Category Archives: Canal tow path cycling

Chirk, Llangollen and Beyond

I’ve cycled along many a canal towpath, and they have provided me with traffic free routes both into and out of numerous cities and historic towns. Canals are easier to track on a map and unlike rivers which tend to aimlessly meander until they reach the sea, canals were built for a purpose, and they can take you into and away from places often without you having to endure the hassle of other traffic.

National Cycle Route Number 85

Two British Cycle Quest (BCQ) locations in North East Wales are in the Vale of Llangollen and are also only ten miles apart.  To get to them, I let Britain’s industrial heritage help me. Firstly by letting the ‘train take the strain’ I travelled from Chester to Chirk. Then I cycled along the Llangollen canal towpath that took me into the heart of the Vale of Llangollen.

Britain has 2,200 miles of man-made canals and this stretch of the Llangollen canal stakes a claim at being perhaps the most picturesque of them all. Between the Welsh border town of Chirk, where the River Ceiriog marks the boundary between England and Wales, and Llangollen; the canal includes some terrific feats of 19th century engineering. These include two aqueducts and two notable tunnels.  Together these are so important, that the 11 mile stretch from the Chirk aqueduct to the Horseshoe Falls beyond Llangollen make up one of the UK’s, UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Chirk Aqueduct taken from above the tunnel entrance.

Whilst crossing the Chirk and the Pontcysyllte aqueducts with their spectacular views is a delightful experience, I have to say that the tunnels could be a little daunting for some, unless you have a torch to light your way, which I didn’t. Both tunnels have a decent path and a sturdy rail that runs between you and the canal. The Chirk tunnel is the longer of the two at 420 metres in length. This can be quite dark and whilst walking my bike through that tunnel I could hear unseen water running down some parts of the walls, however none of this fell on me. The second tunnel known as the Whitehouse tunnel is 175 meters long and fortunately, there was no sound of any running water.

Beyond and between the tunnels, a lot of the canal passes through deciduous woodland and the sunlight pours through the fresh green leaves creating dappled sunlit patterns on the path and the canal before me. I can smell also the subtle scent of garlic and there are sizeable swathes of ramsons or wild garlic which were currently in bloom and have colonised much of the woodland floor alongside the canal.

Ramsons, more popularly known as Wild Garlic

It’s a ten mile stretch of towpath from Chirk to Llangollen and I can take it easy. A steady eight miles per hour is sufficient to enjoy the scenery and beauty of this wonderful countryside. There is a lot to enjoy and I stop to watch a mother Mandarin duck with her seven chicks. A mile or so further on a bold grey heron seems prepared to stand its ground as I approach. I fear that the heron would be a danger to the young mandarin ducks which are quite a rare species in the UK.

I follow the canal to Llangollen, and here there is a short length of my journey where the canal, the road, the railway and the River Dee all run alongside each other.  After the Chainbridge hotel I continue along the towpath until I come to the Horseshoe Falls. This is the end of the canal, or perhaps more accurately the beginning of it, because it is here that there is a sluice gate that takes water from the river to feed the canal.

From the Horseshoe Falls I then followed the quiet road north of the Dee heading west to the village of Carrog where I am in search of the name of the local Inn so that I can answer the first of my BCQ questions. Along this road I was able to appreciate the difference between cycling alongside a canal compared with cycling alongside the river. Although some stretches of this road run alongside the River Dee, within a relatively short length of road I am high up and contemplating the valley and the river from a much more elevated position. The downside of cycling for spectacular views is that you have to work for them.

It’s May, and the trees have a beautiful fresh green about them and much of the hillsides are still covered in blue bells. In the woods above the village of Carrog I hear the distinctive yaffle call of a Green Woodpecker, a bird that I regularly hear but for which a clear sighting has eluded me for some years now.

At Carrog, I note the name of the Inn, take my photos and then turn around to retrace my route. This time it seems easier, the uphill parts are less steep and there seems to be more downhill coasting than uphill struggling. At Llangollen I head north for my second BCQ question and search out Eliseg’s pillar which I find just beyond Valle Crucis Abbey on the road heading up towards the Horseshoe Pass.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct looking west.

From there it’s a nice downhill freewheel until I meet up with the Llangollen canal again that will return me to Chirk. Ten miles on and I leave the towpath just before I enter the longer of the Chirk tunnels to discover that it comes out right by the station.

It was a good days cycling with both the canal towpath and the hills around Carrog providing me with some spectacular views. I also answered two more questions for British Cycle Quest.

