Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal comprises an 18km stretch of canal including a navigable aqueduct that is considered a masterpiece of civil engineering during the Industrial Revolution.
It was built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop, and completed in 1805. Innovative metal (cast iron) was used for the trough, while the pillars are made of brick. The aqueduct carries the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee in northeast Wales.
Community Perspective: Impressive for its height. It can be crossed on foot using the walkway next to the canal. Tsunami has described his visit to one of the additional components, Horseshoe Falls, and Squiffy covered Chirk.
Map of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and CanalLoad map
We were 20 metres above ground as we crossed the border. The wide valley of the turbulent River Ceiriog below tried its best to demarcate where England ended and Wales began, but it was no match for man’s ingenuity. As we walked the towpath of the Chirk Aqueduct there was a steady flow of Welsh water down the canal to our left, helping narrowboats navigate their way south into England. And just beyond it, a train nosed north over the Chirk Railway Viaduct where its journey between the English cities of Shrewsbury and Chester took it through Wales.
This was my third visit to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal – the third different area of the site and the first deliberate one. The site is a linear 11-mile stretch of what is now known as the Llangollen Canal, but was previously a branch of the Ellesmere Canal. My first was July 2009 when, in our early days of dating, my then girlfriend, knowing of my mild mania for all things UNESCO, brought me out to the newly-inscribed Pontycysyllte Aqueduct for a walk and a picnic. Reader, I married her. My second was again with her, but also with our 20-month-old son, on a sunny Summer day trip to the pleasant and touristy town of Llangollen. Put off by the price of a ride on the heritage steam railway we instead booked a trip on a horse-drawn boat up and down the narrow cutting from Llangollen Wharf. It wasn’t until later that I realised that this was part of the inscribed canal. And then the third was a hike with my now 7-year-old son, following the line of the canal from Gledrid Bridge in Shropshire over the aqueduct and through the tunnel into the town of Chirk, before looping back round again.
There have been a number of good reviews of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Trevor Basin by other reviewers, so I’ll focus on the southern end around Chirk and the site’s other aqueduct. To be honest, for anyone just wanting a quick tick Chirk is the most convenient location to get to, as it is less than 15 minutes by train from Wrexham. And Chirk station itself sits right above the northern end of the Chirk tunnel – at a decent pace you could loop from the station, through the tunnel, across the aqueduct, into England, down into the Ceiriog Valley, back into Wales and then up through Chirk back to the station in around 45 minutes. For the monumentally lazy, don’t even get off the train – south of town the track to Gobowen and Shrewsbury runs adjacent to the aqueduct over a viaduct through the core zone.
As it happens, we came by car and parked in the free public carpark at Gledrid Bridge (next to The Poachers pub). The bridge itself, a narrow hump-backed affair, isn’t much to look at, but there is a metal World Heritage shield in English and Welsh sunk into the towpath to its south. From here the canal curves its way towards the aqueduct. Why inscribe this section lying in England? It seems rather non-descript but it does demonstrate the engineers’ dedication to keeping a level route as it curls round the side of a hill. The hill had to be terraced and banked to permit the canal to pass and today the roofs of houses lie below you to the right, whereas across the canal to your left there are stepped gardens leading up to back yards far above. The Chirk Aqueduct is the first real noteworthy feature, 10 arches, 20m high, running across the Ceiriog Valley, with the higher Rail Viaduct shadowing it to the west. The Chirk Aqueduct was completed 4 years earlier than that of Pontcysyllte and you can see several differences between them. At its highest point Pontcysyllte is almost twice as high above the Dee Valley as Chirk is above the Ceiriog. Pontcysyllte is also around 75% longer than Chirk. The Chirk Aqueduct just looks stocky compared to the tapering piers of Pontcysyllte. Also,the canal at Pontcysyllte is borne in an iron trough, whereas Chirk Aqueduct encases the canal in the more usual stonework (originally only the base of the canal was lined with iron here). What is rather special about Chirk, though, is that immediately north of the aqueduct the canal enters the quarter-mile long Chirk Tunnel. Bring a torch if you want to walk through and pay attention to the warning signs at either end (maximum height and breadth of watercraft, sound horns, keep lights on, do not light fires, and beware of dragons…). Photo is looking south from the tunnel to the aqueduct.
