Llangollen (Ellesmere) Canal

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Llangollen (Ellesmere) Canal Route

The Ellesmere Canal, or Llangollen Canal as it is now more commonly known, begins at Hurleston Junction to the north of Nantwich on the former Chester Canal, now part of the Shropshire Union Canal.

From Hurleston Junction the Ellesmere Canal steadily climbs on a winding journey into the Welsh border area. A set of locks immediately lift the canal high up and away from the Chester Canal while on the north bank is Hurleston Reservoir which holds much of the water which is carried down the canal from the River Dee near Llangollen. This constant flow of water can cause quite a strong current - which is very rare on a canal. Just beyond the top lock the canal is crossed by the A51. It is possible to park on the original A51 bridge (now a dead-end) which stands alongside the new bridge.

In the early stages the route passes close by a number of pretty villages, most of which have houses with gardens running down to the waters edge.

Swanley and Baddily have 5 locks between them, all in attractive settings.

At Wrenbury there is a wharf with old canal buildings, a restaurant, a pub and a mechanical lift bridge with sirens and traffic lights.

The canal in this area constantly twists and turns and sometimes doubles back on itself.

There are 4 locks, spread over 5 miles between Wrenbury and Grindley Brook. At Bradley Green the busy A49 crosses the canal.

At Grindley Brook the canal emerges from beneath a very high embankment, on which a railway line crosses overhead, and turns its back on Wales - which is where it is heading - and heads south east as it reaches the first of the 6 Grindley Brook locks. This lock is surrounded by quaint houses, pretty gardens and a typical old canal bridge.

The next two locks run between the railway embankment and the busy A41 then the canal swings sharply south west and immediately goes under the main road to enter a staircase of 3 locks. This flight always seems to be busy and is full of interest. At the top is a well noted lock cottage built by Telford with a bay window on top of a veranda, this is unique amongst lock cottages.

A little way south of Grindley Brook the canal loops around, first turning east then curling south and continuing till it faces west. Just as it turns west it reaches a typical Ellesmere Canal lift bridge at the junction where the Whitchurch Arm leaves heading east towards the town of Whitchurch

From Whitchurch Junction the main line of the Ellesmere (or Llangollen) Canal points west and passes a hire boat centre near Wrexham Road bridge but as it passes under the bridge it once again curves south with its eventual destination now behind it. In this area the canal runs around like a James Brindley route, winding its way steadily west, keeping to the contours of the land.

Some of the route had to be built on marsh land as it passed over Whixall Moss, an ancient peat bog and now home to much wildlife. The route is surprisingly straight for some time as it approaches the entrance to the Prees Branch . The main line turns slightly at the junction giving Prees Branch traffic the straight-line route towards Ellesmere.

After another lengthy straight stretch the canal runs between the waters of a mini lake district. These lakes (or Meres) are probably the result of peat digging similar to the Broads in Norfolk. Blakes Mere runs right alongside the towpath in a beautiful wooded section on the approach to the short Ellesmere Tunnel. This can be accessed directly beneath the road junction of the A528 and A495.

On the south side of Ellesmere is a junction beside a large house which used to be the headquarters of the Ellesmere Canal Company. British Waterways have a maintenance yard here today while nearby a brand new marina has recently opened. The arm running north from the junction travels for just 400 yards into Ellesmere. There are a number of old canal buildings at the end of the arm and there are always lots of moored boats. Ellesmere is a pleasant town with its best feature being The Mere, a huge lake running alongside the main road. It is popular with locals and holiday makers but it is even more popular with all sorts of birds including ducks, geese, swans, coots and moorhens among others. A visitor centre and gift shop stands on the shore and bird feed is a best seller!

Frankton Junction is just to the west of Ellesmere, reached via the narrow minor road through Lower Frankton to the south of the A495. The current main line of the Llangollen Canal continues straight on, at last heading north west, while to the south was the original main line which was planned to reach Shrewsbury. The route described so far was intended only to be a branch which was to have joined the Shrewsbury line here at Frankton. To the north west it was to head for Wrexham and then onto Chester. When the money ran out the Shrewsbury route became a branch and the route to Whitchurch became the main line linking to the Chester Canal.

The first mile of Shrewsbury route is now regarded as part of the Montgomeryshire Canal though it is also the first part of what became known as the Weston Branch . This in turn leads to the Carreghofe Branch

From Frankton Junction the current main line, heading north west, is the route which was originally built as the main line TO Chester though it actually became the main line FROM Chester! It passes under the A495 at Maestermyn Bridge where there is a small marina and then it passes the pretty setting around Jack Mytons Inn at the tiny settlement of Hidford. The last 2 locks on the canal are just beyond here in a very pretty stretch of canal surrounded by farm fields.

The new A5 crosses over immediately before the canal swings north. Approaching Chirk the route runs alongside the B5070 which was also the A5 at one time. An excellent pub, the Poacher's Pocket, is on this stretch which is wooded and beside pretty gardens for much of the way.

The canal then crosses a minor, but wide, road at the settlement of Chirk Bank. This minor road immediately dives steeply down the bank to join the old A5 but this minor road was itself originally part of Thomas Telford's London to Hollyhead route. After passing the road the canal sits high up on a ledge as it approaches Chirk Aqueduct, a massive construction of stone clad iron, which crosses high above the valley of the River Ceiriog - entering Wales as it does so. Standing directly behind the aqueduct is an even taller brick railway viaduct. The best view of the aqueduct can be gained from the B4500 road which looks down onto it from quite a height. A ride across the viaduct on a train may be even better!? Immediately after the aqueduct is Chirk Tunnel, 500 yards long with a towpath but wide enough for just one boat at a time. When it emerges, the canal is in a deep cutting.

On the northern outskirts of Chirk the route passes the large new Chirk Marina and then passes through the shorter Whitehouse Tunnel under Telford's A5. The canal then bends round to the west, now constantly surrounded by the tall Welsh hills with larger mountains in the distance. Shortly it passes some pretty gardens on its left with glimpses of the mighty Pontcysyllte over to the right. Among the gardens is a former wharf which was built to serve a massive complex of lime kilns whose canalside openings can still be seen across the canal from the towpath.

Fron lift bridge is below the village of Froncysyllte alongside a row of terraced cottages and some pensioners bungalows which line the canal just before it bends north into what appears to be a cutting. However, by looking through the gaps in the trees it can be seen that the canal is actually high up on a massive embankment. Suddenly the trees end and boat crews feel like they are floating on air. In fact, they have just "stepped" onto Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, 120 feet above the valley floor and the rushing River Dee, floating in an iron trough just - only just - as wide as a narrowboat. There is a towpath on the eastern side but on the western side, at boat level, there is absolutely nothing between the boat and the valley below. It is probably the most serene white knuckle ride on earth!

One thousand feet later the ride is over, and so is the canal as far as the main line goes because this is Trevor Basin where construction came to an abrupt end. However, it is not the end of the journey because leaving the basin to the west is the narrowest canal in Britain - in truth it wasn't meant to be a canal at all, just a water feeder, but it is navigable for 5 miles into Llangollen.

The feeder travels high above the north bank of the River Dee with Welsh mountains all around. The 5 miles to Llangollen are lock free, very rural, very narrow and very pretty. There is no basin as such in Llangollen though there is a wharf from which horse drawn and motorised boat trips depart daily in summer. The canal is still high above the River Dee with the town down by the river. The final stretch of canal from Llangollen to Llantisilio is too shallow to take a narrow boat along it so Llangollen is the official head of navigation.

As the feeder passes the final winding hole the river gets increasingly closer, at the impressive Chainbridge Hotel the river crashes by just below the level of the canal and just a few hundred yards further on the river and the canal run almost side by side. The water in the canal is completely clear as it suddenly reaches a small building and apparently comes to a dead end. But under the building water is coming into the canal from the weir stream created by Horseshoe Falls, a large curved weir created by Telford. The wooded area around the falls makes a beautiful picnic spot and is a perfect end to a wonderful canal.

The stretch of water from Llantisilio, past Llangollen, across Pontcysyllte to Chirk and Ellesmere was once almost an embarrassing mistake, but it - along with the stretch from Ellesmere to Hurleston Junction (collectively now known as the Llangollen Canal) - is the most popular navigation in Britain and is used by thousands of holiday makers (including myself) every year.

Weston Branch

Within the first few hundred yards south on this original main line are 4 locks, the first pair being a staircase. Like all of the rest of the Ellesmere Canal, this stretch is surrounded by countryside with farm houses on both sides of the cut. Just past the locks was Lockgate Bridge Junction where the "main line" turned south east towards Shrewsbury and the Carreghofe Branch headed south to Llanymynech.

My reference book (written in 1971) said this part of the canal was almost completely dry and had been since a breach near Lockgate Bridge Junction in 1936. The junction could only be found if you were prepared to scramble through the nettles and undergrowth. However, in the summer of 1995 this section of the original Ellesmere Canal was re-opened after 59 years of being little more than a muddy ditch.

I visited the canal shortly after its re-opening and it really is a splendid sight - and there isn't a nettle to be seen! For more information on this short stretch (history and restoration) see the Montgomeryshire Canal Roots page.

When I visited the Weston Branch in June 1998 I found very little. The only substantial bit is a restored length at Lockgate Bridge Junction where it leaves what is now the Montgomery Canal. Even then, on my visit I found the branch drained for repairs! Travelling east from Lockgate Bridge Junction the original main line is now no more than a dry ditch but can be followed along a public footpath as it heads south easterly in the general direction of Shrewsbury.

The minor road from Hordley to Ellesmere crosses the branch but only the footpath marks its course these days. Further east things get worse as it is no more than a depression in farm fields at Lower Hordley. The minor road north from Lower Hordley crosses it, as does the minor road east, but there is no trace of a bridge at either crossing. The canals route can be spotted by looking across the fields for electric wires and their wooden poles. These once ran along the towpath and now follow the same route across empty fields!

East of Lower Hordley there is a cement (or building) works. The canal crossed the road at the point where the main gates now stand though there is no sign of a bridge. Opposite is a curious wooden building which looks like a small old chapel or schoolroom and obviously stood by the canal at the former road bridge. Behind it the electric wires show the canal's former course as they bend across a completely flat field.

Further east the branch passed a tiny place called Shade Oak. It was near here at Dandyford that a breach occurred in 1917, effectively closing the branch. The London & North Western Railway Company, who owned the Shropshire Union network at that time, refused to repair the damage and the branch became disused. Near here an isolated canal bridge stands doing nothing in the middle of a field.

A little further east the dry cut passes near Wycherly Hall and within a mile it arrives at a group of houses situated on a rough (and very minor) road in a place known as Westonwharf. There was a basin here but the canal came to a dead end just yards to the south of it - still some 10 miles (as the crow flies) from its intended destination of Shrewsbury. At Westonwharf I found a muddy farm yard on the old terminus and I just made out the stone edging of what was once the towpath through the bridge hole. This was spotted through a wire fence which now runs along the side of the road where the bridge (now vanished) once stood.

Carreghofa Branch

The Carreghofa Branch ran for 11 miles from the original Ellesmere Canal main line at Lockgate Bridge Junction to Carreghofa (which is at Llanymynech). The branch was breached in 1936 causing its closure. It lay unnavigable until restoration began in the 1980's. In 1995 about half a mile of the branch, from Lockgate Bridge Junction to the site of Perry Aqueduct was reopened for boats. There is one lock on this short stretch which did not exist on the original line, This was necessary due to land subsidence. In 1996 the canal beyond Perry Aqueduct also reopened allowing a navigable stretch of 4 miles. The aqueduct itself had long since been demolished so a brand new one was built. Restoration is continuing.

The Carreghofa Branch now forms part of the Montgomery Canal. Further details of it's route can be found on Montgomery Canal Routes page.

Whitchurch Arm

The arm is now partly restored but when my reference book was written, in 1971, it was no more than a soggy ditch. The reference book says the arm could be seen easily as far as bridge No.1 which carried a lane to Chemistry Farm, beside the bridge was a derelict cottage and past the bridge the canal bed had been filled in and used as a car graveyard.

The scene today is much better, the stretch along to Bridge No.1 has been restored and was opened for boats, walkers and ducks in 1994. Bridge No.1 is still blocked and the far side of it is now a work yard. From here to Whitchurch the arm has been completely filled in, the line ran south east towards the town through what is now Waterside Close - a rather pretty housing estate. At the back of the first house in Waterside Close the original canal bridge can be detected where the route crossed under the road into Victoria Jubilee Park.

In 1971 the park had gasometers by its side - though these have now gone. The line of the arm can clearly be seen running across the park.The site of Whitchurch Wharf was on the far side, its exact location was said to be easily detectable in 1971 thanks to the "Wharf Gun Shop". There were also a number of other former canal buildings dotted around the area.

The filled in sections of the arm are not due for restoration, instead it is hoped that a completely new line can be built just to the north.This will necessitate dropping down below the original level by some 12 feet. To do this the restorers are planning to build a brand new inclined plane! This will drop down Sherry Mill Hill into a proposed parkland which will include a navigable lake. The canal will then use the brook which runs in front of Waterside Close and crosses under the road into the park just a few yards away from the original canal line.It is hoped that the arm will be fully opened by 2000 - but they'll have to get a move on.

Prees Branch

The Prees Branch leaves the main line between Whitchurch and Ellesmere. It was sometimes known as the Edstaston Branch but is more commonly known as the Prees Branch even though it never actually reached the town that gave it this name. At the junction with the main line there is a red brick cottage with stables at the back. The arm was about 5 miles long and started off by heading south eastwards.

The only part of the branch which is still navigable is the first half mile, this is said to be a beautiful stretch of canal which was still in use when other parts of the system were abandoned. This is because there were clay quarries at the end of the half mile and the clay was used to "puddle" other canals. The quarry is now a Hire Boat base which means the future of this stretch is secure and is used frequently by boats and anglers.

There are two "charming" lift bridges in the navigable stretch and a rare canal skew bridge though this isn't too surprising as the engineer, William Jessop, built the first ever skew bridges in the world (on the Rochdale Canal). Past the new marina, at the village of Dobson's Bridge, the arm is no longer navigable though it does hold water for another mile or so. There are some houses on its banks and the tow path is in very good condition. This area is very popular with naturalists because of its interesting plant life.

At the village of Waterloo there is an accommodation bridge and then, near to the road T-junction (sign-posted Wem and Whixall) there is a brick canal bridge (No.5). Edstaston is just another mile away but by the time the canal reaches the village it is completely dry. The road bridge is now blocked but, as the line turns north east, there is still a canal warehouse and a wharf.

Three quarters of a mile further on the cut reaches the B5476 at Quina Brook (6 miles south of Whitchurch). There used to be lime kilns here to the west of the road, in fact, there still is but they are now a pig sty - literally! Construction ended here at Quina Brook, 2 miles short of Prees which is situated to the east.

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