You don’t have travel far from Tower Hill Barns – in fact a mere 300 metres – to find yourself up close and personal with a Grade One Listed building: Britain’s largest and highest aqueduct, Pontcysyllte. What’s an aqueduct? It’s a channel (duct) designed to convey water (aqua), and in this case it happens to form part of the Llangollen canal, which is set into a bridge 126ft above the River Dee.
If Welsh isn’t your first language, you might welcome some friendly guidance with the pronunciation of Pontcysyllte. Rather helpfully, the World Heritage Site offers the phonetic equivalent as something approximating pont-ker-suck-tay. The meaning of the name Pontcysyllte is ‘the bridge that connects,’ and this refers to the linking the village of Trevor across the valley to the village of Froncysyllte.The aqueduct was built by Thomas Telford and finished back in 1805. To put that date into context, it was the same year as the Battle of Trafalgar. Designed to flow with water from the nearby Horseshoe Falls, Pontcysyllte has also been called ‘the stream in the sky’.
The stone design of the aqueduct is certainly formidable, having sustained an 11ft iron trough containing 1.5 million litres of water for hundreds of years. With 18 piers and 19 arches, the construction had to be extremely light, and so much of the masonry is hollow.
Built by the engineer Thomas Telford in 1805
But, as for the mortar, you might be surprised to hear that it was made from oxen blood and lime, mixed together with water. Even nowadays, maintaining the seals on the joints is done with a mix of liquid sugar, lead and flannel. It’s a testament to history that these traditional materials and methods can still last the test of time way into the technological age.
If you fancy a test of nerves, how about trying to walk the 1m path along the side of the 1007ft canal. It’s a scenic and memorable experience, but depends how you feel about having a full on 40ft drop to one side! For an altogether less taxing tourist alternative, the visitor centre allows you to keep your feet firmly on the ground while finding out more of the fascinating history of the aqueduct.
Travel over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct by narrow boat
Boat rides across the aqueduct are another way to experience the sheer height and stunning panorama first hand, without the trepidation of the pedestrian path. Jones the Boats, run by the highly experienced narrow boat skipper Peter Jones offers trips for over 50 passengers to travel along the Llangollen Canal in comfort.
On the journey you’re provided with an informative commentary about the local area and canal boat history, and as part of the experience you’re also invited to dine on board. The boat is called Eirlys, which is Welsh for ‘snowdrop’. Other boat companies also run trips along the aqueduct, including Llangollen Wharf, whose purpose built motorised canal boat is named Thomas Telford.
World Heritage Site and a Grade One listed building
If you wish, you can charter this boat privately for groups between 30 and 52, for a trip lasting 2 hours. A Welsh cream tea is served on board, and there’s tea, coffee and a light lunch available, as well as a fully stocked bar.
It’s certainly worth bringing a camera when you come to visit the Pontcysllte Aqueduct. After all, its World Heritage Site status is the same accolade awarded to iconic landmarks such as the Status of Liberty!
When you’re travelling in the narrow boat surrounded by fresh air and long drops you could almost believe you were flying. But even from a safe distance, the majestic site of this man-made construction is awesome. It’s one of the reasons why we like to say that Tower Hill Barns is set in a truly wonderful part of the world.