Roads less Travelled

Port Sunlight Garden Village War Memorial

Cycling UK, runs a challenge based around a comprehensive list of 402 destinations. British Cycle Quest is a nationwide treasure hunt with the objective to visit as many locations as possible. To provide evidence that you have visited each site you need to answer a simple question about each one. The only real stipulation is that you must visit each place by bike. Start it today and you could take part in this for the rest of your life. The destinations listed, provide an endless reason to explore new roads. The garden village at Port Sunlight is one of the closest locations to my home, and its question can only be answered by a visit to the village’s magnificent war memorial.

Port Sunlight is only twelve miles away, but the A41, the road that provides my most direct route is busy and cycling along that stretch of road brings no pleasure at all. In this part of England, the best cycle routes are seldom provided by ‘A’ roads.

When I’m cycling, I prefer to have an objective in mind. Fortunately, the UK is full of destinations and even rides over moderate distances can still yield surprises. Britain has an abundance of roads, so there are often alternative routes to discover. These days I seldom find roads close to home that I’ve not ridden before, so when I do come across one it makes a welcome change.

Heavy cloud was forecast when I set off to find an alternative route to Port Sunlight. I have usually approached it from the west in the past, so approaching it from the side of the river Mersey would provide both a change of scenery and a challenge. Both Chester’s and Wirral’s local authorities provide alternative routes for cyclists and support them with excellent leaflets and maps. Alongside these I have the established routes provided by the Sustrans National and Regional Cycle Network. With these I was able to plan a route beforehand that ran north-east of the M53 and parallel to the Manchester Ship Canal and the Mersey. This included a stretch from the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port, behind the Vauxhall car plant and through to Eastham Country Park, a four mile stretch of industrial road with no views of either the Mersey or the Manchester Ship Canal.

Water Tower on former Bowater paper mill site.

The North Road out of Ellesmere Port services the industrial areas north of the town. It’s quiet most of the day with the exception of shift change times. It’s a wide unattractive road and as I cycled along it I was reacquainted with the smells of oil and heavy industry that reminded me very much of the days when I worked at Shotton steelworks. This isn’t a road for cyclists or tourists, but on that day, it suited my purpose because it provided the most convenient route from A to B. When the M53 was constructed, in 1975, the North Road was sliced into two sections, but fortunately someone had the foresight to put a subway under the motorway that linked the two pieces of road making the original route still accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.  Despite it only being within 15 miles from my home, I’d never used this road before.

Whitby Lighthouse , Overpool, Ellesmere Port

Significant landmarks on my journey included the Whitby Lighthouse and the water tower that formerly belonged to the Bowater paper mill, this is a notable feature of the local skyline. After passing through the industrial landscape of Port Sunlight, I crossed the busy A41 and entered the garden village. For the east side of the Wirral, this remains a haven of peace and tranquillity, the roads are wider, quieter, and the atmosphere seems a world away from the industrial and overcrowded stressful Britain that many of us have become acquainted with. If only today’s planners and developers tried to emulate this more, I feel that we would be a lot happier as a nation. The interesting thing about Port Sunlight’s Garden Village is that it was built by one of Britain’s great industrialists.

William Hesketh Lever, considered the building and design of his village as more of a business model than a philanthropic gesture. He saw it as a way of sharing his company profits with his employees by providing decent, affordable housing with schools and amenities. His intention was to inspire loyalty and commitment from his work force. This was seen as revolutionary at the time and more than a hundred years on, it still looks good.

I made my note of the inscription on the war memorial and then headed back home.  Returning the same way helped me to appreciate the route from a different perspective. My journey  through north Cheshire and south-east Wirral included pastoral farmland, canal side tranquillity, derelict industrial sites, modern industrial estates and a country park with views across the estuary to Liverpool. And I have all this rural, industrial and social heritage, within 15 miles of home.

A Name in Stone

Front of Nelson cottage in Parkgate, Cheshire.

Deserted by the sea that once provided its livelihood, Parkgate stands on the Dee estuary. The village is a fascinating place to visit; many of its buildings are unique and some have stories to tell. Nelson Cottage in Station Road has a story, and the property is easily identified by its cobbled frontage.

Early in the 19th century this cottage was the holiday retreat of the portrait painter Albin Roberts Burt. Albin had a good reputation and specialised in miniature portraits. Half a dozen of his pictures hang in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. In November 2016 a London auction sold Albin’s two inch sketch of Lord Nelson for an estimated £12,000.

