Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Lucky Llangollen is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Llangollen Section of the Shropshire Union Canal. First published in Canal & Riverboat June 2002.
The Lucky Llangollen
It is a great piece of luck that one of the best cruising canals in the country exists at all. The canal was proposed in 1791, as the Ellesmere Canal, to link various industries around Ellesmere with Chester and the Mersey. There was a planned branch to Llangollen but that was not supposed to be the destination of the canal. Through a series of changing circumstances a whole section of the intended navigation was not built so the canal that was supposed to run on a generally south to north route has ended up running east to west. The canal's survival today is also due to the lucky chance that it carried water from the River Dee at Llangollen to the Shropshire Union main line. Had this not been so then the canal would probably have been closed between the wars when other Shropshire Union Canal branches were closed due to lack of trade.
However it is not the history of this waterway that makes it so popular with both novice and experienced boaters, it is its wonderful variety of countryside and engineering features, such as locks, tunnels, lift bridges and, most of all, aqueducts.
We start our journey at Hurleston Junction where the Llangollen Canal (or the Llangollen Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal) joins the Shropshire Union Main Line. Here a flight of four locks lifts us above the level of the main line. To our right we can see the High Bank of Hurleston Reservoir, originally built to supply water to the main line of the canal but now also used for drinking water. For the next couple of miles we pass through green pastures, by farms and the occasional cottage, before reaching the two Swanley Locks. Another two miles brings us to the three Baddiley Locks. The approach to Wrenbury is marked by Wrenbury Church Lift Bridge, the first of the distinctive Llangollen lift bridges that are a feature of the canal. Most are manually operated, either by pulling on a chain attached to the beam or by use of a windlass, and some of the lesser used bridges are normally left open.
Wrenbury is an attractive village and there are moorings on both sides of the main road lift bridge. This bridge is electrically operated (using a BW key) and the whole process of changing the traffic lights, lowering the barriers and opening the bridge is a press button operation. On one side of the bridge is the Alvechurch Boat Company hire base and on the other is the Dusty Miller pub. The Cotton Arms is another pub a little way down the road and beyond most of the village, which stands about a quarter of a mile back from the canal.
Marbury, two miles from Whitchurch, is our next lock, situated on the other side of the road to the village. There is no towpath under this bridge so we must cross the road to get from the mooring to the lock. A mile or so of flatter countryside follows before we reach first Quoisley then Willeymoor locks. There are places to moor just before Willeymoor Lock and the popular Willeymoor Lock Tavern, offering an excellent choice of food, is beside the lock. Povey's Lock follows and is the last single lock before the six Grindley Brook Locks.
By this stage in the trip you will have noticed the distinct flow of water being fed down the canal, as can be observed in two ways; the slowing of the boat through bridge holes, and other restricted parts of the channel, and by the flows of water over the by-weirs, which can be strong at times. The start of the Grindley Brook flight is heralded by the railway bridge and a bend to the left that brings us to the first of the three single locks, close together, which make up the first part of the flight. This is a place that looks idyllic on a sunny day and draws its share of sightseers who come to watch the boats and perhaps call in at the pub or lock side shop. After the first three locks the canal bends right under a road bridge and immediately in to the bottom of the flight of three staircase locks, so don't take your boat under the bridge until you have checked that the flight is clear. There is normally a lock keeper here who will organise traffic through the staircase at busy times and will assist those unfamiliar with the workings of this type of lock flight.
Having reached the top lock we now have twenty miles of lock free cruising, and only two more locks to Llangollen, 32 miles away. Soon we come to Whitchurch where a short part of the canal arm has been restored and offers excellent moorings for visitors on the edge of this fine old Shropshire town. The shopping centre is about three-quarters of mile away. Beyond the Whitchurch Arm is the Viking Afloat hire base offering all the usual boating services.
Variety is the spice of cruising as far as the Llangollen Canal is concerned, as we will see in the next few miles. First the route winds passing through lift bridges and fixed bridges on the way to Platt Lane Bridge. There are moorings here and a handy pub just down the road. The next section is straighter and the outlook more open as we pass a shop in someone's garden. We now enter Whixall Moss, a large area of bog, which the navigation crosses on embankments. At Whixall Moss Roving Bridge we come to a T-junction. To the left is the Prees branch, just under a mile long, ending at Whixall Marina. To the right is the main course of the canal, which is unusually wide and straight as it crosses the Whixall Moss. Once across the channel narrows and resumes its meanders through more undulating topography as we approach "Shropshire's Lake District", composed of the nine meres that give the town of Ellesmere its name. Cole Mere is glimpsed first, through the trees, below us on the left; later Blake Mere appears on the right, separated from the canal only by the tree lined towpath. This is a mooring that is difficult to beat if you are looking for a view.