If in the vicinity it is worth visiting Chirk Castle, the gates of which can be seen from atop the northern entrance to Chirk Tunnel. It sits in the buffer zone but it was a castle constructed by Edward I (albeit not in Gwynedd…). At the time of construction of the canal it was still inhabited as a private residence, and the nomination file notes that this did impact the route chosen (“The cuttings and tunnels enabled the canal to take a direct route through higher ground rather than a long detour to the east while satisfying the desire of the landowners to preserve the approaches to their estate”). A second buffer zone location worth seeking out is Plas Newydd in Llangollen which was inhabited at the time of the canal’s construction by the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, two well-born gentlewomen that essentially eloped together from Ireland and lived together as a couple here from 1780 to 1829. Their guests ranged from poets like Byron and Wordsworth to politicians like the Duke of Wellington and Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau of Muskauer Park fame. Sadly there is no record of Thomas Telford popping in for tea.
Taking an objective view of the site, yes, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is very impressive – do try to descend to Cysylltan Bridge downstream to see it towering overhead while the Dee churns between rocks. There is definitely a reason to inscribe the longer section of the canal from Horseshoe Falls to beyond Chirk Aqueduct, showcasing water-management weirs, cuttings, docks and wharfs, tunnels and aqueducts and terracing designed to keep the route level, though this all pales somewhat compared to the main attraction. What I think is notable is just how narrow the canal is. It is wide enough for two canalboats to pass side by side – and there are frequent pinch points where it narrows yet further. It makes you wonder just how much cargo could have been carried across the canal network. No wonder, then, that it was soon supplanted. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct opened in 1805. Twenty years later the Stockton and Darlington Railway in north-east England commenced operation. And then the Chirk Viaduct opened in 1848 as direct local competition. The Ellesmere Canal had less than 50 years before the steam railway rendered it all but obsolete.
World Heritage-iness: 2.5
Our Experience: 2.5
(Visited July 2009, August 2017, March 2023)
As other reviewers have noted, the name of this site is somewhat misleading as there is no such thing as the ‘Pontcysyllte Canal’. Rather then Pontcysyllte Aqueduct forms part of the Llangollen Canal, which is itself just a branch of the much larger Shropshire Union Canal. It was constructed at the turn of the 18th Century to transport coal, iron, and other goods needed in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. This was to have been part of the grand Ellesmere Canal to connect the River Mersey in the north with the River Severn in the south, joining the great port cities of Bristol and the ex-WHS Liverpool, but the full canal was never realised. Today, the Llangollen Branch runs from the town of Llangollen (not much surprise there) in north Wales to the tiny rural village of Hurleston in Cheshire, England where it joins the Shropshire Union. From there, goods could be shipped north through Chester to Ellesmere Port and the Mersey, which was later connected to the mills of Lancashire by the huge Manchester Ship Canal. Alternatively, turning south the canal eventually joins the endless maze of canals in the Midlands providing access to the great industrial metropolis of Birmingham, which is one of several places referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ although perhaps less seriously so than Bruges, Amsterdam, etc.
