Steve Goodier visits Llangollen, and finds a charming town full of heritage…
I recently read a book by Steve Haywood called ‘Narrow Boat Nomads’ which was about a retired couple who went to live on their narrow boat exploring the UK’s canal network. After an idyllic summer winter approached and they wanted somewhere to moor up for the dark days and so headed for Llangollen as it held memories for them and they liked it a lot.
I know what they meant!
Llangollen and I go back many years and in my mind I always associate it with bright sunny days when the River Dee sparkles as it passes through the town. Of course I have been there on less perfect days too and often dropped into it for a coffee and some food on dusky winter afternoons after snowy days on the hills surrounding the Horseshoe Pass and the higher Berwyn mountain range.
As Welsh towns go it is both charming and lovely and is usually bustling with both tourists and outdoor enthusiasts no matter whatever season of the year it happens to be. My one time climbing partner Peter (he actually taught me to rock climb) left his job in Oswestry to buy a D.I.Y. shop in Llangollen and settle there, and it is no surprise to me that the Victorian author George Borrow (1803-1881) chose to base himself in Llangollen for over a month before setting out on his walking tour of Wales in 1854 which he recorded in the classic travel work ‘Wild Wales’. If you want some idea of what the town was like when Queen Victoria sat on the throne of England grab yourself a copy of this much loved book and have a read.
Llangollen takes its name from the Welsh ‘Llan’ which means ‘a religious settlement’ and from the 6th Century Monk Saint ‘Collen’ who founded a Church besides the River Dee. The modern town has a population of somewhere around 4,000 but this is swollen by visitor numbers through spring, summer and autumn. The main town centre has a great selection of cafés, restaurants, bars, hotels and B&B’s with cottages to hire too and a reasonable selection of camping and caravan sites to accommodate visitors who like to bring their own ‘homes’ with them. There are plenty of shops for just browsing around and of course, the tumbling River Dee provides a backdrop to the whole scene.
The Victorian Promenade is a popular walk and the arched bridge near the weir is a popular place for people to just idle away a bit of time and watch the water cascading beneath them. The current river bridge dates from the 16th Century and replaced a previous structure which dated from 1345. The bridge you see today was extended by adding a further arch in the 1860’s to accommodate the recently arrived railway. Sadly Llangollen’s railway closed to passengers in 1965 and to freight in 1969. Although the line was lifted a ten-mile stretch has since been restored between Llangollen and Corwen and this is where the popular tourist attraction of ‘The Llangollen Railway’ operates. It is the only standard gauge railway in North Wales and the journey to Corwen is simply stunning as the train passes along the delightful Dee Valley and through part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But its not just railways that have history with this Welsh town. The Llangollen Canal has many historic ties and eleven miles of the current waterway from Gledrid to the Horseshoe Falls (which is a superb weir) via the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is classed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The canal was originally built as a feeder canal that ran from Trevor and was to be used to tap the waters from the River Dee at Llantysilio (near the aforementioned Horseshoe Falls). It provided a link to the Ellesmere Canal which was built to connect the coal mines and iron works at Ruabon and Wrexham to main canal network and so give a link to the sea via The River Mersey and The River Severn. The Ellesmere Canal was incorporated into The Shropshire Union Canal and until recently The Llangollen Canal was known as The Llangollen Branch of The Shropshire Union Canal. Today it has reverted back to its original name and is unusual amongst our canal network as it has a strong flow of around two miles per hour. The Llangollen Canal is a major part of the tourist scene around Llangollen and is one of the most famous and busiest of all our canals due to its twisting route through the Welsh hills and the way it crosses The Dee Valley on the awesome Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
As we have mentioned earlier Llangollen is very historic and near the town you will find the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey where I was once brought as a child on a very memorable school trip to view it and the nearby ancient Pillar of Eliseg. The Abbey was established in its lovely setting around 1201 under the patronage of Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor of nearby Castell Dinas Bran.
This castle can’t fail to be seen by anyone visiting Llangollen as it occupies a strategic position at the top of a 1,054 ft/321 metre hill. The ruins can be visited via a strenuous walk but the stunning views from the top are well worth the effort required. The current castle was built around the 1260’s by Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor who was a Prince of Powys Fadog. It occupies the site of several earlier fortifications the earliest of which is thought to be an Iron Age hill fort. Its name has variously been translated at ‘Crow Castle’, ‘Crow City’, ‘Hill of the Crow’ or ‘Bran’s Stronghold’.
On the outskirts of Llangollen you will find Plas Newydd which was the home of the celebrated ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ from 1780. It was here that the Honourable Sarah Ponsonby, Lady Eleanor Butler and their maid Mary Caryll lived. They were two upper class Irish women who fled their home country to avoid being forced into unwanted marriages and they lived together for 50 years with their relationship both fascinating and scandalising contemporary society. They devoted their time to receiving friends and visitors, extensive correspondence, studies of literature and language and improving their estate.
The Horseshoe Pass rises to 1,368 ft/417 metres above Llangollen and it attracts numerous motorists who find following the winding A542 to the Ponderosa Café at the pass summit a very rewarding experience.
And of course we can’t leave Llangollen without mentioning its part in Welsh culture. The town is the home of the International Musical Eisteddfod (held annually) and hosted the national Eisteddfod in 1908. The town also hosts The Llangollen Fringe Festival each July and this celebrates music, comedy, theatre and dance. As well as this there is Dee Rocks which is a local fundraising festival held during May when the town hall is transformed into a music venue.
Llangollen is a real gem of a place and holds something for everyone be they day visitor or a tourist who wants to stay longer. The outdoor possibilities around the area are endless but you could easily spend two very full days just seeing the sights this valley town has to offer.
Or you could combine both – the choice is yours!
Steve Goodier is a freelance outdoor writer that specialises in North Wales. He is the author of ten outdoor books and his latest ‘Ten Best Pub Walks in Snowdonia’ will be published later this year, followed by ‘Ten Best Waterfall and Lake Walks in Snowdonia’ (www.northerneyebooks.co.uk). He is married to Paula and has two grown up children.