It’s a warm summer day when my husband guides our motorized canal boat into Llangollen, Denbighshire North Wales. A small but vibrant town nestled in the River Dee Valley, Llangollen is home to the Llangollen Canal, the Pontcysyllt Aqueduct, the International Musical Eisteddfod, and Valle Crucis Abbey.
By canal, the only way to enter the town is over the massive Pontcysyllt Aqueduct. The 18th century aqueduct stands 116-feet high and spans a 1,007-foot gap in the valley. My 5-month-old son and I marvel at the lofty views below. Alongside the canal runs a wide towpath and safety rail, allowing visitors and locals to walk the aqueduct and enjoy the same panoramic views. Both the Llangollen Canal and the Pontcysyllt Aqueduct are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
After crossing the aqueduct, we navigate the canal’s last narrow stretch, where stout trees and rolling hillsides are dominated by the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran. Visible for miles around, the castle was built in the 13th century by one of the last native Welsh princes. The castle is open to the public and accessible only by foot via two demanding yet scenic 45-minute walks.
After mooring at Llangollen Wharf, my husband and I strap our son into his carrier for a stroll down the canal-side walking path. The wharf offers both public and private horse-drawn canal boat trips as well as motorized canal boat tours. We watch as visitors enjoy sitting in traditional horse-drawn boats as they glide down the water.
We follow the path to Llangollen’s bustling medieval bridge, the main artery into the town proper. The River Dee gurgles beneath our feet as we walk by several women dressed in traditional Welsh garb, reminding us that in one week thousands will descend upon Llangollen for the International Musical Eisteddfod.
The modern-day eisteddfod is an intrinsic part of Welsh history and culture, tracing its roots to Wales’ ancient musical tournaments. Started in Llangollen in 1947, the International Musical Eisteddfod is a six-day festival that brings together performers and audiences from 130 counties. Past performers have included Luciano Pavarotti, Shirley Bassey, and Jose Carreras.
We continue down Llangollen’s main street, a charming array of wine bars, cafes, and shops, and head southeast to the Plas Newydd Museum & Tea Room. A lovely 18th century gothic-style house and formal garden, Plas Newydd was home to two Irish ladies known as the ladies of Llangollen. While they caused quite a stir in their day by setting up house together, this didn’t stop them from hosting a variety of important guests, including the Duke of Wellington, William Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott.
But the historian in me calls for two more stops, and our 5-month-old is a trooper: Valle Crucis Abbey and Eliseg’s Pillar, whose ruins lay two miles outside of town. Founded in 1201 by a local Welsh ruler, Valle Crucis was one of the richest abbeys in medieval Wales and we take our time exploring the abbey’s rambling yet stately remains.
In a field beside the abbey, Eliseg’s Pillar rises from a low burial mound. While it isn’t much to look at, the pillar is important to our understanding of early Welsh history. Once standing 20 feet high, the pillar’s worn away inscription memorialized an ancient Welsh king’s exploits against the English.
The next morning we pack up our souvenirs and our little traveler and leave Llangollen, guiding our canal boat out of the wharf and back across the aqueduct. We’re off to explore another Welsh town!
Best months to visit: May, June, and September because it’s warmer and drier, but less crowded.
Transportation to Wales: Manchester International Airport is an hour from the English-Welsh border.
Train/Bus: There’s no train service to Llangollen, but you can take the train from Manchester Airport to nearby Ruabon or Chirk Stations, which both offer bus service to Llangollen. Check times and fares at National Rail Enquiry .
Canal: Follow the Shropshire Union Canal. Boat rentals available through Anglo-Welsh Waterways.
Buttered Crust is a cozy café that serves breakfast, lunch, and pastries.
Porter’s Delicatessen is chock-full of gourmet foods, artisan Welsh cheeses, and other goodies.
Sun Trevor is a family-friendly pub with an outdoor play structure and good pub grub.
Written by and photos by Carrie Uffendell for EuropeUpClose.com