Returning to the actual inscribed area, the first 11 miles of the Llangollen Branch forms the core zone out of the total length of 46 miles, i.e. just under a quarter of the whole canal’s length is inscribed. This begins to the west of Llangollen itself at the Horseshoe Falls, where water from the River Dee feeds the canal. The existence of this weir is an important part of why the canal was not abandoned in the early 20th Century despite having long outlived its commercial utility as it provided a source of water for the many canals of Cheshire that were still in use. One nearby point of interest is the 13th Century Valle Crucis Cistercian Abbey, by no means WHS material but a nicely preserved Medieval complex and only 1 km or so walk from the canal. From the falls, the canal runs east above the town of Llangollen, which is otherwise most famous for its International Eisteddfod music festival that occurs every year in the second week of July. It was here in 1955 that a twenty-year-old Luciano Pavarotti won first prize in one of the festivals competitions that he later credited with inspiring him to become a professional singer. I had actually been to Llangollen and walked along the canal several times in the past without ever realising that it formed part of a WHS. Llangollen lost its railway links in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and so access by public transport is now only via bus. There are various examples of canal engineering at Llangollen, such as original lift bridges (picture attached) and wharfs, and there is an impressive section where a sheer rock face has been left from the hillside being cut away to make a path for the canal. From Llangollen Wharf, it is possible to take a trip on a horse-drawn canal boat for a true 18th Century experience. These run as far as the Horseshoe Falls, which is the only way to see these from the water as motorised boats cannot travel beyond Llangollen as there is not enough room for them to turn around. However, most of this section is fairly generic canal of the sort that can be seen anywhere else in the countryside of the UK. Incidentally, the double L in Welsh in Llangollen and Pontcysyllte is a sound not found in English that I have managed to approximate fairly well after years of family holidays to north Wales but couldn’t begin to explain how to pronounce. Wikipedia tells me it is a ‘voiceless alveolar lateral fricative’ – hopefully that means something to any linguists reading.
The highlight of this site is, as the name would suggest, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. I drove there for my visit and there was ample parking in the village of Trevor but it appears to be about an hours walk from Ruabon train station on the line from Chester to Shrewsbury via Wrexham. The aqueduct itself is a marvel of engineering, towering above the River Dee valley below. Typically, changes in elevation on canals are dealt with by means of a system of locks but to descend this valley and climb the other side would have taken far too many and so the great Thomas Telford designed this aqueduct. Indeed, there are no locks at all in the whole inscribed section of the canal, which is a remarkable achievement given the hilly terrain it passes through. Construction of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct began in 1795 and was not complete until 1805, consisting of an 18-arch stone and iron structure 307 metres long, twelve-feet wide and 38 metres high. It supposedly remains the longest aqueduct in the UK and the highest canal aqueduct anywhere in the world. As marvellous as it is to behold, there isn’t a great deal to actually do here as a visitor. There is a narrow footpath that runs alongside the canal across the aqueduct that is free to access, although how this works in the era of social distancing I don’t know. Thankfully there are railings on the side with the path but there is no barrier on the other side, just a sheer drop from canal to the valley below. There are several options to take a trip on a narrowboat across the aqueduct but there is nothing to see from the boat that can’t be seen on foot so I did not partake.
I have not seen the canal beyond Pontcysyllte but the canal continues through the Whitehouses Tunnel then crosses another river, the Afon Ceiriog, on the Chirk Aqueduct. Chirk has a railway station on the same train line as Ruabon so a good idea might be to walk between the two along the canal via both aqueducts. Nearby is Chirk Castle, which I have visited before and was originally built in the 13th Century although most of the present construction is from the English Civil War era of the 17th Century. This is a decent place to visit with some nice gardens but nothing too spectacular. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and surrounding canal is, in a way, similarly not that special. There are several other grand canal aqueducts around the UK and, after the canals were supplanted by the railways, many much larger and more impressive railway viaducts were constructed in even more difficult terrain than this and that’s before we even consider sites outside Britain. It is probably the weakest of the UK’s trilogy of industrial WHS bridges, lacking the surrounding industrial landscape of Ironbridge and not as magnificent as the Forth Bridge. Nevertheless, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct has an elegance in the simplicity of its design and is a noteworthy achievement for its age so is still a worthwhile place to see, although best visited en route to one of the many other nearby sites rather than as a trip in its own right.
