Julia Bradbury walks along a six-mile stretch of the Llangollen Canal in Wales, where Thomas Telford built a mighty aqueduct that is now a World Heritage Site.
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Navigating Highland glens,
rolling countryside, river valleys,
and city sprawl.
Britain's canals cut a sedate path
through some of the country's finest scenery.
Canals were the transport arteries
at the heart of a booming industrial age.
A network of locks, tunnels and aqueducts
helped carry goods to every corner of the land and beyond,
transforming 19th century Britain into an economic superpower.
Today, over 2,000 miles of restored canals offer a gateway into a different world.
For me and many others, the towpaths alongside them
offer the perfect way to explore this heritage on foot.
Hello, welcome to Wales.
Just look at that lovely, green valley.
It might be tucked away,
but hidden down there
is one of the greatest stories of canal engineering in the world.
This is the Vale of Llangollen, on the edge of Snowdonia.
It was this valley which presented a considerable challenge
for the canal engineers of the late 18th century
who wanted to develop a major route to cross it.
The man who came up with the solution for that crossing was Thomas Telford.
His ambitious response was to create an aqueduct,
the likes of which had never been seen before.
It was a bold plan that catapulted him centre stage as a civil engineer.
There is Telford's great masterpiece.
An icon of engineering that allows water to fly.
He called it his "stream through the skies".
And today, I'm going to find out why it's become a World Heritage Site.
This phenomenal creation spanning over 1,000 feet
is also 126 feet high.
And it's the final destination of my walk today.
By the time I've finished, I'll be standing on top of this amazing aqueduct,
looking down on the River Dee, the water source for the Llangollen Canal
which also winds through this valley.
I'll be learning about the incredible engineering that was need to make all of this possible.
And when the Llangollen Canal was completed, it spawned a whole new world.
By the late 18th century, canals changed the map of Britain forever.
A new and growing network of transport superhighways dominated the landscape.
Canals had arrived, connecting towns and cities with Britain's industrial heartlands and export hubs.
In this flourishing climate,
Thomas Telford was appointed by the Ellesmere Canal Company
to link a remote and rural Wales
with England and beyond.
Horseshoe Falls is where I'm starting,
and six miles later, I'll end dramatically
on Telford's famous aqueduct.
Intriguingly, my walk actually starts here, on the banks of the River Dee,
from where the aqueduct draws
the one and a half million gallons of water it needs to fill it.
Horseshoe Falls is a local beauty spot, which Telford created,
to channel the river water into his canal.
I'm going to meet a walking guide, born and bred in this valley, Bryn Hughes,
who can tell me more about the origin of the canal.
Hi there, Bryn, hello.
Croeso i Gymru, Julia!
Top of the morning to you as well.
Bryn's going to show me where the canal actually starts.
Telford's great master stroke was to use this plentiful water source as it poured off the mountains.
By creating this weir, part of the river could be channelled into this collecting reservoir.
Today, this little pump house marks the spot where the canal begins.
So is that it?
Well, it is, but it does draw in six million gallons of water daily, into the canal system.
So this section is just a narrow feeder into the system.
There was no need to build a wide section here to connect with the River Dee.
Now, the prize at the end of this canal is the aqueduct,
but please help me with the pronunciation.
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
-Say that again.
"Pont" is "bridge", of course,
and "cysyllte" is the Welsh word "to join".
So it's cy-syll-te.
-So you just say it quickly. Pontcysyllte.
-All one word.
-Pontcysyllte. Right, I'll practise that. Pontcythyllte.
It's like you haven't got your teeth in. Pontcysyllte.
I'd better go and see it while I'm learning how to say it.
-To help you on your way, here's a little book about the canal.
Look out for the slate works at Pentrefelin, which is now a motor museum,
half a mile downstream.
Fantastic, thank you very much. Pontcysyllte.
How do you say "rain" in Welsh?
My six-mile walk today takes me through this lush valley,
which, 200 years ago, was a remote, rural backwater.
Back then, there was an even bigger, more ambitious canal network being planned,
which had 1,200 speculators stampeding to invest.
The idea was to connect the three rivers of the Mersey, Dee and Severn by canal.
This network would crucially reach into the industrial regions surrounding Wrexham,
where reservoirs would supply the water to keep the canals topped up.
Work was already well underway on Telford's aqueduct
and the section leading towards England, when disaster struck.
In 1801, the money ran out,
and plans to continue north across the aqueduct towards Wrexham
had to be abandoned.
Now, with no reservoirs for water supply,
Telford's crowning glory could be left quite literally high and dry.
My walk today was Telford's answer to the problem.
A six-mile water line.
But it's a route that was never actually meant to exist.
