Llangollen Canal and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Wales
Seeing a boat slowly chug along a British canal is usually such a delightful sight. There’s normally something so peaceful about the way it glides through the water, slower than the pedestrians alongside it, making a statement with its speed that this is about the experience rather than the destination.
But here at the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Wales, the boat that I’m looking at is actually terrifying me. Because it’s slowly travelling along a canal that is suspended in the middle of the air, 40 metres above the ground, with nothing but a long drop beneath it.
It looks so scary and precarious. Yet, somehow, it’s still a delightful sight. In fact – it’s probably even more so!
Moving water has always been a priority for civilisations and, over the years, we’ve seen empires come up with some ingenious solutions.
I think particularly about Pont du Gard in France, which I visited last year. This enormous bridge was constructed between two hills to allow for the gradual flow of drinking water along an aqueduct.
Here in Wales, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is actually not that different in what it is trying to achieve (although the canal is for boats, not just the movement of water). So the true wonder here is not that someone thought to build a bridge… but HOW they built the bridge.
The engineering behind the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is pure genius and was a symbol of the might of the industrial revolution when it was constructed at the beginning of the 19th century.
It is 307 metres long, 3.7 metres wide, and just 1.6 metres deep. Seeing how it all comes together is fascinating.
Coming up from the ground (and from the river bed) are 18 tall pillars made of stone. Connecting each of them at the top are arched iron ribs, each spanning 16 metres. And then the iron trough that carries the water sits on top of that.
It really is hard to believe that it’s all possible. Even though it looks quite simple at first glance, the engineering skills to have made it work must be incredible!
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is just a small part of a much longer canal system that was designed to connect the lowlands of England with the rugged terrain in the higher parts of Wales.
The main stretch that goes from Cheshire in England to Llangollen in Wales is now known as the Llangollen Canal. Although back at the start of the 19th century when the aqueduct was being built, the network was actually a bit of a confusing mess because different routes and stages were being completed at different times (or sometimes not at all).
What’s important to know, though, is that the goal was achieved of using these canals to transport goods. Boats that were towed along the waterways carried coal, iron, slate and limestone. The industrial revolution in Britain had its fuel, and one of its biggest export commodities, because of these canals!
Although this iron bridge over the River Dee is the highlight, there were actually many other engineering feats along the path of the Llangollen Canal – including another aqueduct (called the Chirk Aqueduct), tunnels, cuttings, and embankments.
An 18 kilometre stretch of the canal that includes both aqueducts and many of the most impressive pieces of engineering has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. There are a few ways to explore it.
Llangollen Canal boat trips
The Llangollen Canal was used for about 150 years to transport good that were needed by various industries. It was only in the middle of the 1900s that it became more inefficient and costly than alternative routes. But the boats didn’t stop – they just started carrying sightseers instead.
The best way to experience the Llangollen Canal is by the very thing that it was intended for – a boat ride. It’s the most popular leisure canal in Britain and probably the most beautiful. You can either go the entire length or just a part of it.
Doing a Llangollen Canal boat trip for the entire 66 kilometre length takes about three days. For a lot of visitors, its better to just do a day trip (or shorter). There are five companies within the World Heritage Site area that offer short trips. You can see the options here.
Llangollen Aqueduct walk
Another good option is to walk along the Llangollen Aqueduct, which is very easy to do because of the towpath along the route. The most popular stretch is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct walk between the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Llangollen, taking you past many of the waterway’s highlights.
That stretch is about 7.5 kilometres and can be done in as short as 90 minutes (although you’ll probably want a bit longer to enjoy the scenery along the way). It’s easy to do a loop back along a different route that takes you to the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, along the Llangollen Panorama Walk, and even a taste of the Offa’s Dyke National Trail.
However you choose to experience it, do make sure you walk across the length of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Although it is obviously perfectly safe, it is a strange sensation to be so high up on such a narrow structure – whether it’s in a boat or on foot.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Visit Wales but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.