‘The river in the sky’ as it’s known is a marvel to behold, even in the pouring rain when I visited. I took a train to Ruabon then the number 5 bus to Trevor which drops you off about a ten minute walk from the aqueduct. Once there you can pop into the free and informative visitor’s centre which has a few videos and boards about the construction. After a decade of construction it opened in 1805 employing a cast iron trough to carry the five foot five inches deep canal 1007 feet (307 metres) across the River Dee which lies 127 feet (39 metres) below. It holds enough water to fill 16,000 baths.
But away from the facts, the aqueduct when you venture outside and go and see it is pure engineering magic of the highest degree. Picture this in your mind. You are walking along a gentle canal, nothing untoward, past houseboats and ducks, when up ahead you see that the land disappears but the canal doesn’t. It continues, without so much of a blip, across a valley to the other side far far away. All the time though, there is a perfect line of water suspended in a flat line. You could almost believe that the land either side of the water was dug away rather than the aqueduct constructed, until you spot the iron archways and stone supports grandly lifting the water high in the sky. It simply beggars belief. There is a narrow path to the left hand side of the water on which pedestrians may pass from one side of the valley to the other. It was on this path that I followed the water from land to 127 feet above the River Dee and was able to take in the grandeur of the surrounding countryside. Having only visited the aqueduct only this one time and this one time being a mid-autumn day, I had no real comparison to make, but I’d wager that mid-autumn, with the trees a kaleidoscope of oranges, browns, yellows and greens, must be one of the most stunning times to visit. It goes without saying that the plentiful rainfall (as superbly demonstrated on this particular Friday) creates a lush, verdant landscape that can be viewed 360 degrees around, so long as you’re careful not to get dizzy and trip into the canal. Peer over the side of the metal railings and you see the Dee rushing below you, a stark contrast to the barely mobile water above it, autumnal leaves drifting languidly along. After crossing the river, a football pitch is laid out to the right (surely one of the most beautiful places to play the beautiful game) and to your left a water treatment plant. Then, before you know it, you have arrived at the other side of the valley, back on terra firma and with the water continuing as if nothing had ever happened.
And that’s all there’s really there to see. You can practise photography, take a canal boat along the aqueduct and have a cup of tea in a stationary canal boat cafe, but really you won’t be spending more than a morning or an afternoon here. It is well worth making a detour to go and see though and the chaps at the visitor centre are very friendly and welcoming. Doable from other WHS sites like Liverpool, Ironbridge Gorge, Blaenavon or the Gwynedd Castles. It’s really quite impressive and there are walks along the canal if you want to spend more time near the site.
Read more from 27for27 here.
March 2018 - Fter visiting Ironbridge we came back to Wales and came closer to Pontcysyllte. Suddenly we were in in Trevor. There was a free car park and due to grey clouds we quickly started or tour to the Aquaduct. Walking over it is quite amazing, and to see the boats on it is very obscure. we walked a little further to see the next lift and then all way back. The historic boats make it an authentic visit.
Afterwards we followed the canal by car to Llangollen and made another stop at the wharf.
First things first, travelling in Wales made me feel like I was back in elementary school: “Could you repeat that?” was a common reply to me trying my utmost best to pronounce any place name. For the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct I eventually settled on referring to it simply as The Aqueduct. That worked splendidly.
Coming from the bus stop I made my way across rather quiet Trevor town. The aqueduct is not directly visible as you are on the upper plateau. So it’s a bit of a surprise when it suddenly gets busy and you get to see the aqueduct standing majestically in the landscape with the Severn flowing way below you.
Another surprise was the width of the canal on the aqueduct. I anticipated it to be way wider than it actually was. As a consequence, the barges travelling along the canal are very narrow, albeit quite long, and have a unique look. What they don’t have is much speed. So walking at a bit more than leisurely pace will allow you to overtake most of them. But the views you get from the aqueduct are stunning, so I paused frequently taking yet another picture and having the barges pass me by.
