Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Llangollen, Castell Dinas Bran and Valle Crucis Abbey

Canal Wharf
When we had booked our trip to Llangollen one of the walks that we were eager to do was number 24 in the Pathfinder Guide volume 32 North Wales, Snowdon and Offa's Dyke.  What we couldn't be sure of though was whether our girls could cope with the climbing and the distance of eight and a half miles.  They themselves were a bit unsure too, especially when they saw that the beginning of the walk entailed a slog up to the top of the large hill overlooking the town with the ruined Castell Dinas Brann at the top.
Castell Dinas Brann
We had selected the best weather day of the week so far on the basis that we did not want that to sabotage our plans.  Also the girls had a few miles under their belts now and on that basis were more willing to give it a go than if we had tried a few days earlier.  Our route was clear from the outset - first objective was the ruined castle.  We had no public transport to worry about today as we were able to undertake this walk directly from the holiday cottage. 

View North from Castle
We wandered down through the bustling town and past the railway station that was gearing up for another day of steam running.  This must surely be one of the best located steam railways in the country with the wonderfully restored station right in the heart of the town.  What a shame that the railway doesn't still extend from Ruabon down to Barmouth as it originally did as it would surely attract a lot of custom now.  As with so many of the Beeching closures it all seems so short-sighted now.  Sadly the re-opening of the whole railway now seems to be highly unlikely as the trackbed to the east of the station is underneath some relatively recent redevelopment.  Passengers therefore have to satisfy themselves with a trip to Corwen about ten miles away.
Camping Spot
Across the road from the railway station and we started to climb the hill out of town.  This headed across the canal where we had walked only the day before.  We followed a narrow path between houses and past a sports centre and we were suddenly out of town already.  This perhaps demonstrates how confined Llangollen is to the Dee Valley.  The first part of the climb wasn't too bad and we managed pretty comfortably.  After a short while the path flattened out for a bit before we passed through a gate into the land surrounding the castle, which I assume is all owned by the same organisation?  The last part of the climb was through a bracken clad path up to the summit, with views opening up all around us.  When we got to the top we were almost blown away by the wind!

Fields Below Escarpment
There isn't a huge amount left of Castell Dinas Brann - just a few walls and fragments of the former castle.  Yet, considering how short its active life was it is a miracle that any exists at all.  The castle was built in the middle of the 13th Century but was burned by the brothers of Llewellyn,  Prince of Wales and although subsequently garrisoned by English invading forces it soon fell into disrepair and was abandoned.  Given how awkward it was to reach it I am not surprised that no-one wanted to take it on as a residence! 
Eglwyseg Rocks
Despite the little remaining of the castle it was a fascinating place to wander around.  There were parts that were sheltered from the wind and they were especially welcome.  The views from here though were magnificent as you might expect.  It was possible to see right down the Dee Valley as far as Pontcysyllte where we were yesterday.  Upriver we could see almost to Corwen, while below us was the spread of Llangollen and to the north the rather grand looking Eglwyseg Rocks, which is the name for the prominent limestone escarpment that you cannot fail to miss if you come by this area.

Ripening Fields
After satisfying our curiosity with the view and the ruins we headed onward, dropping down almost immediately on the other side.  Luckily we did not lose all the height we had gained immediately as our path ran alongside a road underneath the scarp slope.  The weather was by now relenting and the heavy cloud was starting to shift.  Below us were some fairly hardened looking campers - they had a lovely looking spot for waking up in the morning but not too many mod cons!  Our only other company along this stretch of road were sheep grazing on the scree slope of the limestone escarpment.
Valle Crucis Abbey
After wandering along the road with only the odd bleating sound in the air we almost jumped out of our skins when a couple of sheep went scarpering past us at a rate of knots from the yard of a holiday cottage that we passed.  We couldn't understand what the problem was initially but it soon became clear when a Land Rover came bombing along the road too complete with very excited sheep dog in the back riding in the flat bed part with tongue hanging out.  It amused all of us as the farmer and his do pursued the renegade sheep.

Abbey Ruins
Not long past here and we left the road to pass through a number of fields.  The distance that we now put between us and the limestone cliff enabled us to have a much better look at the rock formation.  Standing back a bit really showed off its impressive beauty.  Apparently it is home to some very rare plants although time did not permit us to go and check out these claims.

