A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, Wales.
Llangollen is situated over the rapids of the River Dee in North Wales. It is perfectly placed for an excursion by car, and can be reached on the A5 west from Snowdonia, A5 east from England, on the A483/A5 north from Powis Castle, or on the A483 south from Chester. Try to avoid it on summer weekends, when it seems the whole population of north-west England descends on the town, and during the Eisteddfod festival, when it is incredibly busy with people from across the world!
The ancient ruins of castle of Dynas Bryn sit on the hill above Llangollen. Worth a hike up if you have the energy, for its magnificent views. It was once the chief stronghold of the Lords of Yale, and has a modern American connection. One of the dynasty’s descendants was Elihu Yale. Born in Boston, USA in 1649, he was brought to England at the age of three, never to return. Yale made his wealth with the East India Company. Towards the end of his life he spent some time living nearby in his Wrexham estate. In 1718, the college in Connecticut was renamed after its largest benefactor. Yale died in 1721 in London.
This scenic route out to the north-west of Llangollen is worth taking. First, the original Llangollen Steam Railway runs alongside you on your left. Tickets can be bought at the historic railway station in town for the many excursions that run on the line. On your right is the original Llangollen horse-drawn canal which also offers trips.
Next on your right is the national Eisteddfod Cultural Pavilion. Eistedffod (which means to sit down together) is an annual festival of poetry and song. The first international festival was held in Llangollen in 1947. In 1955, the tenor Luciano Pavarotti won the first prize here, which inspired him to become professional. Today, Eistedffod attracts over 5,000 artists from over 50 countries, with audiences of over 50,000.
As you pull further away from town, you will see the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey (Abbey of the Valley of the Cross) on your right. This was the last of 14 monastic foundations built in Wales for the Cistercian order, also known as the Whitefriars or Poor Clares (the first being Tintern Abbey). The abbey was founded in 1201 by Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor, Prince of Powys, on the site of a wooden church. It was originally established as a colony of 12 monks from Strata Marcella, near Powys, and housed 20 choir monks and 40 lay-members. Madog was buried in the completed abbey in 1236. Damaged in the uprising led by Owain Glyndŵr in the early 15th century, it was ‘dissolved’ in 1537 during King Henry VIII’s Reformation and eventually decayed into ruins. In the late 16th century, the eastern range was converted into a manor house for the local Wotton family and from the late 18th century the site was used as a farm. In 1870, the west end wall was restored by the Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott.
Near the abbey is an broken ancient stone known as the Pillar of Eliseg. It was originally a cross, giving its name to the Valle Crucis Abbey. It was erected by Concenn, king of Powys (Cyngen ap Cadell) (d 855), in honour of his great-grandfather Eliseg who united Powys for nine years against the Anglo-Saxons with sword and fire. The pillar was knocked down during the Civil War and a grave under it was exposed. The upper half was re-erected in 1779. The original inscription, now illegible, was copied down in 1696. It read: ‘Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, bless the soul of Eliseg. Concenn himself captured the surrounding 1,100 acres for the kingdom of Powys. The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until the Day of Judgement. Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.’
Finally, you will begin to climb the breath-taking Horseshoe Mountain Pass, 1,400 feet above sea level, and with incredible views over the Dee Valley.
Llangollen Canal and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
The Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal must be one of the most spectacular and scenic canal stretches in the UK. It took four years to cut it into the hillside as it headed towards Llangollen, where the canal ended. There are no locks. It just hugs the gentle contours. Every day, six million gallons of water is fed into the canal from a pumphouse at the man-made weir which sits on the River Dee at the Horseshoe Falls near Llangollen.
The vast amount of material excavated in the late 18th century to form the cutting for the canal was used to make up the massive embankments for the Pontcysyllte aqueduct constructed by the industrial engineer Thomas Telford over the River Dee at Trevor, near Llangollen.
Known as ‘the stream through the skies’, Pontcysyllte is pronounced Pont Cur Sussh Tay, and means ‘to join’. The aqueduct spans 1,000 feet of valley, and towers 126 feet above the River Dee. It is the highest navigable aqueduct in the UK.
Telford planned it in 1793 as ‘the greatest work in hand in the kingdom’. The 18 pillars were made from local stone with the mortar strengthened by a mixture of lime and the blood of 1,700 oxen! The cast iron trough was sealed with gaskets of Welsh flannel dipped in boiling sugar, with the edges fixed with lead. In effect, it is a big iron bath held together by toffee! In 1801, the money ran out, and it was not finished until 1805. It took 200 men 10 years to complete. It was Telford’s great legacy and made him centre stage as an engineer.
The last trade boat used the canal in 1914, although tourist trips have been operating here for nearly 140 years. They were started in 1884, by a ship’s captain of the famous White Star Line. Today it is a World Heritage Site and busier than it was in its industrial heyday with 15,000 boats a year using it. The movie star Harrison Ford came here on a narrow boat holiday. You can hire a barge yourself for the day for up to 12 people at two local marinas and travel on this most beautiful stretch of canal. Or you can just stand on the aqueduct towpath and watch with amazement and wonder, which is actually a pastime known as ‘Gongoozling‘.
There’s so much to see and do in and around Llangollen, that the day will fly by.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)