And in building this canal, Telford opted for the most efficient route that he could.
So that means a walk which hugs the higher contours and stays at a nice, steady level throughout.
Time indeed, to soak up the very tranquil surroundings
of this lovely, green corridor.
There's something so peaceful about walking alongside water.
Watching the leaves and the foliage drift along the surface.
And these fronds waving at you from the canal bed.
For the first half mile or so,
you can actually see the bottom of the canal and its jagged bedrock.
It's no surprise that it took them four years to cut this entire line.
Then the walk opens out into the hamlet of Pentrefelin.
The canal engineers knew that nestling in the hills here
were slate quarries,
hungry to take advantage of the new form of transport, which the canal offered.
It might have been built to supply water,
but once it arrived, new opportunities for trade were quickly taken up.
I'm well above the river now.
From here, you can see the river flowing down the valley,
but the canal stays dead level.
And there's the motor museum that Bryn was telling me about,
which is the old slate works.
Wales is said to have roofed the world,
and this now-quiet spot was part of that golden industrial age.
The little building and the tree on the left are still here today.
The arrival of the canal crucially opened up a route to England,
where there was a growing demand for this much sought-after building material.
At its height in 1881,
loaders shifted hundreds of tonnes of slate onto waiting barges.
Horses rattled via a tram road from the quarry above,
and inside the building now occupied with vintage cars,
slate was shaped and planed, then heaved onto the waiting canal boats.
By the late 19th century,
commercial traffic had also reached a peak,
and fly-boats were in operation.
These were the express couriers of their day,
travelling round the clock.
Who would know that there was so much activity here once upon a time?
As a walker, you could easily walk on through
without giving it a second glance.
Originally, before the invention of steam engines,
it was horses that pulled the boats.
Today, the only traffic on this one-mile stretch before the town of Llangollen,
are sightseeing boats that are still horse-drawn.
Nice little afternoon on the canal.
Hiya. Be with you in a minute.
I'm meeting Peter Furness, the current owner of one of Llangollen's oldest attractions.
-Stanley, is it Stanley?
Come on, then, Stanley.
And how long's this been going on?
Pulling tourists up and down the canal?
-Over 125 years now.
So who started it? Whose idea was it?
Er, a character by the name of Captain Jones
started the whole thing off, 1884.
And where did he get the idea? Do you know?
I don't know, but he was ahead of his time in the sense that
he spotted some potential in the tourist market.
Tourism wasn't unknown in those days
but it was only in its infancy.
He was a ship's captain with the White Star line.
The story goes that one day he fell off the bridge of his ship,
allegedly whilst drunk.
The White Star line, perhaps thinking it wasn't good for their image to have a drunken captain...
Who'd have thought? Who'd have come up with that idea? A drunken captain.
So they pensioned him off.
And with his pension, he purchased two redundant ship's lifeboats
from the docks at Liverpool,
brought them to Llangollen,
and started the horse-drawn boats of Llangollen.
They've been going ever since.
-That's quite a story, isn't it?
And of course, tourism is one of the main attractions in this valley now, isn't it?
It certainly is. It's a very major player in the local economy.
Thomas Telford, of course, played his part in that,
building the canal,
big improvements to the A5 main road,
and the major one now is the International Eisteddfod,
held every year in Llangollen.
That's the music festival?
That's the music festival, yeah.
I know you'll be walking a bit further along the canal soon,
and you'll see the International Eisteddfod Pavilion
beside the canal.
A very iconic building.
-Right. I might have a little sing-song.
Right, well, I shall try and get a bit more horsepower on.
-Lovely to meet you.
-Thanks a lot.
I don't have long to get my voice in tune
before I reach this rather unusual canalside spectacle.
It's like a little... Millennium Dome.
A mini Millennium Dome.
Eisteddfod literally means "to be sitting together",
and its origins lie in the 12th century Welsh tradition
of gathering to celebrate language, poetry and literature.
The first International Eisteddfod was held in 1947
to promote a message of post-war peace.
Today, this is the Pavilion where over 5,000 artists
from over 50 different countries
perform and compete to audiences of more than 50,000.
Locals say the International Eisteddfod is where Wales welcomes the world.
It's even been the unexpected launch pad for some highbrow careers.
In 1955, Pavarotti came to compete with his father,
and their choir from Modena.
They won the male voice choir competition,
which he said was the most important experience of his life,
and inspired him to turn professional.
He returned 40 years later to give a triumphant, free and tearful concert.
Think about all the thousands of people who've sung their little lungs out in there.
And it all takes place right next to the canal.
This canal has a history of drawing people to it,
like the writer George Borrow who came here in 1854
and discovered a hidden culture and lifestyle.
