June 26, 1989: Chirk to Llangollen
On Monday, June 26, 1989, the Lees and I returned to Chirk station to begin our last assault on Offa’s Dyke Path. We had taken the 10:40 from Euston, changed at Shrewsbury, and it was now 2:10. Dorothy had decided not to use a week’s holiday time for this strenuous venture, and Toby had been limping on his right rear foot – so it would just be the three of us this time. It had been extremely hot in London recently and we had come prepared for a warm march. I had called local weather and received a promising forecast – but we were unprepared for the fine mist that was descending as we climbed from our train.
Although we still had some eight and half miles of walking I was not worried about the late start because we had the maximum amount of daylight, our landlady was not waiting dinner for us, and I expected a fairly easy walk.
No one could be bothered with rain gear so we started off for the Chirk Castle Gates, crossing the Shropshire Union Canal for the first time. There was an uninterrupted view of the gates this time, no red car to spoil the photography – however I disdained taking a second shot. We turned north to continue the one and a half miles of road walking needed to rejoin the path itself.
There was a brief shower and we huddled under a tree by the roadside. A long line of sheep was marching in single file in a field next to us. Tosh used the opportunity of this pause to start her first Mars bar; I accepted a piece. When the rain stopped we continued forward, passing the business entrance to Chirk castle, and climbing gradually. Almost before I expected it the road from Tyn-y-groes had joined us on the left. We were now ready to resume our march on Offa’s Dyke Path.
There was still a deal of road walking to negotiate. Once we had to squeeze up against the hedgerows as a passing tractor brushed Harold’s vest. The countryside was lovely after the brief rain, with lots of good smells, and many wildflowers by the verge. We passed several farms and the hamlet of Fron Isaf and ahead we could see the industrial landscape that clogged this end of the Vale of Llangollen. At last we were able to leave the road by climbing a stile into a field and descending, without much path in evidence, to a distant field corner. Here we turned left and made our way through a herd of dozing cows, escaping onto the busy A5.
We crossed this too and turned north after a few yards, climbing Cloud Hill, and obtaining our first views of a lovely railway viaduct to our right. The Lees were quite excited by this bridge but I knew that an even more famous structure lay just ahead. There was a hedgerow on our right and when a gap appeared we sat down to have a brief snack. This was a most appropriate spot – for our backs were up against the very last section of the dyke coterminous with the path.
After a few minutes we left our field, crossed the dyke, and headed north on sketchy paths to the Irish Bridge on the A483. This took us back across the canal, where we made use of the towpath to head west. It was starting to drizzle again and eventually we gave up; full rain gear went on and it never came off for the rest of the day. The rain was usually very light, often no more than a mist, and the visibility remained good. It was, I suppose, a blessing that temperatures remained mild. I had started in nothing more than a t-shirt and I never felt the need to add anything to this.
We passed the village of Froncysyllte on our left. It looked quite lovely, with back gardens full of flowers descending to the water. We did not cross over to visit the Aqueduct Inn; instead I asked the Lees if they afraid of heights. When they said they were not I continued forward on the alternative route toward Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Already we could see some of the spans of this bridge off to our right. A wet family sucking ice lollies passed us on the tow path. Ahead of us we could see the canal heading off into space – a railing on the right of the towpath pavement assuring us that it was safe to walk across.
The experience was an exhilarating one. Below us was the crashing Dee and off to our right the railway bridge. The canal boat passenger would have had an even more dizzying experience since there was no rail on the other side of the trough. We made our way very slowly on the wet pavement and reached the end. Here someone (but not me, for once) had left a walking stick.
It was a little hard figuring out how to proceed. We reached a boat slip but the little swing bridge over it was in use and someone advised us to go around behind the boathouse. Then there was a choice of two bridges over our canal; I took the first and we ended up at a store where Tosh bought us ice creams.
