Crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Wrexham

Thomas Telford was one heck of a busy man. In between designing bridges, roads, churches and tunnels he also found time for the magnificent Pontcysyllte (and Chirk) Aqueducts.

We visited Pontcysyllte Aqueduct as part of a longer walk. I cannot recommend the walk. Particularly the section past a landfill site, walking beside a 50mph road. Lorries whizzing past. Whipping up leaves and dust. Instead I’m just going to tempt you with the highlights, the canal and the aqueduct.

Llangollen canal

I have a love-hate relationship with canals. On a grey winter’s day they can be deserted and pretty dreary. But at other times they’re magical.

Autumn on the Llangollen canal
Autumn on the Llangollen canal

We visited in late October when autumn was busy turning the leaves yellow and orange. Reflecting the colours in the canal. Plenty of boats chugging along the still waters. Walkers and dogs parading the banks.

Ducks on Llangollen Canal
Ducks on Llangollen Canal

Approaching the aqueduct we came across these ducks all in a line. Which got me thinking. I wonder what they make of it. Do they ever paddle across?

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the longest and highest in Great Britain, is an impressive beast. Built between 1795-1805 it carries the canal 38 metres over the Dee Valley, linking the villages of Froncysyllte and Trevor. Someone, presumably a marketing guru, has named it the ‘stream in the sky’. Not technically correct but a great description; easier to pronounce too.

Crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct
Crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct

If we’d timed our visit better we could have taken a narrowboat ride across the aqueduct. Regular trips allow you to experience the scary side of the structure, with just a few centimetres of iron trough to stop you going over the edge. Although I’m sure no boat has ever sailed off it.

Crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct
Crossing the Pontcysyllte aqueduct

Instead we just walked. The path can easily fit two people side by side. But most people naturally gravitate to the handrail side. Which results in a moment of nervousness when you meet someone in the middle. Be polite and risk slipping in the canal? Or stick rigidly to the railings?

Footpath beside the Pontcysyllte aqueduct
Footpath beside the Pontcysyllte aqueduct

I stopped to enjoy the view and take a few photographs halfway over. Ignoring the sewage works. Focussing on the swirling River Dee far below. Watching birds fly beneath me. And checking that my son hadn’t gone for a paddle.

View from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
View from Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

The aqueduct and part of Llangollen canal achieved Unseco World Heritage status in 2009, a worthy tribute to Thomas Telford’s vision. Could you imagine it being built nowadays? It would be festooned with barriers and safety nets. And I’m sure the mortar wouldn’t have been made with ox blood!

 

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

At the far end we stopped for lunch, before continuing our walk down the steps and alongside the River Dee. Turning round every so often to marvel once more. The further away you get the more it looks like boats and people are crossing the canal with no protection at all.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

The walk across isn’t for everyone. But it’s easy to appreciate Telford’s engineering mastermind from plenty of vantage points without stepping foot on it. Well worth visiting!

If you’re looking for other walks in the area you might also enjoy my posts about walking in the Llantysilio hills and a circular walk around Llangollen.

More info

  • I’d suggest parking at Ty Mawr Country Park and walking beside the River Dee to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. There are great views as you approach, although you’ll need to climb a few stairs to access the aqueduct itself.
  • The towpath and canal are occassionally closed for maintenance.  Check further details in advance of your visit on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct website.
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Great Bedwyn and Wilton windmill walk, Wiltshire

This AA circular walk from Great Bedwyn is full of variety and at just over 5 miles is perfect for families. Encompassing a canalside walk, the option to visit two industrial heritage attractions and finishing with a woodland trail there’s plenty to keep kids occupied.

Great Bedwyn Post Office and shop
Great Bedwyn Post Office and shop

Our walk started from the village of Great Bedwyn. We passed the village Post Office, intriguingly adorned with stone plaques and monuments. They’re a legacy of Lloyd’s stonemasons who once operated in the village. My son couldn’t resist pressing the ‘Operate’ button on a pineapple shaped fountain; fortunately for him there was no water in it.

Footpath past St Mary's church, Great Bedwyn
Footpath past St Mary’s church, Great Bedwyn

Walking past the church we found even more stonework as the path was made of headstones! We crossed over the railway track (used by high speed trains so cross carefully) to reach the canal.

Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn
Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn

Kennet and Avon canal

Our route took us alongside the canal for 1.5 miles. There weren’t many boats around but we did stop to watch one going through the locks. I often fancy hiring a canal boat for the weekend but I think I’d be a little nervous about crashing it.

Butterbur - not a rare orchid!
Butterbur – not a rare orchid!

The flower above lined the ditch beside the canal path. I’d never seen one before so hoped it was something rare. However my mum immediately identified it as butterbur, not rare at all. The plant has many herbal medicine uses and its leaves were once used to wrap butter, hence the name.

Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn
Kennet and Avon canal, Great Bedwyn

The Crofton pumping station marked the turning off point of our canal walk. Crofton Beam Engines were built around 200 years ago to help supply water to the upper stretches of the Avon and Kennet canal. The engines still work and are generally open for steaming weekends once a month.

Crofton Pumping station
Crofton Pumping station

From Crofton we walked into the village of Wilton. Wilton has the most pristine duck pond I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by picture postcard thatched cottages, one of the gardens had a small rowing boat temptingly moored next to it. My daughter has decided she’s going to live in the village when she’s older; I daren’t tell her how much it’s likely to cost!

Wilton Windmill
Wilton Windmill

Wilton windmill

It’s a relatively short, but uphill, walk to the nearby Wilton windmill. Wilton windmill was built in 1821 and was in use for 100 years before falling into disuse. The mill was subsequently restored and is once again used for making flour. We could only look from the outside as we hadn’t managed to co-ordinate our visit with its opening hours.

'Stick' fighting, Bedwyn Brail
‘Stick’ fighting, Bedwyn Brail

The last part of the trail took us back through the woods. Although we were never in serious danger of getting lost there were a few points where I wondered whether we were going the right way. Quite a few areas had been felled recently creating new clearings, which meant the walk instructions were harder to follow.

We knew we were on the right path when the village of Great Bedwyn came into view. A final downhill stretch, a short walk along the canal and we were back at the car having enjoyed a great afternoon walk.

If you enjoyed this you might also like to read about our walk up and down the Caen locks or our Cold War walk on Greenham Common. Alternatively if you fancy more of a challenge how about cycling along the Kennet and Avon Canal or an overnight backpack along the Lambourn Valley Way.

More info

  • Check the Crofton Beam Engines website for details of opening hours and dates. Adults cost £4.50 for static open days or £8 when the engines are in steam; children are free.
  • Wilton windmill is open 3-5pm on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays between Easter and the end of September. Adult tickets are £4 each, children are free. Even if the windmill itself is closed you can still walk around the site, view from the outside and use the picnic benches.
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Cycling the Kennet and Avon cycle route, Berkshire

Looking for a flat family friendly cycle route in Berkshire? Then why not cycle from Newbury to Reading along the Kennet and Avon cycle route. This is part of Sustrans route 4, and for most of the way follows the canal towpath.  It’s a 19 mile stretch but easily shortened if you prefer a shorter ride.

Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path
Cycling out of Newbury on the Kennet and Avon canal cycle path

Our journey started with a couple of train rides to reach Newbury. It was a little stressful getting four bikes on the trains, as despite it being a Sunday, they were packed with shoppers and there was no dedicated bike storage.  On the second train we were blessed with a helpful conductor who helped us organise a place for our bikes and find seating.

Once in Newbury we followed the signs to the Wharf to pick up the cycle trail.  We’d managed to coincide our ride with a waterways festival, so the first mile out of Newbury had plenty of walkers and families out for the afternoon.

Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks
Cycling past the Kennet and Avon canal locks

After a couple of miles the Sustrans route leaves the canal towpath and takes you through Thatcham. Whilst you are still on a dedicated cycle path it is initially next to a very busy road, past houses and industrial units. Not the scenic and relaxing ride that I had in mind! An alternative is to stay on the towpath and walk (as it turns into a footpath only), or perhaps start the route from Thatcham railway station where it picks up the canal path again.

After rejoining the towpath you once again feel like you’re back in the countryside.  We stopped for a belated picnic, and hastily ate our sandwiches as it was already approaching mid-afternoon.

Picnic time
Picnic time

Back onto our bikes again, and a quiet stretch of the canal. It was a windy day so I was glad of the decision to ride west to east as it wouldn’t have been much fun cycling into the wind.  We saw quite a few birds, including grebes, coots and Canada geese but I didn’t spot the hoped for blue streak of a kingfisher at any point.

