It is the tallest navigable aqueduct in the UK. The gravity-defying structure, which stands stoically some 126ft above the valley of the River Dee, has inspired not just engineers but also artists. Indeed, the Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott described it as, ‘the most impressive piece of art I have ever seen’. But what most people don’t realise is that it calls Wrexham County home.
We’re now edging our way gingerly along the towpath of the 1070ft-long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, located four miles west of Llangollen. “I’m not prone to vertigo but some people do have a wobble when they get half way,” says Destination Supervisor Lynda Slater of the Canal and River Trust.
Completed in 1805 by Victorian canal engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop, Pontcysyllte is the dramatic centerpiece of North Wales’ 11-mile Unesco World Heritage site, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The extent runs from the Horseshoe Falls via the Trevor Basin to just beyond Chirk across the Shropshire border.
“Unesco status comes with kudos but also responsibility,” says Lynda, as we look down — wobble free so far — across the valley. “Over 0.5m visitors per year now come to the area.”
STREAM IN THE SKY
I’ve come to Wrexham County with daughters Maya, 13, and Olivia, aged nine, for a weekend exploring the area’s family attractions. We’re following one of the new itineraries created by the This Is Wrexham Tourism Partnership to showcase the variety of visitor attractions and independent businesses in a sometimes lesser-known part of North Wales.
Having started our visit at the Trevor Basin visitor centre, where Olivia loved building the aqueduct structure from wooden blocks while I took a crash course in industrial heritage, we join Lynda for a stroll around the World Heritage Site.
The aqueduct is supported by 18 giant pillars and features a single iron trough for narrowboats. No wonder this lock-free stretch of the Llangollen Canal has become a favourite for narrowboats and is known as the ‘stream in the sky’.
There are regular boat excursions across the aqueduct from near the visitor centre, or you can hire a narrowboat for a day and chug along the canal to Llangollen Wharf at a steady 4mph — the ultimate slow-travel experience. But today we’re walking, enjoying being close to nature in an area that forms part of the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding natural Beauty (AONB).
The next day we drive into Langollen to explore the Dee Valley market town guarded by the rambling ruins of 13th-century Castle Dinas Bran. We catch a ride on the Llangollen Railway, the only standard-gauge heritage railway in North Wales, where the steam engine huffs and puffs its way along a genteel 10-mile track through the AONB.
There’s a moment of high drama when the carriage is plunged into darkness in the tunnel after Berwyn station, from where you can hop off to visit the Horseshoe Falls and the Chain Bridge. We finally steam into Carrog station, whistle tooting, for tea and Welshcakes at the station café. An old railway carriage has been turned into a pop-up shop with Hornby train set pieces, railway jigsaws and well-thumbed copies of Heritage Rail magazine.
A nice touch on the return leg is when the conductor gives out souvenir vintage rail tickets, dating from the 1950s heyday of the railway. It takes me the rest of the journey back to Llangollen to explain the price — eight shillings and three pence — to the girls who regard the 1980s as ‘the olden days’.
We head for afternoon tea at the Glasshouse Restaurant of the newly refurbished Wild Pheasant Hotel & Spa, where we will also spent the night. Tucking into tiered plates of finger-cut sandwiches, scones and slabs of homemade cake, all served with cups of Early Grey, it provides Maya’s most Instagrammable image of the weekend.
Located on the road to Corwen with family rooms and a family area in the bar, the hotel is just five minutes along the canal from the town centre for an early-evening stroll. “As a mum of four, I’m all for getting kids out and about, taking a break from screen time,” says Natalie Jones, the hotel’s Sales & Events Manager. “And this part of North East Wales is really on the up with lots of interesting new independent businesses.”
Back at the World Heritage Site, meanwhile, we’re about to put on our walking boots for a one-mile stroll along wooded footpaths to Ty Mawr Country Park to meet the animals. After that we’ll be driving onto Wrexham town centre for dinner at the Fat Boar and a comfy night at the family-friendly Ramada Hotel.
But for now, we’re enjoying the simple pleasures of family bonding time away from normal busy routines and discovering Wrexham County afresh against a backdrop of superb scenery.
“We’re increasingly aware of the health benefits of walking next to water,” smiles Lynda as we head for tea at the colourful narrowboat café having made it across the aqueduct without a wobble.
“That’s why,” she adds, “we encourage everyone to discover some waterway wellness.”
The This Is Wrexham Tourism Partnership who commissioned my visit and their new itineraries have been successful in receiving funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities Rural Development Programme 2014 – 2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Atkinson is a travel writer but always come home to North East Wales, where he was born; more from atkinsondavid.com