The 87-yard Ellesmere Tunnel follows Blake Mere and is less than a mile from the town. Ellesmere has a short branch, with short stay moorings, leading to the town centre. Shopping facilities here consist of a number of small independent shops, mostly operating from buildings that must look much as they did 200 years ago. A rare sight in a country where most shops seem destined to be either closed down or taken over by multiples. At the junction with the Ellesmere Arm stands the British Waterways Yard and Beech House, which was once the office of the Ellesmere Canal Company.
Three more winding miles take us to Frankton Junction with the Montgomery Canal, which has been the subject of major restoration work although currently only about four miles, and five locks, can be navigated from the junction. If you have the time take this trip down to the Queen's Head it's certainly worth while. A mile past the junction is the Narrowboat Inn and the Maestermyn Marine Boatyard and hire base, followed in a couple of miles by the two New Marton Locks. So far our journey has been full of interest and beauty, as it will continue to be right up to the end, but soon we come to the last ten miles that contain the most spectacular features of the canal.
At Chirk Bank the canal clings to the side of the hill then turns right to cross the valley on massive stone Chirk Aqueduct 70 foot above the River Ceiriog. On any other canal an aqueduct like this would be the high point of the cruise but Chirk is robbed of this glory, in part by the higher railway viaduct that runs beside it and chiefly by the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct that is yet to come. At the end of Chirk Aqueduct is a short basin before the entrance to the 459 yards Chirk Tunnel. Boats cannot pass in the tunnel so make sure there is nothing coming the other way before you enter. There is a footpath all the way through. The water flow means that going towards Llangollen the journey time through the tunnel is appreciably longer than the return journey. At the northern end of the tunnel there are some moorings from which you can visit Chirk Castle, which dates back to Edward I and is now owned by the National Trust.
A mile past the tunnel is Chirk Marina offering all marina services and a pub. It is also a Black Prince hire base. Next comes Whitehouses Tunnel, which is similar to Chirk but much shorter at 191 yards. Soon the canal turns left to make its way along the side of the Dee Valley and as the breaks in the trees increase we see to the right our first sight of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct spanning 1007 feet across the valley. Before we arrive at the aqueduct we pass under a footbridge and must raise Fron Lift Bridge, after which the canal turns right onto the embanked approach to the aqueduct.
The stone piers of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carry a cast iron trough, 126 feet above the River Dee, on nineteen arches across the valley. On the right is the towpath cantilevered out above the trough, allowing water displaced by the boat to flow past under the footway. On this side there are iron railings whereas on the other side there is no railing, and only a few inches of the iron trough above the waterline, so that there seems to be only thin air between the boat and the ground a hundred feet below. As the space between the towpath and the edge of the trough is only slightly wider than the boat it is difficult (or on a windy day impossible) to avoid bumping the side from time to time. This adds to the terrors of nervous travellers suffering from vertigo, however, those capable of more rational thought in this situation will reflect that the aqueduct has been in use since 1805 and that there is no recorded case of a boat falling off.
Once across the aqueduct we come to a junction. Straight ahead is what was intended to be the main line of the canal, which was supposed to continue north towards Chester and the River Mersey. This is now just a short arm, which is used as an Anglo-Welsh hire boat base. The novice boaters who hire from here can cross the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in their first hour of cruising - we needn't worry about their safety but what do they do on their next cruise to top this?
Turning to the left at the junction is the route to Llangollen. This was originally built as a navigable feeder arm and is narrow and shallow in many places. From here there is less than five miles of canal to the last turning point at Llangollen. This is a very popular canal and if you are going down this last stretch, especially during the summer months, be prepared to wait as queues of boats negotiate the one way narrow sections and remember that moorings at Llangollen, although being expanded this year, are limited. Having pointed out the drawbacks I will now tell you why we have made this trip four times. Firstly, the scenery in these last few miles cannot be bettered anywhere on the waterways and the rocky cuttings round the hillside have a character that is not found elsewhere on this canal. Lastly, there is Llangollen itself.
Two miles before Llangollen is Sun Trevor Bridge and the excellent Sun Trevor pub. There are moorings here just before the start of the narrowest part of the canal. At the end of the narrows you will find signs and mooring rings on the left marking the start of the Llangollen moorings. So far I have always found a mooring at Llangollen but every time I have always been lucky enough to squeeze into what seemed to be the last remaining space and would not be surprised if on my next trip I found I had missed the last space and had to turn round and go back. Llangollen is a lovely town to explore but don't miss the walk up the last section of the feeder to Telford's Horseshoe Falls which supply the canal with water from the River Dee. May the luck of the Llangollen Canal be with you on your cruise.
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