Getting There and Around
The closest train station is Ruabon (Ru-a-bon as I pronounced it was clearly wrong). From there buses run to Trevor (direction Llangollen). Be advised that some buses do not stop in front of the train station in Ruabon, but on the main road. It would be a two minute walk from the main street up to the train station. That is if you don’t miss the proper stop. For me it turned into a 800m sprint. Note: Ruabon Station at the time of writing had no National Rail ticket machine, so you were allowed to buy the ticket on the train. This policy seems to only apply if a station has no ticket office.
In Trevor you can do most on foot. If you want you can join a boat tour, but I felt little added value in it.
Similar to the Canal du Midi you can also explore the canal system by renting your own boat. It seems rather popular. The landscape is lovely and humming along on your barge must be quite enjoyable.
If you walk across the aqueduct, be advised that the path is rather narrow and the aqueduct really high. It requires some caution not to fall into the canal when you pass visitors coming from the other side, especially if bikes are involved. If you are travelling with small children, be mindful of the rails as the gaps are rather large and kids may slip through.
After you have crossed, I would recommend hiking a bit further as there are some nice viewpoints a bit further down the canal. Another nice viewpoint is found when you descend down to the Severn river.
Last but not least, I must say I felt tempted to just jump in and swim across the aqueduct. I guess I would have been heavily fined, but swimming across a WHS is still on my bucket list.
While You Are There
Unless you plan to rent your own boat, I wouldn’t stay here for long. I think two hours are more than enough to explore the site and see the aqueduct from all angles. Nearby Ironbridge Gorge and Gwynedd Castles make better base camps with the latter offering beaches and Snowdonia National Park as extras as well as another bridge by Thomas Telford who built the aqueduct. The Menai Suspension Bridge near Bangor crosses the Menai Straight to Anglesay Island. If you visit Beaumaris Castle, you will pass it.
Again, I'm not sure why I have been so fascinated with canals lately, but I went back to the Llangollen Canal WHS on the 4th week of January to see one of the main components of this site, that is the Horseshoe Falls.
In order to do so, I decided to stay overnight in the town of Llangollen, which surprised me as soon as my bus from Wrexham entered the town.
The whole area around Llangollen constitutes "one huge outdoor adventure playground" with hiking trails, one of which leads to the Horseshoe Falls. I took the trail along the Llangollen Canal and the River Dee to the Falls. In fact I'd have to say it is the River Dee that makes the natural setting of the whole area so dynamic and beautiful.
You can also kayak on the river, take a narrow boat, even one drawn by a horse, on the canal, or take a Steam Locomotive (not in winter) between Llangollen and the Horseshoe Falls.
At the artificial Horseshoe Falls some water from the River Dee is diverted to feed the Llangollen Canal, the system designed by pioneering engineers William Jessop and Thomas Telford.
Later I also hiked up to the hill-top ruin of Castle Dinas Bran, where you get the 360-degree, sweeping view of the whole area all the way to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
I am so glad that I went back to the area to see the Falls because, who knows, one day I might choose Llangollen for my nature fix or my recuperation need.
Added in May 2022:
I just found out that this area around Llandollen is one of the five AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in Wales, called "Clwydian Range and Dee Valley," and the Welsh government is proposing it to the UK government as the 4th National Park in Wales. Yes, the area deserved to be a NP IMHO.
Read more from Tsunami here.
I visited this WHS in June 2016. I drove from Ironbridge and I arrived just before the last few boat trips which float through the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct marketed as the river in the sky. The boat trips' highlight is obviously the unique crossing over the aqueduct and the feeling of unease while standing to take pictures at a height of 38 metres (there are no safety railings on one side!). Another worthwhile boat trip experience at the Llangollen canal is the horse drawn boat trip should you have more time in the area. After visiting the Trevor Basin Visitor Centre (open 10am to 4pm), I enjoyed the heritage trail and after a quick photo of the bilingual UNESCO plaque in English and Welsh I drove to the nearby Chirk aqueduct before heading towards Harlech. This WHS reminded me of the Vizcaya Bridge in Spain and both were worthwhile WH visits. I look forward to visiting Forth bridge soon as well as the nearby river Clyde!
