The pretty Horseshoe Falls: a weir on the River Dee constructed by Thomas Telford to feed the Llangollen Canal

The Seven Wonders of Llangollen

1st July 2016

Inspired by a childhood book hinting at unfulfilled ambition, Deborah Mulhearn sets out to re-create her parents’ dream holiday in this picturesque and unspoilt corner of north east Wales...

There used to be one of those 1950s motoring guidebooks on my parents’ bookshelf. It was for North East Wales – very specific – and extolled the virtues of the ‘Seven Wonders of Llangollen’. With seven children and no car, I’m pretty sure they never saw them, preoccupied as they must have been with their own seven wonders at home. I have a car, and a (much) smaller family, so I’m going to rectify this on their behalf.

Llangollen is a small and unspoilt Denbighshire town just inside the border between Wales and England. The River Dee courses through it on its way from the heights of Snowdonia to Chester and the wide estuary between Wales and the Wirral Peninsula. The town is famous for the annual Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, which it hosts every July, though I don’t think this was listed as one of the seven wonders.

A quick google will remind me of the names of these intriguing sites, surely? But I only turn up the seven wonders of Wales. Is my memory playing tricks? By quizzing my siblings and studying the map I come up with a likely Llangollen list: Plas Newydd (New Hall); Horseshoe Falls; the Shropshire Union Canal and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct; Castell Dinas Brân (Crow Castle); the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey; and World’s End.

We decide our first stop should be Plas Newydd, which isn’t a natural wonder, but a man-made – or, more correctly, woman-made – house, with a fascinating history. It sits just above the town and was the home of the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, who settled here to escape prying eyes and loose tongues in 1788. Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsoby had a civil partnership, Regency style, and brooked no intrusions into what they referred to as their ‘delightful retirement’.

They had run away together from Ireland and found peace in Llangollen. It’s not known, of course, whether they were lovers, but they shared the tiny bed and referred to one another as ‘my beloved’. Despite their seclusion, they were celebrated beyond the town – Lady Eleanor was a literary type – and visitors included ‘celebrities’ of the day such as the poet William Wordsworth, writer and opium eater Thomas de Quincey, the Duke of Wellington, Josiah Wedgwood and novelist and society belle Lady Caroline Lamb.

Their home was originally an ordinary looking farmer’s cottage, but the ladies added to it in eclectic, if not downright eccentric, fashion. It’s an odd mix of styles and extensions, but somehow the whole comes together. They started to collect – and visitors started to donate – dark carved wood and stained glass windows from churches and old houses. The front of the house was clad with these to give it a half-timbered, Elizabethan look. Heavy porches were added, and inside, the visitor is greeted not only with the cottagey low ceilings and flagstone floors, but a sturdy staircase with a carved lion atop a newel post. The bright and airy library is therefore something of a surprise. Other eccentricities include the miniature landscape of the garden with its stone follies, tiny sloping paths and trilling stream.

Llangollen was once an important staging post on the main highway between London and Holyhead (perhaps the route the ladies arrived by), and the road had been extended by civil engineer Thomas Telford, who had previously worked on the nearby Llangollen Canal. A walk along a rural canal sounded appealing, and what’s more, it was on the list.

This turned out to be no ordinary canal, but Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, also known as Llangollen Aqueduct (easier to pronounce) – a canal-carrying aqueduct vertiginously high above the valley. You barely notice the height at first as you approach from the ground level canalside path. Then the ground drops away and the view – depending on your head for heights – will either thrill or appall.

It was built between 1795 and 1805 to carry the Llangollen branch of the Ellesmere Canal (which later became the Shropshire Union Canal) high over the River Dee. It soars a dizzying 125 ft above the river. It’s basically a cast iron trough that carries the water of the canal and its boats the 1000ft high across the valley floor. The aqueduct and area around was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2009.

Despite the sturdy railings to your right, the drop that sheers away to the narrow ribbon of river below is frankly terrifying, especially to jelly-leg types like me. To our left is the metal basin carrying the vessels, and beyond that is the drop down on the other side. No railings, just the metal lip of the canal. Our path is narrow, and we have to stop to let others coming in the opposite direction pass. Reaching the other side is a huge relief, until I realise that the only quick way back to the car is via the same path.

The river and road below winds back to Llangollen, and a short drive back keeps us on terra firma. People tend to go to North Wales for outdoor pursuits: cycling trails, white water rafting (we can see the canoes bumping past the town under the 14th century Dee Bridge in the centre of town), and mountaineering. But it’s also rewarding to stroll round the shops and sights of this market town, which still has proper shops like greengrocers and butchers and bakers on the high street. Though not pedestrianised, it’s a place nevertheless where pedestrians and shoppers seem to rule the roads.

There is any number of places to stop and eat, this being a tourist town, and several overhang the fast flowing river. The Corn Mill has a perfectly placed verandah; The Deeside Cafe has homemade fare right in the heart of the town, and seems to be built into the rock below the bridge.

Now for the real exercise. A small road zigzags up (and up) behind the town. The signs point to the aptly-named Panorama and Castell Dinas Brân – Crow Castle in English – which overlooks Llangollen. There’s nothing much left of it, and in fact it was barely there at all, having been ransacked and burnt down within fifteen years of its building. But it’s an atmospheric place, and somehow its short-lived existence is a more poignant reminder of the past than more solid and enduring historic sites. High above the town, the views are indeed panoramic. I read that Castle Dinas Brân was thought to be a possible burial site of the Holy Grail, and though I’m not usually susceptible to mythological rumours, this gives me the shivers.

Back down the steep hill, we drive west, stopping at the ruins of lovely Valle Crucis Abbey (Valley of the Cross) nestled in the valley on the road out of Llangollen towards Horseshoe Pass. Driving over the isolated pass must have been an intimidating experience in the Ladies’ time. But today it’s bright and busy, with the viewing stops full of tourists and groups of bikers, and cyclists whizzing past.

Whitewashed houses dot the hillside above us and there’s a green quilt of fields below. Horseshoe Falls sounds – and looks – like a natural wonder but is, in fact, a weir on the River Dee constructed by Thomas Telford to feed the Llangollen Canal. Back up on the exposed Horseshoe Pass itself, it’s getting late and lonely. The famous Ponderosa Café seems aptly named. There’s something forlorn and unforgiving about this wild western landscape.

The plan was to wind round the Horseshoe Pass to explore (in a desultory way) the limestone cliffs and crags at World’s End, but the sky is darkening and we decide to head for home. The end of the world will have to wait for another day.

But six out of seven is enough, I decide. I’m gratified that I remembered them. Sort of. I admit I didn’t recall the names or the spellings, but the long Welsh words with their extra consonants crowding in like little bustling busybodies would confound most of the English, and rightly so.

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