In the Wake of the Stars – Cruising the Llangollen Canal
Tranquillity is a luxury in the modern world for us mere mortals, so what must it be for the stars of the big and small screen? Some of those celebrities seek it by jetting to exclusive and ultra-expensive island resorts beyond our pockets, but a surprising number follow a more charming way happily open to the rest of us – cruising on our canals, one in particular drawing some great names.
John Hurt and Kevin Spacey are said to be fans of the narrow-boat, though it’s unclear if they have yet made it to what many call the most beautiful canal in England and Wales, the Llangollen . Actors who have certainly guided their craft along its length include David Suchet, TV’s Poirot and an ardent boater; husband and wife Prunella Scales and Timothy West , who like Suchet own their own boat; and perhaps most surprisingly Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and Han Solo) and his then girlfriend now wife Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal). Former lead singer of Catatonia Cerys Matthews has travelled on and publicised the canal for the Welsh Tourist Board as well.
So why not hire a boat and follow in their wake to see what it is that draws them to that waterway. Or stay nearby and visit its greatest attractions, maybe fitting in a quick trip on the water with someone else doing the hard work at the helm? The Llangollen Canal was originally meant to be much longer, but circumstances meant that its eventual course would be from Llangollen to a little beyond Wrenbury in Cheshire , where the Llangollen joins the Shropshire Union Canal. That is a journey of some 41 miles through North Wales, Shropshire and into Cheshire, a route to which history has been kind, at least as far as the visitor is concerned: the industry which the canal was built to serve has largely disappeared, the lovely countryside now unblemished.
Even the early days of the canal were starry, great figures of the Georgian era like Wellington , Shelley and Wordsworth visiting once Thomas Telford had completed the massive engineering feats needed in its construction.
The survival of the canal is in part due to one of those feats: Telford created the Horseshoe Falls near Llangollen to provide the water for the route, one of the benefits being that this fresh water ended up supplying Cheshire and Shropshire, as it still does. The falls are a destination in themselves, a gift to the photographer, just one of the many spots in and around Llangollen that draw visitors in their thousands – the Dee Bridge, the Llangollen Railway , and the imposing Castell Dinas Bran looming above the town to name but three. The final mile or so of the canal up to the falls are only navigable by horse-drawn boats, short trips running regularly from Llangollen Wharf to them.
UNESCO in 2009 designated the 11 mile stretch from Horseshoe Falls to Rhoswiel just over the border into England a World Heritage Site, joining a list that includes the Taj Mahal, and a bit closer to home Bath and Ironbridge Gorge . The great reason for UNESCO’s decision is the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, spanning the Dee Valley, whose 18 piers carry the 307m (1007 feet) cast iron trough 38m (126 feet) above the ground at the highest point. On one side is the towpath and rails, but on the other nothing but the edge of the trough above which the boat-decks rise.
Again if you don’t fancy steering your own boat, cruises from Llangollen to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct run frequently in season.
At one end of the aqueduct stands the house where Telford lived during the construction, now an inn, another way to follow in the footsteps of the famous rather than their wake this time.
Further on are two more engineering marvels, albeit on a lesser scale, the Chirk tunnel and aqueduct, the latter again a fine sight. The town of Chirk itself is well worth a detour, its beautifully preserved medieval castle now owned by the National Trust and open between February and October; and Offa’s Dyke skirting the western edge of the settlement.
More cruising at a less than hectic 3mph (it takes a good three days to cover the entire 41 miles with locks, overnight stops and making way for oncoming craft) takes you to Ellesmere in Shropshire, perhaps most famous for the huge mere besides which the town stands, other such expanses of water dotting the land southwards.
It is not really for the urban sections that you travel the canal, however, but the countryside. Shropshire is one of our most pleasant and gentle counties, and the waterway gives you access to views denied the motorist. And what better way to get a snapshot of the forests and hills of North Wales – you’ll even see the inside of one hill.
With little noise beyond the reticent puttering of the engine you’ll see plenty of wildlife too: herons and with luck the petrol-blue flash of kingfishers; the occasional weasel; and in the clear water fish darting by. When the canal crosses briefly back into Wales the peat bogs of Bettisfield, Whixall and Fenn’s Mosses straddle its path, areas particularly rich in birdlife – if it’s your lucky day you could even see a hobby. But if we have to mark the passage by towns, Whitchurch is a fine one by which to do so. A proper old market town with a wealth of black-and-white buildings and no shortage of pubs, it makes a great stopover (even if you are boating you may be tempted to spend the odd night or two off the craft – Harrison and Calista it is said slept in a Llangollen hotel every night of their 2004 trip which focussed on what later became the UNESCO section).
The last significant settlement on the route is Wrenbury in Cheshire, a pretty village with requisite green overlooked by two black-and-white cottages, a Tudor church and of course a pub . Nantwich , another fine old market town to rival Whitchurch, is just beyond Hurleston Junction where the Llangollen meets the Shropshire Union.
A short break by boat, or a quicker one taking in some of the sights by car, travelling along the Llangollen Canal will be something you’ll remember for the rest of your lives, even if you don’t find you are sharing the same water (or pub) as Hollywood (or British) A-listers. But then again you may bump into them – and at 3mph it shouldn’t hurt too much.
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