Canal Guide

Llangollen Canal

Llangollen Canal

 

The Llangollen Canal from Nantwich to Llangollen

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Llangollen Canal is actually a branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. It leaves the main canal at Hurleston Junction and traverses the Shropshire and Cheshire plains, until it terminates in the mountains of North East Wales. It was originally part of the Ellesmere and Chester Canal Company and was built to transport coal, iron and limestone to the new terminus on the Mersey at Ellesmere Port. 
It was designed in part by the engineer William Jessop, but Thomas Telford the great Victorian engineer was involved in the construction of two huge aqueduects at Chirk and Pontcysyllte, which were necessary to carry the canal over the valleys of the River Dee and River Ceiriog.

Today
the canal is entirely used for pleasure boating.  Because it passes through stunning scenery and high Welsh mountains it is probably the most popular of all the canals on the system.  I have navigated it myself, and you do have to wait at peak times to pass through some of the locks and - of course - to traverse the magnificent aqueducts. However, because the scenery around you is so stunning you have so much to look at and to enjoy that you do not notice the passage of time!

My personal advice to would-be navigators of the Llangollen Canal is to allow plenty of time for your journey up to Llangollen and back, and to try and time your arrival at the two aqueducts for a day in the middle of the week, so that you beat the weekend bottlenecks!

Above: The magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct built by Thomas Telford - photo by Peter Craine and reproduced by kind permission Above: Hurleston Junction lock

The Llangollen canal leaves the Shropshire Union mainline at Hurleston Junction, which is just north of the little town of Nantwich.

The first obstacle you will encounter is the Hurleston flight of locks, which leave you in no doubt as to the fact that you are going to have to do some work on your journey to get to your goal of Llangollen! 

After this you pass the small hamlet of Burland and reach a stretch of the canal with a series of locks called the Baddiley locks.

From here it is a short journey to the canalside village of Wrenbury, the base for English County Cruisers.  This is a nice little place: the village also has some neat little thatched cottages and a large church, plus two canalside pubs, The Cotton Arms and the Dusty Miller. 

Above: The locks at Baddiley - photo by Espresso Addict and reproduced by kind permission

 Above: The canal at Wrenbury Wharf

Wrenbury Wharf used to be a place of some importance with its mill.  You will pass an hydraulically operated lift bridge as well. 
After Wrenbury there is a long stretch of the canal through gentle and quiet Cheshire countryside with no locks until you reach bridge 23 and Marbury Lock. 

The village of Marbury is about 500 yards from the canal but is well worth a visit. It has lots of lovely old  timbered buildings and a splendid Church, plus a little lake. Following the canal you reach Quoisley Lock and lift bridge.

   

Above: The lift bridge by Quoisley lock - photo by   and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Lock keepers cottage at Grindley Brook

The canal then continues to pass through a series of locks  for about 10 miles, and moves ever upwards. It is well away from any village, and you need to have stocked up on your essential supplies like bread and milk before leaving Wrenbury.

The next place of note is the Grindley Brook flight of locks The first three locks are separated, but after this you encounter the famous staircase of three locks.  However, if you have difficulties there is a lock keeper in residence to help you! Allow plenty of time here as this is a notorious bottleneck, however picturesque. You can always visit the nice old canalside pub here, called The Horse and Jockey, while you are waiting!

Beyond Grindley Brook staircase you quickly approach the little town of Whitchurch, which has some really beautiful old houses of all historical periods in quaint little narrow streets and you will love to wander around as well as stocking up on supplies. The boatyard here is Viking Afloat, but Whitchurch does not have any canalside pubs, which is a shame. Don't forget the supplies - you will travel many miles after Whitchurch before coming across more shops...

Above: Grindley Brook Staircase locks - photo by  and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The canal through Whixall Moss

Leaving Whitchurch the canal passes thrugh some very remote areas with little signs of human habitation. What you will see are lots and lots of black and white cows! You pass over an embankment which carries the canal over the strangely named Whixall Moss. This is a nature reserve which is rich in flora and insects of all kinds! Peat used to be cut here for garden compost purposes but efforts now are being made to return the peat bog back to nature.

Beyond Whixall the canal continues westwards to Frankton. Here you will pass the Prees branch off to your left with a solitary cottage on the bank alongside the canal. The branch is now used as access to a marina just beyond the junction with the Llangollen canal.  It is a pleasant walk along the banks towards the marina. 

Above: The Llangollen canal at Prees junction - photo by Colin and reproduced by kind permission

You will now find yourself in a long pound of water without any locks for many miles. The next hamlet of any note is Bettisfield followed by Welshampton but neither of these are actually near the canal.  You continue along a long stretch of canal, which winds past several pretty little lakes (they are called  "meres" in this part of the country) and after a short stretch of tunnel you reach the little town of Ellesmere  which is located about half a mile away from the canal. There is a short arm of the canal that turns off here to a wharf with a British Waterways depot and old warehouses. It is complete with pumpout and water facilities, all very useful to the holiday boater. In addition, Ellesmere has all the supplies you will need plus restaurants and pubs, so it is well worth scheduling a stop here.

