished our ice-creams.  It soon became clear that we could walk faster than most of the narrow boats.  What was particularly striking about this section of canal was how narrow it was - it was certainly not a stretch of water for those not all that good at steering!  As we went along the first part of the towpath we passed by a panic stricken dog owner who seemed to have lost one of his dogs.  This caused some alarm with my girls but they were happy once again when they saw dog and owner reunited in field nearby.  The dog had obviously got lost after chasing something he shouldn't.  Still a scolding from the owner probably made both feel better.

Dinas Bran Castle
The onward walk was a lot less busy - there were fewer boats now and walkers seemed to be fewer on the ground too.  The character of the canal rather changed too as we headed along teh Dee Valley.  Every now and again we had wonderful views open up of the valley but there were also more intimate sections too as the surrounding woodland would occasionally wrap us up in its green lushness.  We started to open out into a procession rather than walking as a group.  Walking along a canal allows this as there are no problems with getting lost along the way. 

Soon we came upon the railway bridge across the canal.  Sadly this section of railway between Ruabon and Llangollen is no more - it closed with the Beeching cuts.  I suspect it will never reopen either since the trackbed in Llangollen itself has sadly been built over.  This stretch has really returned to nature - the trackbed is seriously overgrown and would take an awful lot to clear.  The track follows the canal for some distance but not that you would know it unless you looked really carefully!

Cliff Section
Soon the view ahead of us opened up again and we could see Dinas Bran Castle high up on its lofty perch above Lllangollen.  It looks such a mysterious place - we had already planned another walk that would explore it on another occasion.  The view from the canal just served to whet our appetites.

Castle House
As we got close into Llangollen the canal seemed to get ever narrower and the engineers had clearly had a bit of a task as the opposite bank to us was just a sheer cliff!  I suspect this was engineered rather than a natural feature though to be fair it was quite difficult to tell.  Navigating a boat through here must be tricky though - it was barely wide enough for a standard canal boat and if you met someone coming in the other direction that would be a nightmare for there were no passing places.

Tea Room
We soon came into the town of Llangollen high above the main part of the town centre.  The canal takes a route that is almost surreptitious in its arrival.  Yet in a way it is all the better for doing so for we could get a decent view over the town centre.  Just before leaving the canal for good we went by a rather curious castle shaped house - for my money it was probably the best one in the entire town and certainly had the best garden.  Just beyond here was a delightful looking tea shop.  By now it was early evening and not only did we have no appetite for tea but the place was shut for the day anyway.  Now in town we wandered back to our holiday cottage - the whole walk had taken about an hour less than expected and was a delight pretty much the whole way.  The canal itself continues onward to its water source at the Horseshoe Falls about two miles away.  More about that on the next walk though! 

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