I visited the Chirk Aqueduct, the Chirk Tunnel, and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in May, 2016.
I took a train first from Chester (a beautiful city itself) to Chirk (where I had only 45 minutes between trains) to see the aqueduct and the tunnel. Then took a train back to Ruabon (where I had 2 hours between trains) to take a bus to Trevor to see the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. And then took a bus back to Ruabon and a train back to Chester.
The photo 1 shows the Chirk Aqueduct. The photo 2 shows the Chirk Aqueduct for water and ship and the Chirk Viaduct for train. The photo 3 shows the Chirk Tunnel, where I came across a boat when I was walking through. The photo 4 shows the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct with 2 boats on it (although difficult to see in the photo).
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit the Horseshue Falls, where the Llangollen Canal starts off the River Dee.
I find it interesting that there are some people who live on the uniquely narrow boats on this canal.
I think there are terminology confusions in the "Brief Synthesis" and the "Map" at the UNESCO website. With the Brief Synthesis I believe the canal is called Llangollen Canal and not Pontcysyllte Canal. The bridge by Trevor is called Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Pont means bridge anyway. The centerpiece of this WHS is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The other tunnel, "Whitehouse Tunnel," used to appear as "Whitehurst Tunnel" on the Google Map, but now it seems to have been corrected as "Whitehouse Tunnel." The bus stop above this tunnel seems to be called "Whitehurst" bus stop.
Because the core zone of this WHS is some first length of the Llangollen Canal, I think the WHS should be called Llangollen Canal, or maybe Llangollen Canal with Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
Read more from Tsunami here.
I went with my grandparents to Pontcysyllte in August 2013, having also visited around six years earlier - before it was inscribed in in 2009.
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal is deemed to be worthy of recognition because it is an early example of the ingenuity of the engineers and architects of the Industrial Revolution. Wales’s hilly terrain does not lend itself to the needs of canals, yet this section traverses the countryside without resorting to locks.
Conceived of and overseen by Thomas Telford, construction began in 1795 and was completed 10 years later. The bridge has withstood the test of time, with even the cast iron trough being the original one put in by Telford more than two centuries ago. The mortar is apparently made from lime, water and ox blood!
In addition to Pontcysyllte, I went to see the less famous Chirk aqueduct (also part of the inscription). It was completed four years earlier than Pontcysyllte and is now flanked by a railway bridge alongside it. From the aqueduct the canal goes quickly into a tunnel, which provides a clear reminder of just how undulous the terrain is. The landscape, formerly covered in foundries, brickworks and lime kilns, was described in Victorian times as “a vision of hell”. Nowadays that description couldn’t be further from the truth.
On the hourly 5A bus from Trevor to Wrexham in Northeastern Wales, I was wondering how UNESCO World Heritage program took me to this corner of United Kingdom to see the unknown aqueduct which I hardy could make a proper pronunciation or even spelling, an engineering masterpiece, the Pontcysyllte. I walked along the Llangolan canal until I reached the aqueduct passing many boats which were mooring waiting for the tourist season to begin in the next couple of months. The aqueduct was indeed impressive especially for it height from the River Dee, its column and ached bridges really remind me the equally impressive of ancient Roman aqueduct of Segovia in Spain. To appreciate the height of the bridge I decided to walk down to the River Dee level, but it was very exhausted when I had to walk back to the aqueduct level again. Then I crossed the Aqueduct, it was a nice design to have walkway on the bridge too, so that I could saw the waterway and the surrounding view. The view along the canal was also lovely but nothing special and some part was similar to another World Heritage Site in Belgium, the old Canal du Centre. I looked around the place together with 5-10 tourists for about 40 minutes and found out nothing I could do more in this place so I hurry walked back to the bus stop to catch the bus back to Wrexham before continue my trip to Conwy for another World heritage Site. For me, it was a fine site as the aqueduct was impressive, the surroundings were also OK, however, since I already saw many industrial sites in England, the birthplace of Industrial Revolution, I started to feel rigidly bored, the place could not evoke any of my enthusiastic, also few information at the site to tell the significant of the place. The berthing boats along the canal looked more interesting for me!
