Water in the sky – Pontcysyllte Aqeduct. Welsh 100 – No 28

After the previous day the morning dawned bright with blue skies. Finally some sun on a Bank Holiday Weekend. The original plan was to try and get into a barge trip and float/sail/navigate across the Pontcysyllte Aquaduct. What do you do in a barge? Navigate I suppose, as there are no sails. You do float but that seems too passive. So OK, the plan was to navigate across the aqueduct. However, because of the unpredictable nature of the weather this weekend we decided not to book a trip, in case the weather was so bad we had to postpone it. Well as it turned out the weather was perfect so off we set in hope. The drive was a good one. Old Man Swain and I had driven this road a few times while walking  Offa’s Dyke and it was good to remember the points along the way. Though Aunty was getting a little bored as I pointed out landmarks and discussed the various battle sites along the border.

Looking across the River Dee towards Llangollen Station. On the hill behind is Castell Dinas Bran. One day I'll get up there!
Looking across the River Dee towards Llangollen Station. On the hill behind is Castell Dinas Bran. One day I’ll get up there!
We arrived in Llangollen earlyish, but not quite early enough. All the boat trips across the Aqueduct were fully booked. And we and found an all day parking place for only £3. Short of staging an illegal boarding and hijacking of a barge going in the right direction there was nothing for it but to tuck our tails between our legs and go to Plan B. In fact I had also come up with Plans C, D and F. But one was illegal and Aunty dismissed the other two stating that I was not allowed to stay in the pub all afternoon. So we had a wander around the town for a bit, and of course I had to have my mid-morning coffee. I have to say that with the sun out spring had arrived. So different to the day before with the wind, rain and omnipresent, depressing cloud cover.

Looking back towards the town from up-river
Looking back towards the town from up-river
We have to come back to Llangollen next year to visit the International Eisteddfod, as this is also on the Welsh 100 list, so we didn’t spoil that future visit too much by investigating the town in detail. So fortified with coffee, and a tasty looking, locally made Cornish Pasty each from a deli on the high street we drove back to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct to park. If we couldn’t navigate across on a barge, we could walk over it. I had already walked over it with Old Man Swain, but the experience is one that can never be turned down. As it turned out we walked across, underneath and around it. Much better than a slow barge ride across.

The start of the Froncysyllte Basin and wharf.
The start of the Froncysyllte Basin and wharf.
Pontcysyllte is the tallest navigable Aqueduct in the world and transports the Llangollen Canal high over the beautiful Dee Valley. Designed by William Jessop and Thomas Telford that last stone was laid in 1805 after 200 men spent a decade labouring on this spectacular industrial masterpiece.

This shot shows just how narrow the channel and pathway really is.
This shot shows just how narrow the channel and pathway really is.
The aqueduct is 1,007 feet (307m) long and spans the valley from Trevor to Froncysyllte. The final cost was £47,000.18s, which is about £3,330,000 today. Both these statistics are impressive in their own right, showing the commitment from both a financial and a engineering perspective. And what a perspective you get from the top of the walkway looking down into the depths of the valley below. The place was heaving, and there must have been hundreds of people who crossed during the day.

Detail of the water trough holding the water. The joints were originally sealed with Welsh flannel and a mixture of white lead and iron particles from boring waste.
Detail of the water trough holding the water. The joints were originally sealed with Welsh flannel and a mixture of white lead and iron particles from boring waste.
So what about a few more facts? “More!” I hear you cry. Well here goes. The canal was built to carry lime, iron and coal from the area into the developing heartlands of the industrial revolution in the Midlands and surrounding area. As you look into the steep sided allies all around you can see the large, shear cliffs created by the quarrying of the limestone. In the 19th century the only efficient way to transport the heavy and bulky material was by water, hence the rash of canal building that occurred across the UK.
It may be 1007 feet long, but it is only 11ft (3.4m) wide. This width includes the water trough that carries the water and barge, but also the narrow path alongside needed by the horses to pull the barges. No Diesel engines in those days. Each of the nineteen spans is 53ft (16m) wide. The keep the aqueduct as light as possible, the slender masonry piers are partly hollow, taping as they near the summit.

Looking down towards the River Dee. The building on the other side of the bridge is an old water mill.
Looking down towards the River Dee. The building on the other side of the bridge is an old water mill.

One of the barges at Trevor Basin on the Llangollen side of the aqueduct.
One of the barges at Trevor Basin on the Llangollen side of the aqueduct.

The aqueduct from the bank of the River Dee. The perfect place for a Cornish Pasty.
The aqueduct from the bank of the River Dee. The perfect place for a Cornish Pasty.
The canal through Llangollen leading to the aqueduct is fed by the River Dee further upstream. The same river that passes so far below the aqueduct itself. In 1808 a weir was created to feed water into the entrance of the canal. These have now become known as the Horseshoe Falls.

The Horseshoe Falls, where pat of the River Dee is diverted into the Llangollen Canal
The Horseshoe Falls, where pat of the River Dee is diverted into the Llangollen Canal
Ironically, the efficient transport by barge of the day was soon superseded by a faster and more efficient transport method – the steam train. Running alongside the canal this soon killed off the barge trade. As we were going to Horseshoe Falls we were passed by the steam train now running as a tourist attraction, but we caught it up at one the stations further along the line.

The steam train at the Chain Bridge Station, near the Horseshoe Falls
The steam train at the Chain Bridge Station, near the Horseshoe Falls
If you get the chance go and walk across. You won’t regret it. Once you get to the other side you can have an ice cream! But somehow I missed out on one this time. I think Aunty is getting more skilled at steering me away.

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