Munching our treats we continued up to a road and down to the Llangollen arm of the canal. This took us west for a short distance, then we had to cross to the south side, and back again to the north. All of this is very hard to see on the map and not that well explained in the guides. I was now faced with a field that had to be crossed in order to reach a hidden underpass. I was glad I was carrying in my ziplock bag the Association’s route guide (as well as xeroxes from Wright’s book) because the former told us we to head right rather than left when the tunnel had been cleared. This brought us along a path that emerged on the A539 at Trevor.
We followed this busy motor route to the west for only a few hundred yards, escaping to follow a minor road uphill. After passing a house on our right we took a small lane for a few feet and reached the bottom of the steep path that climbs through forest all the way to the Precipice Walk. What a delightful route this was. We were sheltered from the rain and the gradients were not that steep and the moisture had brought out a marvelous piney fragrance. Some sections were spookily dark and only once did we emerge into the light as the path followed the left side of a field before returning to the dark bower. Here we had some water. At last the trees began to part and we emerged in wonderful high moorland onto the motor road that parallels the Vale of Llangollen from its lofty 900-foot perch.
The Precipice Walk is neither precipitous nor a walk; it is a motor road that winds its way to the west beneath the Trevor Rocks. Even though there was mist we had good views of a most dramatic landscape. There were only a few cars about; one was unloading a chilly looking cyclist in a yellow vest. Ahead we could see the ruined fort of Castell Dinas Bran atop its sharply rising peak. In a mile and a half of road walking we were at the foot of this eminence. A footpath sign put us into a field but there was no access to the peak from it and after a walk in the wet grass we had to climb a fence to rejoin our road. I had wanted to find a low level path, indicated on the ordnance survey map, around the western flank of Castell Dinas Bran, but none was in evidence as we turned off toward the mountain. Some day-trippers, having just completed their descent, were full of advice on how we might best tackle the peak. There was no other way into Llangollen, it seemed, so -at 6:00 pm – we took a deep breath and started up.
Actually, the ascent was no worse than many a climb out of a Devon combe. Tosh charged straight up, while Harold and I cut switchbacks in the grass. We climbed a stile and each took a different route to the summit. From the top there was a wonderful view of the rooftops of Llangollen far below us. We did not linger long among the ruins of the fort. A very steep descent brought us down through grass and bracken to some houses half way down the hillside. Here I decided to take a short cut, avoiding the continuation of the route down to the village school by turning off to the right and descending an extremely steep motor road to the junction of Tower and Dinbren Roads. I had adopted this strategy by studying my maps carefully and I was considerably relieved when, just after our turn onto Dinbren Road, we encountered, just at 7:00, Dinbren House on the left.
Our hostess, Mrs. Jean Lewis, answered our ring and invited us to take our boots off. I had been wearing the lightweight blue trekkers abandoned by cousin Bernard and they were quite wet. I took them to my room and put newspaper in them and they were dry by the next day. The same could not be said for my t-shirt or my socks; both were still wet days later. I was in the Green Room, Tosh and Harold in the Brown Room. I was closest to the bathroom, but none of us seemed much in the mood to get into more water: Mrs. Lewis did not do dinners (something true of all of our B&B ladies this trip) and we were hungry. We passed a ten-year old daughter in pajamas on the landing and went downstairs to get advice on where to eat in town.
It felt very strange to be heading out in full rain gear and boots. We walked back down Dinbren Road, passed the canal, and descended to the famous Dee Bridge. The Lees had decided against a curry so we went into a very nice wine bar and restaurant, the Woolpack, on Bridge Street. While the Lees sipped their gin and tonics I went back to the High Street and phoned Dorothy from a call box.
We had a very nice meal – I had peppered steak. Surprisingly (for a place called the Woolpack) they had no draught beers but Tosh and I made do with a bottled Spanish lager, San Miguel. I had bread and butter pudding for afters. But the price of this civilized meal was equal to the total charged for the three pub meals that followed. Tosh surprised me by calling for cigars at the end of this meal. Of course she is always giving up this habit but I had not seen her smoke in several years.
It had almost stopped spitting when we made our return journey. If was after 10:00 but there was still a glow in the sky. I had no difficulty falling asleep on this trip; the walkman had barely started the second movement of Mahler’s 7th before I was out.
To continue with the next stage of our walk you need: