In the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, north Wales was at the centre of a tourism boom in Britain. A growing middle-class made money in the industrial cities but also wanted to escape them and find peaceful, unspoiled countryside.
The Vale of Llangollen was considered an especially beautiful area to visit. The landscape was a mixture of lush, green lowlands and high yet accessible mountains. The town was small but with several large hotels, many with resident harpists entertaining the guests, and guided tours and excursions were organised to sites such as Valle Crucis Abbey and Castell Dinas Brân.
The canal was built as an industrial development, but it quickly became known as a pleasant route to walk, with views of the Dee valley. The two aqueducts and tunnels drew admiration from visitors. Many commented on how well the structures fitted into the natural surroundings, while at the same time praising the engineering feats.
“I never felt the influence of the sublime mingled with the beautiful so deeply as when I stood upon this wonderful work of art; wherever I turned my eyes, the scene was calculated to excite the warmest feelings of admiration.” – George John Bennett, 1837
After the 1940s, as the canals declined as a transport network, tourists began to use the waterway for pleasure boating. Now, hundreds of thousands of people a year visit the World Heritage Site, boating, walking, cycling or just to gaze at the spectacular monuments and views.
Ifan and Taffy
Horse drawn pleasure boats for tourist trips have been popular in Llangollen for over 140 years. Working on the narrow stretch of canal between Llangollen wharf and the Chain Bridge Hotel, visitors get to see a part of the waterway that other boats cannot reach.
General Vale of Llangollen tourism
The Vale of Llangollen and the area around the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Llangollen Canal World Heritage Site is perfect for exciting activity holidays or for relaxing getaways. Tourists continue to flock to the area for its breath-taking scenery.
More Information About Tourism
Wars made taking the ‘Grand Tour’ in Europe difficult for British tourists during the late eighteenth century. Closer to home, the spectacular landscapes, romantic ruins, ancient language and culture made Wales an appealing alternative. This ‘View in the Vale of Llangollen coming from Chirk to Llangollen’ is by John Warwick Smith, 1792.
Llangollen was a popular base for travellers. Thomas Pennant wrote in 1773 that he knew “…no place in North Wales where the refined lover of picturesque scenes, the sentimental, or the romantic, can give a fuller indulgence to his inclination.” The drawing of the town in Pennant’s book emphasises the landscape.
Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were upper-class women from Ireland who fled their families to set up home together in Llangollen from 1780 until their deaths in 1829 and 1831. Famous writers, politicians and royalty visited their house, Plas Newydd. It is still one of the most popular visitor attractions in the town.
Butler and Ponsonby became known as the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. They were opposed to industrial development or anything that would spoil the views around their home. They do not seem to have objected to the canal, however. They and other invited guests travelled in boats across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct at its opening in 1805.
The Chain Bridge across the River Dee at Berwyn was built to carry goods between the canal and the road which transported them further west. As the bridge became a popular site for tourists, a small inn beside it was enlarged and became a hotel, as seen in this 1875 postcard.
An eisteddfod is a traditional Welsh music and poetry competition. Established in 1947, Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod hosts around 4,000 singers, dancers and musicians from across the world every summer. They draw over 35,000 visitors to the town. A magnificent pavilion was built at the Eisteddfod grounds in 1992, beside the canal.
The first timetabled public pleasure boat on the canal at Llangollen was run by the Royal Hotel in 1881. By 1884, Captain Samuel Jones was running regular services. At first, the trips went upstream to the Chain Bridge Hotel. Later excursions also ran to Trevor, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and as far as Chirk.
Captain Jones claimed to have sailed around the world before settling in Llangollen to run pleasure boat excursions. There is some doubt about the truth of his tales but he was very successful with his business. He advertised in local newspapers, writing poems about the beautiful landscape seen from his boats.
Horse-drawn canal boats are still one of the most popular tourist attractions in Llangollen. From the wharf they travel towards the Horseshoe Falls, further along the canal than motorised boats are able to travel. When they return, the boat cannot turn around, but both the horse and the steerer can change ends.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wealthy people would often take tours of industrial places. They wanted to observe the manufacturing processes, experience the noise and the danger, or even just watch the workers. George Borrow visited Cefn Mawr in 1854 and “…observed grimy men working amidst smoke and flame”.
Even before they were finished, Chirk and Pontcysyllte Aqueducts attracted sightseers. In 1802, Mary Ann Eade wrote about the “…immense aqueduct which is building over the Vale of Llangollen from the Ellesmere canal… it will be a very noble work, at present it is in a very unfinished state.” John Ingleby painted it at around the same date.
Local guides in the Vale of Llangollen soon included Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in their itineraries. Visitors often recorded the height and length of the structure, alongside their impressions. Michael Faraday, the scientist, wrote in a letter in 1819 that the aqueduct “…was too grand a thing to be hastily passed.”
The fame of the aqueducts drew international tourists to see them. Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau of Germany was one of many to compare it to ancient monuments, saying it “…would have done honour to Rome.” Washington Irving, American author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, called Pontcysyllte Aqueduct “…that stupendous work”.
During the nineteenth century, boating for pleasure on rivers was popular, although it occurred less often on canals. The Edwards family of J.C.Edwards Brickworks in Ruabon built a home beside the canal at Bryn Howel. It is now a hotel. In the garden they had a small boathouse for their rowing boat.
Today, privately-owned or hired pleasure boats make up most of the traffic on the canal and sustain a large economy of supporting businesses. There are more registered boats on British canals now than at any other time in their history. The Llangollen Canal is considered the most popular touring canal in Britain.
Narrowboats are not the only boats seen on the canal today. Canoes and kayaks are also popular ways to get onto the water. They are quiet and paddling them is good exercise. For those with a head for heights, activity holiday companies run safely organised groups that cross Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by canoe.
The towpath was originally used by horses that pulled the canal boats but today the almost level pathway is an ideal place for keeping fit or relaxing by walking, running or cycling. Canal & River Trust have even partnered with Google Street View, so that you can ‘walk’ the path online.
Canals provide many important habitats for wildlife, so they are great places for spotting birds, animals and plants. Of course, canals often have fish in them as well. Fishing is allowed along the whole of the towpath within the World Heritage Site, with permits available from the Canal & River Trust.