The Llangollen Canal
The Llangollen Canal leaves the Shropshire Union Canal just north of Nantwich in rural Cheshire and climbs through quiet Shropshire pasturelands to cross the border into Wales near Chirk. It then cuts through increasingly hilly countryside to finish alongside the River Dee tumbling out of Snowdonia just above Llangollen. It is 41 miles long and takes at least three days to cruise (one-way), more when busy.
The Llangollen Canal, or just the Welsh as it is known to enthusiasts, is arguably the most beautiful canal in Britain, certainly it’s the most popular. The scenery varies from isolated sheep pastures to ancient peat mosses, from tree lined lakes to the foothills of Snowdonia.
At Hurleston Junction four narrow locks start the fairly gentle climb up towards the Welsh Border, followed by two at Swanley then three at Baddiley. You will probably notice a decent flow of water down the canal, slowing your upstream progress and pouring over the lock bywashes; take care entering and leaving locks. The canal avoided closure for many years when it carried little traffic by acting as a water feed for the reservoir at Hurleston which provides some of Cheshire’s drinking water. Next comes the village of Wrenbury with its handsome church, pubs and a mechanised lift bridge which you approach at an awkward angle.
A few miles further on through three isolated locks is Grindley Brook with six locks, three in a staircase. The Llangollen Canal is very popular and this can mean some peak time queuing at locks, especially at the Grindley Brook staircase and the remaining two at New Marton; the lock keepers and volunteers at Grindley Brook usually manage to keep boats moving through in a sensible way. Whitchurch is a medieval market town with half timbered buildings, the Georgian St Alkund’s church and useful shops now including a canal side supermarket, although access from the canal involves a walk. The short Prees branch heads off to the left as the canal starts to cross Whixhall Moss. These ‘Marches Mosses’ are the third largest area of lowland-raised peatbog in the UK. Whixhall Moss was used for peat extraction for hundreds of years but is now slowly being rewatered, restoring a valuable carbon store and wildlife habitat. There are trails across the mosses with moorings.
After the Mosses come the Meres! These are tree lined lakes formed by depressions left by glaciers in the last ice age, fed by underground springs rather than streams; on your way into Ellesmere you skirt Colemere and Blakemere. Ellesmere also has its own Mere, a short walk through the town from the canal. There’s also a canal arm with an old warehouse and canalside supermarket. At Frankton junction the part restored Montgomery Canal heads down along the Welsh border, only 7 miles open currently but well worth a short peaceful detour!
Nearing the Welsh border the rolling fields become hillsides before reaching the fortified border town of Chirk, overflowing with heritage! A 13th century Castle & gardens, and its stunning aqueduct, tunnel and railway viaduct! Restoration of the old narrow gauge Glynn Valley Tramway is underway.
The pioneering masterpiece of engineering by which the early civil engineers crossed the difficult landscape between Chirk and Llangollen has resulted in this 18 kilometre length being awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 2009. The aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysyllte were built by the engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop and were among the first to use cast iron troughs to contain the canal. Unfortunately the huge engineering costs of this section with its aqueducts and tunnels and the resulting delays to construction meant the canal didn’t reach Chester or Shrewsbury, its intended destinations! Other canals got there first!
The trough of Chirk Aqueduct is supported by conventional masonry arches and hidden inside the masonry, almost as if the engineers were not confident of their new material. But the trough of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is exposed and sits atop 120 foot high slender masonry towers. When you cross it by boat there is an exhilarating sheer drop on the non-towpath side! You should stay below decks if you don’t have much of a head for heights, but do try to look through the windows, otherwise you will miss some amazing views! At the far end of the aqueduct is Trevor Basin which was intended to be the start of the climb over the hills to Chester.
After turning sharp left turn into the Dee valley there’s the modern engineering feat which may seem a little tame by comparison to the aqueducts but requiring considerable twentieth century engineering time and expertise. Constant landslips on the stretch from Trevor to Llangollen, one actually derailing a train on the railway below, eventually meant closing the section for two years to rebuild the embankments above the River Dee, and encasing the canal in a concrete trough. The trough is fairly shallow and deeper boats usually find it slow going here, especially against the water flow!
Llangollen sits astride the River Dee beneath the ruins of Castel Dinas Bran, an ancient gateway to Wales. Enjoy a horse drawn boat trip to the the Horseshoe Falls, watch kayakers run the white water rapids under the Town bridge or ride behind steam trains to Corwen on the Llangollen Railway.