Llangollen was at the heart of it.
In his book Wild Wales, he wrote,
"I walked along the bank of the canal."
"Presently I came to a barge."
"The boatman was in."
"I entered into conversation with him,
and he told me the canal and its branches extended over a great part of Britain."
"The boats carried slates,
and he was generally three weeks on a journey."
"The boatmen and their families lived in little cabins aft."
"They passed by many towns,
but he liked no place as much as Llangollen."
After two miles, I arrive on the outskirts of Llangollen.
This is the end of the line for these modern narrowboats,
which have travelled in the opposite direction to me from the aqueduct.
They won't be going any further.
It's too shallow for these engine-powered boats to go where I've just walked,
and there's nowhere beyond this mooring basin to turn around.
Looks like a pretty good spot to hole up for the night.
It might be a nice place to stop,
but there are plenty of walkers who, like me, are treading the towpath.
Good luck. Keep walking.
Arriving in Llangollen is a reminder
of how much this canal helped advance industrialisation in this part of rural Wales.
Although its initial purpose was simply to draw water from the river,
trade and then tourism became natural by-products.
The canal also enabled materials to be brought in
to build the very thing which spelled its demise, the railways.
The arrival of the train in 1816
sounded the death knell on the canal,
and the last trade boat ploughed its waters
on the eve of the First World War.
So it's tourism which is now the main trade of this valley,
boosted in 2009 by its World Heritage title,
awarded both to the canal and its formidable aqueduct.
This new status has put Llangollen on the world tourist map,
and would you believe it,
Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart have even come here
to escape Hollywood on a narrowboat holiday.
Hiya. Looks like fun.
You've got the easy job.
What's perhaps surprising is that this World Heritage title
extends along the whole of my canal walk,
as well as the aqueduct.
This status recognises the astonishing problems
which the engineers overcame in carving this route.
It wasn't blasted with dynamite.
Instead, the full six miles were cut by hand through solid rock,
with only the basic tools of a pick, shovel and a barrow.
And it's this determination
to overcome such seemingly impossible obstacles,
which contributed to the coveted World Heritage title.
You can see how seriously difficult it must have been
to channel through this rock.
And because this slender route
was never originally intended for heavy traffic,
it's created some interesting navigational challenges
for today's novice boater.
And for me, there's the chance to immerse myself in another great canal tradition,
the art of gongoozling, a lovely old canal word,
which simply means stopping, staring,
and watching a bit of canal life go by.
This swing bridge which links farmland might make life for the cows easier,
but for boaters, there are only inches on either side.
Looks like a tight squeeze.
It's his first one, so...
Ooh, here we go.
Are we going to touch the side?
No. You've done this before.
A little bit. Not much, though.
Very good. I was expecting a little crunch.
Ooh, millimetres to go, there.
Phew! And he's through.
Out the way.
Today this charming stretch of waterway is one of the country's most popular,
with over 15,000 boats travelling along it each year.
But boat traffic like this is a far cry from the original design
that Telford conceived.
Back then, keeping his visionary aqueduct stocked with water was paramount
and he was determined to succeed.
In 1793, he wrote,
"It is the greatest work, I believe, now in hand in this kingdom."
I must get myself on one of those in a minute.
Today, boats can steadily chug their way along a pretty uncomplicated route.
By following the natural contours,
Telford cleverly avoided the need for any locks.
As the River Dee flows steadily downwards,
the canal, instead, sticks above it, hugging the valleyside.
The tree-lined banks open out to glorious, wide views.
The river's a long way down now,
which means my stream in the sky can't be too far away.
So before I start on the final stretch of my walk,
there's time to enjoy one last view,
and a bit of towpath foraging.
Hiya. A bit of blackberry-picking?
Just a bit, yeah.
Oh, that's nice.
Crumble pie? Are you going to make it?
-No, I am.
-All going to make it.
-Do you live around here?
Yeah, we live in Llangollen.
It must be lovely to be so close to everything.
Yeah, it's beautiful. You've seen the escarpment? Have you come from Horseshoe Falls?
Climbing and walking and mountain biking, it's great.
-All good outdoor stuff I approve of.
-How far are you walking?
-To the end, to the aqueduct.
Hopefully it's not too much further.
-You haven't been over it before?
-It's quite exciting.
-So I've heard.
-It's quite exciting if you bike over it.
-Yeah, I can't wait to see it.
-Quite a drop.
-Yeah, just beautiful, gorgeous views down the valley.
Got a pretty good view here, though.
-It's not bad, is it?
Right, I shall get on, then, for my prize. Lovely to meet you.
-Do you want a blackberry?
-Yeah, I'll take a blackberry.