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Negotiating the gates

Some parts of the towpath lead directly onto roads, albeit quiet country ones.  It was easy to tell when road access was getting near as the number of people we’d see would increase.  A particularly busy spot was near a pub garden that backed onto the canal. I would have liked to stop there for  a refreshment break but we were already pushed for time so it was not to be. Fortunately we had our water bottles with us.

kennet5

Near Reading the track temporarily diverts away from the canal, past some fishing lakes, and then alongside the M4. You return once again to the towpath, with plenty of permanently moored houseboats lining the canal.

Away from the canal path
Away from the canal path

Arriving into the busy city of Reading is a shock, but the towpath held one last surprise.  Along the opposite side of the bank are houses with gardens leading directly onto the canal.  Every other house has a kayak or small boat ready for canal exploration.  It’s great to think that a row of suburban houses has a secret canal hidden behind them.

We felt a little out of place walking back through Reading centre, amongst all of the weekend shoppers. Nethertheless I was happy to have spent my afternoon cycling rather than stuck in shops!

If you fancy a walk instead you might be interested in a Cold War Greenham Common walk, a windmill walk at Bedwyn or viewing the Caen Hill locks. All of them include various stretches of the Kennet and Avon canal.

More info:

  • Sustrans map of the route: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/ncn/map/route/kennet-and-avon-cycle-route
  • The route is flat so suitable for family cycling.   The obvious danger is the canal itself, as in places it would be very easy to cycle off the towpath and into the canal!
  • We cycle regularly so the route length wasn’t an issue. If you’re not used to cycling you could easily shorten the route by doing an out and back cycle ride.
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Down and up the Caen Hill Locks, Wiltshire.

On a recent sunny weekend we decided to visit the Caen Hill locks on the Kennet and Avon canal. The set of locks are an incredible feat of engineering. First opened in 1810 they were built to carry the canal 237 feet up Caen Hill. There are 29 locks in total, over 2 miles, although the picture you see most often is of the 16 locks stretching up the hill.  The canal became derelict after the Second World War but was restored and officially reopened in 1990. Many of the locks are dedicated to those who helped with the restoration.

We parked at the wharf in Devizes and followed the signs to the locks along the towpath.  The first half mile or so is through parts of the town but it soon heads into open countryside. The canal was pretty quiet with just a few owners out spring cleaning their boats.

locks1

Caen Hill cafe

The Caen Hill cafe marks the top of the hill and is a perfectly located refreshment stop. The cafe is in the old lock keepers cottage, and the tables in the front garden have views down the canal. We enjoyed a cup of coffee, whilst the kids took advantage of the sunny weather and chose ice creams. Suitably refreshed we continued downhill.  Whilst the cafe had been busy, the canal itself was rather lacking in boats.  Boats can take up to 6 hours to travel through the set of locks, but it was slightly disappointing to only spot one boat negotiating them during our visit.

I live in hope that my children are now of the right age that I don’t have to worry about them falling off the edge of the canal into the lock. Whilst my daughter has inherited my sensible gene, my son is of a much more random nature – act first, think later (maybe). So it’s a little hard to relax when he’s running and messing around by the edge off the canal. Suffice to say it was just me being paranoid and the walk passed without incident.

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View back up Caen Hill locks

Shortly after reaching the bottom of the hill we crossed over one of the locks and headed back up the hill which runs alongside (but away from the locks). This takes you closer to the large pools which provide the water to operate the locks.  These were home to a variety of ducks, and some nesting swans which signs warn against getting too close to.

It was at this point that we realised our mistake of stopping at the cafe on the way down rather than up. The ice cream incentive  to finish a walk doesn’t work this way round! Fortunately the hill isn’t really that big or long and we were soon back on the flat and heading into Devizes.

Kids view:

The walk wasn’t very exciting, but the ice cream was really yummy!

General info:

  • The towpath is accessible, although pushing a wheelchair or buggy back up the hill might take some effort!
  • The car parking charges were reasonable.  We extended our stay with a wander around Devizes, the parking cost for our visit was around £4. There’s another car park at the Caen Hill cafe if you don’t want to walk from the centre of Devizes.
  • Further details can be found on the Caen Hill Locks web page.
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