This essentially is one single structure, although the UK has included the whole canal and some features around it in the core zone of the nomination. But it's the formidable aqueduct why we all go here, and why it has earned worldwide recognition. I had spotted it from a distance the day before when crossing the very narrow old stone bridge in the valley on my way to Ironbridge.
I arrived at the aqueduct from the side of Trevor. After parking my car, I actually had to look around for a bit to search for the aqueduct: you're so high up here that you do not see the arches, but only the canal. I was early, at about 8.30 am, and had the sight completely to myself except for some joggers and curious squirrels. It is good to arrive early, as it gets very busy later in the day when coach loads are offloaded.
I walked to the other end via the foot path next to the canal. Fortunately, it has a sturdy railing so you do not really feel the height. Just over half of it the wind comes in, shaking you just a little (but enough to realize how tiny you are out in the open on this enormous structure). It is the first aqueduct that I have visited that you can actually walk on, and the narrow canal flowing next to you with no boundaries makes it an extra special experience.
After having walked back to the Trevor side, I walked down the path to look for a photo opportunity of the whole structure from below. The path takes you to a kind of water reservoir, from where you can see some stretches of the aqueduct sticking out above the trees.
I spent about an hour at the site and enjoyed its uniqueness among bridge-like structures that I have visited. I would rate it on the same level as Vizcaya Bridge, which also is an explicit technically ingenious construction.
I paid the aqueduct a very unplanned visit in January 2008 whilst moving between Dublin and London. An early morning start from London led us to a great winter breakfast at Ironbridge Gorge. A drive further on led me through Llangollen, when suddenly a bell rung in my head that Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was located somewhere nearby. Fortunately a road sign turned up pointing us in the right direction.
As such my experience of this site was rather under researched and quick. I pulled up next to the start of the aqueduct to see that some early risers were readying their barges for the trip across it. I strolled out a short way and saw that it was a rather long way down.
After this I drove down to Horseshoe falls to get a view of the main span of the aqueduct. Unfortunately as I had a ferry to catch this was as much as I was able to see.
The route on to Holyhead (for the Dublin ferry) was fitting as Thomas Telford was instrumental in forging this link between what where then the two main cities of Britain. There are several Telford projects on this route, especially notable are the bridges at Conwy and across the Menai straights, which really add to the understanding of the infrastructure constructed during the industrial revolution.
My visit to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was very brief and I am sure I will head back up there to appreciate it more in the near future. The major works of the Industrial Revolution are a really worthy of addition to the world heritage list, however I feel that combining it with other major works of Telford may really highlight the overall impact of these major engineering works.
In order to avoid any potential charges that patriotic pride has outrun objective assessment I don’t normally review sites from UK! But with Pontcysyllte up for nomination this year I will break the rule. In any case it is from Wales, whose “turn” has come round again within the UK “rota” for nomination – rather than from my own country England. This means that most of you non-English speakers will find its name as difficult to pronounce as I do. This is the approximate way to do it apparently - “pont-kuss-uth-tay”.
We have been there a few times over the years. The Llangollen Canal, which is carried 38 metres over the valley of the river Dee by the aqueduct, passes through scenery which, in World or even European terms could best be described as “pleasant” in an understated rural way. If it wasn’t in Wales I would say it was quite “English” in character – indeed the modern “border” is only 5 kms away and the historic boundary of Offa’s Dyke is even less. The Dee still has a fair way to go upstream before it reaches the “real” Welsh mountains – though even these of course strain to reach 3000ft! But the spectacular crossing of the aqueduct which is available both by boat and on foot (photo) and the quiet delights of the Vale of Llangollen make this stretch one of the most popular stretches of canal in UK. Interestingly the extension of the canal up to Llangollen was mainly conceived of as a “feeder” to bring water to the main canal from the man-made “Horseshoe Falls” (at c3ft high a potentially grave disappointment to anyone expecting rather more of a waterfall!) rather than for its transportation merits.