Albin moved around quite a bit in his lifetime, but in 1822 he was living in Chester. In early December that year he decided to visit Liverpool, and took his nine year old son along with him.

Historic facts can be difficult to verify, but reports suggest that the journey was done by boat using the Shropshire Union Canal from Chester to Nether Pool: now part of Ellesmere Port. On route he would have passed St Lawrence’s church at Stoak which may have been undergoing restoration at that time. The church dates back to the 14th Century, but was restored in 1827. At Nether Pool, father and son transferred to a ferry to cross the Mersey basin to Liverpool.

Having finished their day’s  business they began the return journey home. That evening, however, tragedy struck. The Prince Regent steam ferry ran out of fuel and the boat was at the mercy of the strong winds. A hurricane struck the Liverpool Bay area, and nine people fell overboard from the ferry that night including Albin’s son Nelson.

Saddened following the loss of his son, Albin walked along Parkgate beach and collected black stones. On returning to Station Road he used the stones to spell out his son’s name in front of the cottage. The stones remained loosely in place until the 1920’s when they were set in cement.

View of St Lawrence’s church Stoak from Shropshire Union Canal tow path.

I often cycle along the canal towpath between Chester and Ellesmere Port, and think about the young boy and his father making that last fateful journey. At Stoak, I can see St Lawrence’s church three hundred metres beyond the canal. I have family resting in the churchyard. I’m aware that a small boy lost in a storm almost two hundred years ago also lies there. I’ve known this for many years but until recently didn’t know his name.

Whilst researching my article on Parkgate for Best of British magazine I discovered this grave was the final resting place of young Nelson.

Grave of Nelson Burt, St Lawrence’s churchyard, Stoak, Near Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

On a summer evening I visited St Lawrence’s churchyard. I could look up my relatives and see if I could also find Nelson’s grave. It wasn’t hard to find; it was the one closest to the south of the church tower. Nelson may have the oldest grave in that churchyard and its position means that he probably gets the maximum amount of sunlight. The headstone inscription explains the circumstances of his death. An interesting thing about this grave is that it has both a head and a footstone.

On the 5th December 1822 a small boy died under tragic circumstances. Maybe he could have become a  famous painter like his father, or a great leader of men like his namesake. We will never know, but today we still know Nelson Burt’s name because it has been set in stone.

Miniature portrait of Nelson Burt aged 8, painted by his father Albin Roberts Burt.

Painting reproduced with the kind permission of Claudia Hill @ Ellison Fine Art.     http://www.ellisonfineart.com/

Following the Signs

Welcome to my blog. My name is Peter Linfield, I write, I cycle, I’m a Christian and I live in the historic city of Chester.

Northern Saxon warrior alongside the Shropshire Union Canal near Chester.

Back in 2013, I encountered an Anglo Saxon warrior, only two miles from my home. He was guarding the most northerly point of the Mercian Way. He didn’t speak – but told me I was 101 miles from Bewdley in Worcestershire. At that time I’d never heard of Bewdley, let alone been there.

I discovered that the Mercian Way was part of Sustrans’ National Cycle Route (NCR) 45, the other end of which was 270 miles away in the cathedral city of Salisbury.

At the height of summer, I took advantage of the long days and packed my tent into my cycle panniers and made the train journey south. Sustrans signs would direct me home.

For five days I followed the signs as I meandered my way north through the English countryside. The route took me over Salisbury plain, past Stonehenge, through the Vale of Pewsey and the stone circle at Avebury. I crossed the River Thames north of a town called Cricklade and cycled along canal tow paths through Gloucester, Worcester and Chester.  I crossed the Cotswolds, the Wrekin and the Peckforton Hills.  I got lost in Swindon but found my way out with the aid of a compass. On day four, I reached Bewdley and spent a Sunday morning searching the Wyre Forest looking for the Saxon warrior that marked the southern end of the Mercian Way.  After that I joined the Severn Valley Way, sharing my route with its river and famous railway. This took me through Bridgnorth to Ironbridge. Leaving the River Severn, I carried on to Whitchurch in Shropshire and back to my home in Cheshire.

At the end of my journey I wrote an account of the trip and called it ‘Following the Signs’. I have adopted this name also for my blog. Here, I will tell you about my cycling trips, my writing journey and other things I’d like to share.

NCN Route 45 Sign at Salisbury Cathedral