OF the myriad ways one can cross the border from England into Wales, few can surely be more romantic than by canal, be you on a barge or on the towpath alongside.
Chugging slowly over the Chirk Aqueduct into north east Wales, with the border country trains clattering their way above you on the viaduct that runs alongside, you leave England at one side of the aqueduct. By the time you reach the other side, you’ll be in Wales. Or vice versa, it goes without saying, should you be tearfully bidding our country farewell.
Passports are not currently required to be produced here, though! And should you have inadvertently mislaid your barge along the way, the same crossing can just as soothingly be made on foot or by bicycle.
If you’re of a pernickety nature, you can judge when you actually cross from one country to the other by studying the position of Afon Ceiriog below. It’s a tributary of the majestic River Dee – or Afon Dyfrdwy in Welsh, and forms the actual border, flowing directly beneath both aqueduct and viaduct.
This slowly flowing waterway is part of the 74km (46 miles) long Llangollen Canal, which you can join from the English network over the border via the Shropshire Union canal. It links to its Welsh partner, the Montgomery Canal, at Frankton Junction. Both these Welsh canals and their infrastructure are owned and operated by waterways agency Glandŵr Cymru .
Once important commercial routes, before the arrival of the railways, nowadays they’re increasingly popular with tourists seeking a vacation at a slower pace. And with a maximum speed limit of 4mph (6.4km per hour), you are talking a relaxed walking pace here. You certainly won’t be encountering any water skiers, just a few canoeists and the odd angler.
The aqueduct was built by acclaimed Scottish engineer Thomas Telford and opened in 1801. The viaduct, meanwhile, is the handiwork of another Scotsman, Henry Robertson, and constructed at break-neck speed in 1846-48 as London sought to bring its newly-acquired Irish colony more closely into its orbit.
Barges can be hired for the day or for extended periods, both locally at Trevor Basin or further afield through companies such as Anglo Welsh . But dealing with some of the 21 locks that need to be opened and closed, and bridges that have to be lowered and raised, is not necessarily what everybody sees as relaxation.
Should you be of that ilk, you could always opt to just walk or cycle along the towpaths to take in some stunning scenery and breath-taking feats of engineering. They are mostly also eminently suitable for people with reduced mobility, being virtually flat.
Should you decide on this option, and to make it further into Wales from Chirk in the direction of Llangollen, you’ll head straight for what is a rare canal tunnel that has a towpath incorporated into it.
At 421m long, it offers a dank and dark experience where you’ll be glad that there really is light at the end of the tunnel. Little wonder the locals have nicknamed it “The Darkie”. In olden days, when the tow horse would sometimes be too spooked to venture into the confines of what would be a claustrophobic space for an animal of that size, cargo boat crews would lie on their backs and “walk” their vessels through by placing their feet on the tunnel roof.
But if you’re really taken in by this notion of just lying back and letting life come to you, you could always look for a short trip of a couple of hours in the capable hands of an experienced captain and his or her attentive crew, where they’ll serve you refreshments and perhaps a glass of wine as you stretch out on-board. Some will even offer a Welsh cream tea, with 24 hours’ warning, in effect a selection of cream-laden confectionery and sandwiches to accompany your tea or coffee. Not ideal if you’re watching your waistline, but what the heck? You’re on holiday.
They leave on a regular basis either from the Trevor Basin in the village of Trevor, or the wharf in the centre of the pretty little town of Llangollen, with its abundance of pubs, restaurants and other attractions. Even more relaxing than the chug-chugging of a barge racing along a canal at a princely 4mph is the clippety-clopping of a traditional, eco-friendly horse-drawn boat . These leave regularly from Llangollen along a feeder route to the main canal.
But the canal’s pièce de résistance without a shadow of a doubt, and an UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site to boot, together with 18km (11 miles) of the canal infrastructure itself, is the absolutely unbelievable engineering feat known as the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The Trevor Basin Visitor Centre at its northern end is a must-see – especially as there is no admission charge – for anybody with just the faintest passing interest in this remarkable feat of engineering prowess.
The aqueduct was opened in 1805, having been built by Thomas Telford. Yes, that man again. There really was no end to the Celtic genius’ talents. It towers all of 38m (126ft) above the valley floor beneath it, and has a span from one end to the other of 307m (1,007ft). Its trough holds an incredible 1.5m litres of water, fed from the nearby Horseshoe Falls.
Earlier this century it was drained for inspection, a huge plug in the trough base being literally pulled out, allowing the water to plunge into the Dee below. Having inspected its two-century old cast iron structure, which had been sealed with a paste largely consisting of cows’ blood, the inspectors deemed it as being perfectly serviceable and had it re-filled with water.
It is the tallest canal aqueduct in the world. To cross it aboard a canal boat, and many of the short tourist trips do so, is akin to floating serenely among the clouds given its low-slung parapet that is largely invisible from the barge. It is an other-worldly experience, and should you not really have a head for heights, we suggest you at least sit on the towpath side of the vessel.
Pedestrians who decide on traversing its span have no such luxury. They have the canal trough on one side, and only a metal fence separating them from the sheer drop to the valley floor on the other. We suggest those of a vertiginous nature should look straight ahead, and to remember that they’ll probably need to cross back as well unless they’ve made other arrangements. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.
The Montgomery Canal is an altogether more sedate affair, still in the painstaking process of being resuscitated after decades of wilful neglect since its closure in 1936. But it is no less fascinating for that. If you prefer fewer tourists and a closer-to-nature feel to your canals and their towpaths, this is for you.
It is connected to the main network through Frankton via a 11km (7 miles) stretch of restored waterway, while another 19km (12 miles) of thus far isolated waterway that has been restored between Berriew and Arddleen awaits to join its sibling. Although popular with canoeists, that section is only accessible to canal boats by means of a slipway at Welshpool. That sits next to the fascinating Powysland Museum, located in an old warehouse on the wharf, where the canal’s colourful history is explained in full. It is hoped to eventually re-open the whole of the canal to its 53km (33 miles) length, all the way between Frankton and Newtown.
Both sections can boast of thriving wildlife, and are designated by the Welsh Government as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). They contain 90% of the UK’s population of the exceedingly rare grasswrack pondweed, and hosts one of the world’s largest populations of floating water plantain. A number of nature reserves border the canal, and otters, water voles, a multitude of birdlife, and the magically-colourful dragonflies can often be spotted.
No less interesting are the 126 structures on its route listed as being of historic interest, including a rare restored lime kiln and chimney right on the border at the Llanymynech Limeworks Heritage Area .
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