-Lovely. Have a good crumble, guys.
-Thank you. Happy walking.
The aqueduct is certainly going to be a grand finale to my walk,
and its ambition is perhaps all the more astounding
because it came so soon after the first engineering experiments with cast iron.
Telford had been an instant convert to this new alternative to stone.
You can barely make it out amongst the trees,
but there's my first glimpse of the aqueduct.
It took 200 men and ten years,
but it was eventually completed in 1805.
Given the scale, it's extraordinary that its construction almost went without a hitch.
One man died in the process,
which a contemporary account describes rather starkly.
"He experienced no suffering,
as the tremendous height from which he fell caused instant dissolution."
Well, there's a warning.
Back down on the walk, the aqueduct is just over a mile away.
The thrilling bit is going across it,
so I'm heading to where the feeder canal joins the aqueduct,
where I'm hoping to find an intriguing local character,
Jones the Boats.
someone I've heard has a head for heights and might just be able to help me cross the big one.
That's what I'm after.
Hello, hello. I know who you are.
How are you doing, Peter?
Fine, thank you.
-How much do I have to pay to get across the aqueduct?
-Well, seeing as it's you, hop on.
That's what I wanted to hear.
You lead the way.
There we are.
Great, I'll put that away in there out the way.
-The aqueduct's clear so we'll go.
We're now leaving the basin area behind.
It's a real hub, and the gathering point for people building up to make the big crossing.
So what are the rules? How do you make sure that you get your place?
It's a simple system. If you can see your way clear, you can go. If you can't, you wait.
Well, we can definitely see our way clear, so we're on our way.
Now, I feel now as if I should be on that side.
-To get the full view.
Yes, well, if you'd like to come round.
I want the full experience here.
Right. Be careful, though, as you can see.
I will. Oh, my God!
It is quite incredible. I don't know anything like this in the country.
No, it is the highest navigable aqueduct in the country.
And to be able just to be here,
like this, hanging off the edge.
It's been here 200 years.
The engineering is quite extraordinary.
I mean, how's this been constructed?
Well, it stands on 18 stone pillars,
local stone, brought down from the hills around, dressed on site.
Then the blocks were held together
with a mortar strengthened with ox blood and lime.
1700 oxen were used in the process, apparently.
-Not the place to be an ox.
And then the trough that we're in is cast iron.
And so as a sealant, he came up with a gasket that was Welsh flannel
dipped in boiling sugar, and then the edges sealed off with lead.
And so, all the cooks usually tell me,
"Boiling sugar, oh, yes, treacle toffee."
And that's what's keeping the water in at the moment.
So we're basically in a big bath that's held together by toffee.
I suppose that's basically it, yes.
But it's lasted this long.
It's lasted this long. It doesn't leak and hasn't leaked.
I would just hitch a lift with you every time if I could. I love it.
I'd be very glad for you to do that.
Right, I'll do a little bit of ducking and diving.
There we are.
And I shall make my exit.
Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you very much. That was fantastic. Safe as you go.
-See you, bye.
Well, I've got to do it by foot now, haven't I?
Its name might be a bit of a tongue-twister,
and its height can also tie your stomach in knots,
but one thing is very clear.
This "stream through the skies" is a phenomenal piece of engineering.
It rubs shoulders with the likes of Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal
as a World Heritage Site.
But it also remains Telford's great legacy.
A grand plan on a grand scale,
that's never since been repeated.
And this is what he so brilliantly managed to achieve.
He took the water from the River Dee,
and made it fly above itself.
It's this bridge which brings so many people to this part of Wales.
They come, quite rightly, to gasp and gaze in admiration.
And even though this is the big prize,
back there, the story unfolds,
of a river and a canal entwined for hundreds of years,
that have helped pave the fortune of this green valley.
Llangollen Canal, you beauty.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Seasoned stomper Julia Bradbury dons her walking boots once again to explore her own British backyard, travelling along the country's network of canals and their accompanying towpath trails. This sees her navigating Highland glens, rolling countryside and river valleys, as well as our industrial heartlands, following these magical waterways as they cut a sedate path through some of the country's finest scenery.
Julia's final walk takes her to North Wales, where 200 years ago the great engineer Thomas Telford had to overcome seemingly impossible challenges in order to access the valuable slate industries of Snowdonia. In doing so he created a masterpiece of 19th-century engineering - an aqueduct 126 feet high and spanning 1,000 feet across the vale of Llangollen. To find out why it has become a World Heritage Site, Julia follows the cut of the Llangollen Canal, starting at the picturesque Horseshoe Falls. Her six-mile walk takes her along the winding Dee Valley, ending on the aqueduct that Telford described as 'a stream through the skies'.