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Vale of Llangollen
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Vale of Llangollen and Eglwyseg Historic Landscape


The Vale of Llangollen has provided an important access route through the mountains since early times, linking the borderland area with the lands of central Wales further to the west since early times. The crossing of the Dee at Llangollen also provided an important link northwards to the Vale of Clwyd.

Bridges across the Dee

A bridge across the river at Llangollen has been in existence since at least the 13th century, there being documentary evidence for the repair of the bridge here in 1284. A subsequent bridge is said to have been built by John Trevor in the mid 14th century, but the present bridge is probably originally of about 1500, with major repairs in 1656, with an additional span being added in 1863 across the railway. The bridge has since been widened twice on the up-river side, once in in 1873 and again in 1968–69. Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Wales published in 1783 noted that it was considered one of the ‘Tri Thlws Cymru, or three beauties of Wales’. It also features in the anonymous verse entitled The Seven Wonders of Wales.
Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham Steeple, Snowdon’s mountain without its people, Overton yew trees, Gresford bells, Llangollen bridge and St Winifred’s well
A former Victorian castellated folly at the north end of the bridge was demolished in 1939.

Other early crossings of the Dee were no doubt by ferry or by ford, said to have been a ferry at Cysyllte in the late 14th century. The stone-built bridge further downstream at Pont Cysyllte was built in the 1690s, being substantially remodelled in the later 18th century. A further notable crossing of the river Dee was the first chain bridge at Berwyn, to the west of Llangollen, built by Exuperius Pickering in 1814 to take coal across the river for delivery to Corwen and Bala. In practical terms this was replaced by the stone-built King’s Bridge 1906, the original chain bridge being replaced by a suspension bridge in 1929.

Turnpike Roads

Considerable improvements were made to the major routes westwards to Corwen and northwards across Llantysilio Mountain to Ruthin by the turnpike trusts during the second half of the 18th century. Thomas Pennant in his Tour of Wales published in 1783, for example, mentioned the ‘excellent turnpike-road leading to Ruthyn’ past the Pillar of Eliseg. This was the former route across the mountains via Pentredwr, by way of the pass known to Pennant as Bwlch y Rhiw Velen. In 1808, according to the antiquary Richard Fenton
The Road ascending from the Vale, is . . . prodigiously steep, and continues so for a mile and a half. Then we come to a Mountain track and open an extensive View. See the Arrennig, our old acquaintances, and have a clear View of Snowdon’.
A less demanding turnpike road, the now famous Horseshoe Pass (A542), was constructed in 1811, to avoid this steep slope, equipped with milestones and a turnpike gate just to the north of the Britannia Inn.

Telford’s Holyhead Road

CPAT PHOTO 1766-374

One of the milestones on Telford’s Holyhead Road, completed in 1826. Photo: CPAT 1766-374.
The present A5 was further considerably improved as part of the major improvement between 1815–26 of the London to Holyhead Road — the Great Irish Road — strengthening, as a matter of political expediency, the physical links between the centres of government in Whitehall and Dublin in the years following the 1800 Act of Union between England and Ireland. This was one of most ambitious and influential road-building schemes of the 19th century. It was an outstanding feat of civil engineering for its day, made possible by the generous funding awarded by Parliament and arguably the first major state-funded road-building programmes of modern times. The Holyhead Road had a relatively short heyday in the late 1820s and 1830s, however, being superseded for the purposes of long-distance travel by the London to Holyhead railway in the middle of the nineteenth century. The decline in importance of the road in the second half of the nineteenth century undoubtedly contributed to the remarkable degree of survival of much of the original work. The road has enjoyed a new lease of life since the invention of the internal combustion engine in the early twentieth century and today is seen as a living and working industrial monument, to be cherished and sympathetically managed in its own right. It is regrettable that much of the original character of Telford’s road has been spoilt by insensitive ‘improvements’ in recent years, but still surviving are some stretches of original roadside walling, road revetments, and a number of characteristic milestones with cast-iron plates set into upright sandstone pillars.