After Ellesmere the canal continues once again through gentle countryside with lots of open fields and cows. At Welsh Frankton junction the canal meets with the arm of the Montgomery Canal which used to run all the way south to the towns of Welshpool and Newtown. You can only navigate a short length of the Montgomery Canal at this point, and you will see a series of locks which began the descent from the Llangollen canal. In total, you can access 7 miles and navigate 6 locks on the "Monty" after the junction at Welsh Frankton,  (plus a short isolated length further south), but big plans are well underway to restore the full length of the Montgomery Canal.

Back on to the Llangollen canal you pass through two locks at New Marton - which are the last to be encountered before you reach your destination of Llangollen. From here onwards you can see the hills of Wales approaching, as you pass Wat's Dyke and Henlle Park

You will see the little town of Chirk in the distance and certainly hear the roar of the traffic on the nearby A5 as it thunders towards Wales. Chirk is at the edge of the mountains and the canal was cut into the side of a hill, called Chirk Bank. As you leave this cutting and turn a sharp corner you find yourself suddenly approaching Chirk aqueduct, a very impressive structure of brick and stone pillars which carry the water for the canal in a cast iron trough. This was completed in 1801. The railway viaduct runs alongside it, carrying the main line railway through to Holyhead. As you cross the aqueduct you enter Wales. Immediately after the aqueduct comes Chirk Tunnel which is very narrow, and another bottleneck in high summer. The town of Chirk is down below you - it is nice but full of traffic from the nearby A5 trunk road.

Above: Chirk Aqueduct and tunnel - the railway viaduct is on the left of the aqueduct, and you can just see the tunnel infront of you. Photo by Martin Clark and reproduced by kind permission.

Above: Pontcysyllte aqueduect - photo by Colin Smith and reproduced by kind permission.

Beyond the Chirk tunnel you enter another tunnel at Whitehouse and then suddenly you are approaching the greatest feat of engineering on the entire canal network - the great Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Nothing prepares you for your first encounter with this magnificent structure. To my mind it is the most spectacular feature on the whole canal system, and it cannot fail to astonish you.  The aqueduct was designed and built by Thomas Telford , who realised that such a high crossing of the River Dee was necessary to complete the route of the canal to Llangollen. He used similar techniques to those he employed when constructing the much shorter Chirk aqueduct. He built the graceful stone piers and placed the cast iron troughs on top of them - these carry the water of the canal over 120 feet above the River Dee far below.

 

Above: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct showing the sheer drop on the left - photo by Mark Riley and reproduced by kind permission.

I have crossed the aqueduct in a narrowboat myself and it is not for the faint hearted! This is because, while the towpath side of the iron trough has railings, the other side is completely unprotected from about 12 inches above the water level, so that when you look out over the side of your boat you can almost believe that you are gliding through the air!  

Do not look down on this side unless you have a head for heights! The aqueduct remains today as it was built - the masonry is in prime condition - it has very narrow masonry joints - and the gracefully dovetailed joints in the cast iron trough hardly leak at all. Telford even had the cast iron side plates of the trough made in wedge shapes like stones in a masonry arch, to help prevent leakage. You will never forget your first crossing of the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, and we can only marvel at the courage and skill of the early canal engineers and navigators who dared to build such astonishing structures in order to advance the Industrial Revolution in England.

 

Above: A view of the aqueduct by John Radcliffe and reproduced by kind permission.

It is by no means an anti climax to leave the aqueduct and to turn past Ruabon and Trevor up towards the little town of Llangollen. The canal here is particularly narrow and not very deep, and care needs to be exercised while making your way up to Llangollen. Once again, you should leave plenty of time in order to complete this part of your journey, as you will have to stop lots of times and wait for the boat in front of you to pass carefully before you proceed. It is a stretch of canal which is full of great beauty however, and you are surrounded by the Welsh mountains and views in all directions.  The canal is on the side of a hill so you will see Llangollen in the valley below you.  This little town is famous throughout the world for its International Eisteddfod, a singing festival of mainly amateur choirs and individuals - Luciano Pavarotti sang here about 50 years ago. It is full of quaint Victorian buildings and pretty little gardens, with riverside walks alongside the River Dee.  You can even leave your boat and take a steam train ride from the station here, which is a nice change after your long haul on your narrowboat to get here.

Llangollen has all the supplies you could possibly need and is an excellent place to stop, but you should be aware that turning your boat here is not easy as the end of navigation is just outside the town before Pen-y-Dol Bridge. Also, as everyone wants to visit the town, moorings can be in short supply in high summer, and if you want an overnight stay you should plan to arrive early in the afternoon to secure a spot. 

Above: Llangollen town - photo by Stephen Nunney and reproduced by kind permission

Above: This photo sums it up! - The Llangollen canal at Trevor with Castel Dinas Bran on the top of the mountain - photo by Maurice Pullin and reproduced by kind permission.

I can personally vouch for the fact that all your efforts will be worthwhile, and that you will thoroughly enjoy your journey up the Llangollen Canal with all its many and varied attractions, from the peaceful Shropshire fields to the huge adrenalin rush you will get as you cross the magnificent aqueduct at Pontcysyllte. Nothing you do on the whole canal system will beat this for adventure and thrills along such a short stretch of water - Enjoy!