With the technology of 1805, the valley of the Dee provided a significant engineering challenge for those building a canal to link the Mersey area to the Midlands - so in stepped Thomas Telford with this spectacular cast iron trough perched on sandstone pillars. But this isn’t the first time that UK has nominated a work by Thomas Telford for WH status. He is an early British engineering “hero” and, in 1988, his Menai and Conwy Suspension bridges (both dating to 1826) were proposed. However, the Bureau (it never reached the full WHC) concluded that “While noting the importance of Menai Bridge for the heritage of the United Kingdom, the Bureau felt that it did not meet with the criteria of authenticity set up by the Convention. As far as Conwy Bridge is concerned, the Bureau considered that it would constitute a complement of great interest to Conwy Castle, inscribed in 1986 as one of The Castles and Town Walls of King Edward. The Bureau considered that the authorities of the United Kingdom might perhaps wish to propose an extension of this property, so as to include the suspension bridge.” The logic for these conclusions seems strange. The authenticity issue around the Menai bridge might relate to the fact that in 1893 its wooden deck and in 1938 its wrought iron suspension cables were each changed to steel versions (though even "Iron bridge" was given steel road plates - albeit after its inscription). But quite why the 19th century Conwy bridge might suitably be linked in a single inscription to a number of 13th century castles escapes me!
I don’t believe that Pontcysyllte presents authenticity issues but whether it is strong enough in OUV by itself is another matter. I have seen reference to work carried out by the local council in 2005 which “concluded that the bid for WH status would be stronger if the whole of the heavily engineered section of canal from its beginning at Horseshoe Falls (at) Llantisilio right through to just east of the Chirk aqueduct were included”. And that is what has been done including another aqueduct together with the “normal range” of engineering features, wharves and cottages. Will that be enough – there are plenty of earlier canal-related sites already inscribed in UK? Despite these inclusions the Pontcysyllte nomination remains primarily a “single item” structure and the sorts of inscribed sites I look to as comparators include the Vizcaya Bridge and the 4 Lifts - if they demonstrate adequate OUV then doesn’t Pontcysyllte? The former scores highly as being the “first” such bridge and is regarded as having maintained enough authenticity despite some quite significant changes (Don’t be jealous Menai Bridge!). The latter didn’t claim to be the first of its type (Anderton in UK was) but was scored highly on its “ensemble”. Neither engineering concept exactly “took off” around the world in terms of being widely copied so their “universal value” could be questioned. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct wasn’t the first with a cast iron trough (Telford had developed a prototype at Longden-on-Tern in 1796 - now unused) but could claim primacy as a working concept although the similar Chirk aqueduct (also within this site) was actually completed first. However its completion in 1805 was at the very end of the canal building era. Telford himself spent most of his efforts on road building (he was however involved with the Avon aqueduct in Scotland), and the railway age was only 20 years away. The use of Cast iron for bridges etc had been demonstrated as early as 1781 at Ironbridge – is Pontcysyllte anything other than a spectacular development of this already inscribed initial “revolution”? Even the draft Nomination file claims no more than that “Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was part of a sequence of innovations and developments that led to the general acceptance of cast iron and then steel as ubiquitous construction materials and enabled ever greater engineering achievements around the World”. Hmmm…. well the system requires that grand claims be made! My view would be that Pontcysyllte is certainly a spectacular structure which captures the optimistic feeling of the early Industrial Revolution that “anything is possible” and as such is no less worthwhile than the other 2 comparators above. Yet, at the same time, apart from its cast iron frame, has it moved technology that much further forward than the Pont du Gard? I hope it gets inscribed but this does seem to be the era of Transnational Serial Sites and Cultural Landscapes rather than of single structures so it might just not be “big” enough in concept.
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