Llangollen Canal

Construction work on the canal running through the Vale of Llangollen began in 1795 and was completed in 1808, though open to some traffic in 1805. It was conceived, according to the cast-iron plaque on one of the piers of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, as being ‘for the mutual benefit of agriculture and trades’. It formed part of a canal system linking the Mersey with the rivers Dee and Severn, the name Llangollen Canal, which only became commonly used in the 1940s, is the name of the section from Welsh Frankton in Shropshire and the Horseshoe Falls weir at Llantysilio, west of Llangollen, where it was supplied with water from the river Dee. The canal gave access to the Ruabon collieries, and stimulated the growth of the limekilns and pottery works at Froncysyllte and Tref-y-nant, extensive basin with railways through the Acrefair collieries and chemical works to the Plas Kynaston iron works and Cwm Mawr stone quarries.

Construction work on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct began in 1795 and was completed in 1805, for the purpose of carrying the canal across the river Dee. This masterpiece of engineering, regarded as the finest aqueduct in Britain, was designed by Thomas Telford working under William Jessop the most prolific canal engineer of the period. Tall slender stone pillars and arches support an iron trough over 300 metres in length just under 40 metres above the river Dee which runs below it. The height of the aqueduct required innovative techniques to replace former heavy construction techniques which had depended upon double skins of masonry sealed with puddle clay. Instead, the aqueduct was carried by an trough made from cast-iron plates bolted together, supported beneath by cast-iron ribs, the ironwork being cast by William Hazledine, one of the leading iron founders of the period at the nearby Plas Kynaston Ironworks, about 450 metres to the east of Trevor Wharf, first constructed to carry out the contract. The embankment on the south side of the aqueduct is one of the largest canal earthworks ever constructed, built from material quarried to form the canal cutting and tunnel near Chirk, about 5 kilometres to the south. Trevor Wharf, with spacious wharfs for coal, timber and lime, was served by railways from the adjacent coal mines and the Plas Kynaston ironworks. Surviving ancillary buildings and structures include dry docks, a canal hotel, former warehouse and lengthman’s house.

Most of the road bridges crossing the canal within the historic landscape area are of the humped-back type, many making use of brick or stone or a combination of the two, as well as on lifting bridge just to the south of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Originally intended as a means of conveying agricultural produce, the canal became an important factor in the industrial development of the area. The canal became a tourist attraction from its early years. The Reverend Bingley, for example, was amongst the first to write about the aqueduct in a journal kept during a tour of north Wales in 1798, even before the piers had been completed and the iron trough added to the top.

The Vale of Llangollen Railway

Llangollen originally served by the Llangollen Road halt at Whitehurst, north of Chirk, which opened in 1849 on the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, passengers transferring to coaches travelling along the Holyhead Road. The railway was initially opened in 1861 from Ruabon to Llangollen as the Vale of Llangollen Railway, branching from the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway south of Ruabon, running via Acrefair and Trevor. The railway was subsequently extended westwards as the Llangollen and Corwen Railway. This reached Corwen in 1865 via the Berwyn Tunnel which took a year to complete, and subsequently to the north Wales coast at Rhyl via the Vale of Clwyd Railway, branching at Corwen by 1864, and to the west coast of Wales by means of the Bala and Dolgellau Railway by the late 1868.

For a period of nearly a century the railway took over much of the traffic formerly carried by road and canal. It became an important means of exporting slate, limestone and timber balanced by imports of foodstuffs, barley and malt for supplying the Llangollen breweries, and for tourists. The picturesque Dee Valley, surrounded by the Berwyn, Llantysilio and Ruabon mountains had been favoured by tourists since the late 18th century, the railway offering one of the countries most scenic routes from Ruabon to Barmouth via Llangollen and Bala.

All freight services except Ruabon to Llangollen ceased in 1964, this being withdrawn in 1968. The line between Llangollen and Carrog to the west is now privately operated by the Llangollen Railway Society, but preserved elsewhere along the dismantled course of the railway line are embankments, cuttings, road crossings and bridge abutments which represent significant historic landscape features relating to the history of transport in the area.

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