Looking Across to Castell Dinas Brann
After a few fields we came back out on to the road we had left minutes before as it wound round to meet our position.  A little past here and we turned left down another road for a short distance.  As we walked along this stretch we could hear the unmistakable sound of buzzards calling.  We were lucky too as they swooped down in the valley below us giving us a good view of them hunting.  Sadly I wasn't quick enough with my camera though so no shots.  Seeing them up so close was a massive treat for all of us though.

Llantysilio Church
We were glad to finally leave the road as our path took a left turn just before the road headed down a very steep looking hill.  We carried on at level for a little while before dropping down ourselves into the valley below the famous Horseshoe Pass.  The path continued through some pine forest and then alongside some ripening fields before we eventually reached Valle Crucis Abbey, our second ancient monument of the day.  This ruined abbey was built in 1201 and was the last Cistercian Abbey to be built in Wales.  Inevitably it did not survive the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII and was largely destroyed although unusually you can go upstairs in the dormitory part of the former monastery and see where the living quarters would once have been.  As members of English Heritage we were able to visit for free but you can also do so by paying a small fee.
Horseshoe Falls
We lingered at the Abbey for quite a  while trying to imagine what life would have been like here back in its heyday.  Sadly though the atmosphere of the place is rather impaired by the presence of a rather large caravan site next door.  It is a slightly bizarre arrangement with the two very different operations sitting side by side.  There are no cafe facilities at the abbey so we had to make do with wandering up the road to the farm shop at the top where there is a restaurant/ bistro/ tea shop (apparently all of those things!)  We had some welcome refreshments before pushing on.

Berwyn Bridges
We crossed another field and the main road into Llangollen before we had the rather unpleasant shock of another climb, this time through bracken covered country.  Luckily the climb, although tricky because of keeping our balance on slippery surfaces, did not amount to as much as we thought and the path soon levelled out.  As we walked along this stretch we could hear the sound of the latest steam train to leave Llangollen and travel along the Dee Valley.  It was great to hear the hard work of the locomotive although sadly we could not see anything of it through the trees even though it wasn't actually that far from our position.

Canal Reflections
We dropped down on to a road and then found a path along the valley to a small chapel.  The guide book suggests walking along the road to hear but the path seems a newer and safer option so it is wise to look out for it.  We dropped down to the side of the River Dee just below Llantysilio Church and soon found ourselves at the Horseshoe Falls.  These are signposted from some considerable distance away and you might be forgiven for thinking that the falls are an impressive feature.  Sadly not, although it is what they were used for that is more impressive than what they look like.  The falls are purely man-made and the weir was a means by which water from the River Dee could be pooled enough to supply the Llangollen Canal which begins at this point.  There is a surprising amount of flow along the canal and it was this that ensured the survival of the canal after its commercial use had stopped in the 1940s.  The flow of the water ensured that it remained an important water source for the faraway towns of Crewe and Nantwich.

Llangollen Railway
We paused at the falls briefly before commencing the last couple of miles of the walk along the canal towpath.  The canal itself is too fast flowing and narrow along here for use by boat traffic but nevertheless it makes for a very pleasant walk indeed and I think we were all glad of this gentle finale to the walk.  We soon passed the rather splendid hotel at Berwyn although were directed along the back of it so didn't see it at its best.

Eisteddfod Building
The route back along the canal was full of fascination and we got to see many of the tourist attractions that make Llangollen such a popular place to visit along the way.  We passed by the small motor museum, the sidings of the Llangollen Railway and the rather astonishing Eisteddfod building that hosts the world famous music and cultural event each year.  We also passed by the horse drawn canal boat that uses this section of canal.  It was delightful to see but the passengers all looked rather bored - perhaps it is better to watch the boat than travel on it?

Horse Drawn Barge
Soon enough we came back to the tea shop where the horse drawn boats begin their journey.  We knew that we had reached the operational part of the canal now because we were passed by a powered boat.  It seemed a fitting end to the walk where we had seen so many layers of history of this corner of Wales from mediaeval to the Industrial Revolution to the modern day.  It really is a smashing walk - easy to see why it is called one of the classics of Wales.  As for my girls they were thrilled to have completed it as they felt that it was a big challenge when we started and yet they felt comfortable with the distance by the end.  Perhaps we are ready to try more challenging stuff?


  1. Another great vicarious walk for me. I've really enjoyed this and well done your girls for their stamina.

    1. Thanks very much Tom - I realised that a few of the pictures on here didn't make it to Flickr!