Pontcysyllte: a slower age

Friday 29 September, 2017: The industrial revolution tour of Wales continues.

Our plan was to drive to Llangollen, hire a canal boat for the day and boat over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. This failed for the simple reason that we hadn’t booked. Funny that, however, we did talk our way into a free five minute boat ride as one of the staff at the canal rental place took a boat down to the turning bay, turned around and came back.

“Is this top speed?” “Can it go faster?” “I’m bored.”

I think we dodged a bullet – all day in a boat going at walking speed to traverse 4 miles to the Aqueduct and 4 miles return might have driven us insane. It sounds lovely in theory, but with four rambunctious children, maybe we had overestimated our ability to entertain them.

River Dee

Instead we walked along the promenade in Llangollen, very beautiful as it follows the River Dee. We played in the park, stared at the Castell Dinas Bran (a ruined clifftop castle rumoured to be Camelot), spent some time in the cute town of Llangollen, and (of course) bought more books. Once we had exhausted all the options in pretty Llangollen, we piled back in the truck to head towards our main aim. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

The canal was built between 1795 and 1808 by two great engineers of the industrial revolution – Thomas Telford and William Jessop. With twelve million gallons of water passing daily along this canal system, the structure is nineteen cast iron spans that are 126 feet (38.4m) above the valley at the highest point. It’s not for the faint hearted to cross this aqueduct, along the narrow footpath, or seated in a boat with no railing on the canal side of the structure. Most of us were brave enough to walk across the aqueduct with its historical railings (not to modern day standards with warning message that the gaps between the railings is too wide for safety), and we watched several canal boats inch their way across the impressive structure.

To put some historic context on the achievement here, canal building began in the 1750s and continued at speed until the advent of steam trains in the 1830s. The so-called ‘canal mania’ hit its peak in 1790 when nearly 2,000km (1,180miles) of canals were built in just twenty years. Telford always maintained that canals were a better way of travel, slower, sure, but more peaceful compared to those noisy trains that rushed headlong through the countryside, spewing smoke and steam everywhere. Humans proved him wrong, preferring speed over peace, but I’d like to think that Telford would enjoy seeing his impressive aqueduct still in use and being enjoyed by people two hundred and nine years after it was opened.

Conveniently located next to the Pontcysllte Aqueduct is the Telford Inn, where we enjoyed a mediocre lunch even by English standards. The children’s meals came with ‘smiley’s which were mashed potatoes formed into a creepy looking happy face, then deep fried to create the ultimate in bad manufactured food. The location, however, is fantastic.

From there we drove to the supermarket before settling in at The Plassey campground. This amazing campsite has a manor house, a swimming pool (indoor, perfect for this climate), a retail centre built into the old stables where the restaurant even has the original tie up stalls with hay managers and water system. There is also a cool dragon themed kids playground, two pubs, and a golf course.

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