Llangollen: In the North Wales borderlands, Helen Werin experiences the high life aboard a narrowboat.
Those of us with a head for heights are standing outside with the skipper, Patrick, as he glides us across the Poncysyllte Aqueduct on a narrowboat. Those who don’t want to peer over the edge at the 126ft drop are enjoying a cuppa with an infinity-pool-like view from inside the Thomas Telford. The boat is named for the engineer who built this “stream in the sky” on the Llangollen Canal.
All that seems to be between us and the bottom of the Dee Valley is the edge of a giant iron trough. The initially dizzying experience soon mellows into a surreal sense of floating across the landscape.
It’s the first of what will be many highs on a trip to the region they call the North Wales Borderlands.
Towering over Llangollen, visible for miles, are the ruins of a once-splendid 13th-century castle that was abandoned to nature within a couple of decades of being built. Hence its name; Castell Dinas Brân, castle of the crows. Up close the ruins offer fading glimpses of a glamorous past; shadows of wall plaster here, grand fireplaces there. But it’s the panorama that we’ve come for, from the impressive railway viaduct further down the Dee Valley to the Llantysilio mountain high above the Horseshoe Pass.
Tucked into the hillside below is luxurious Geufron Hall Boo-tique B&B. Each of the rooms is named after a local mountain; ours is Eglwyseg. They have such wonderful views that to close the curtains seems like sacrilege. And if you’re wondering about the ‘Boo’, it’s the nickname of Beth, one of the owners, whose childhood home this once was.
Family-friendliness comes with a row of wellies, spare coats and umbrellas in the hall and dressing-up clothes and games in the sitting room. Children can collect their breakfast eggs from the chickens and meet the Two Fat Ladies, a pair of wobbly pigs.
Guests have the use of the south-facing gardens. The private terrace outside Eglwyseg is the last place to get the sun in the evening.
It’s a 10 minute walk from Geufron Hall to Llangollen Wharf where carthorses pull boats along a stretch of the canal where no other vessels can go. Their destination is Horseshoe Falls, another of Telford’s designs.
In the little town, with its riverside gardens, the big attraction is the mostly steam-hauled Llangollen Railway. My husband relives his childhood by standing in the steam on the bridge as huge engines puff underneath. Berwyn, a couple of miles up the track and reached via the canal path, is one of the photogenic halts. Below us, on the Dee, excited youngsters in tyre-like rafts swirl down rapids.
Llangollen is surrounded by walking trails. The Offa’s Dyke path is just on the other side of Dinas Brân. Ten minutes away at Chirk we have great fun edging – torch in hand – through the quarter-mile-long Darkie Tunnel beyond Chirk Aqueduct, yet another of Telford’s creations. There’s just enough space for our walkway and a single narrowboat.
Taking the opportunity to disembark for a while, we explore Chirk Castle and the Jubilee Tower. There’s not a lot left of the latter built to mark the golden jubilee of ‘mad’ King George III, 1,818ft (554m) up on top of Moel Famau.
Again it’s the views that have lured us up to the highest point of the Clwydian Range AONB (Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty). We’d been told that we’d be able to see Blackpool Tower from up here, but it’s too hazy. Our consolation prize is the spread of the Snowdonia mountains to the west. Across the heather-covered hills, is a chain of Iron Age hill forts. Beyond The Wirral the iconic Royal Liver Building on Liverpool’s waterfront is clearly visible.
Other walks take us up the Ceiriog Valley from Chirk, a place that Second World War prime minister David Lloyd George called “a little piece of heaven fallen to earth”. We’re only a few miles from one of the main tourist routes into North Wales, yet it feels incredibly peaceful and undisturbed.
We experience different facets of the area by staying in three locations around Llangollen. At Abbey Farm and Ty Canol Caravan Park, where you can stay in your own tent, caravan or motorhome or rent a cottage or a camping pod, we’ve watched the last rays of the sun glint off the rose window of Valle Crucis Abbey just yards from our pitch. Wern Isaf Farm is also in the shadows of Castell Dinas Brân, with unobstructed views across the valley. You can turn up in your own unit or hire a static caravan. The farm’s website rightly enthuses “almost everything you could possibly want to do from a campsite can be done from here”. There’s also loads of inspiration for places to explore in Geufron Hall’s sitting room.
That’s if you can tear your eyes away from that view.
Abbey Farm and Ty Canol Caravan Park also has three self catering cottages for rent all year round. www.abbeyfarmcaravans.co.uk/ 01978 861 297.
Wern Isaf Farm. www.wernisaf.co.uk/ 01978 860632.
Chirk Castle. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ 01691 777701.
Horse Drawn Boats. A 45 trip is £6.50 adults, £3.50 children, family ticket £17. www.horsedrawnboats.co.uk/ 01978 860 702
Geufron Hall Boo-tique B&B prices per room per night from £50 in low season (September–March) and £60 in high season (April–August). Helen stayed in Eglwyseg, a superior double room priced at £120 per night, including breakfast. www.geufronhall.co.uk/ 01978 860676.
Information about all attractions, including walking in the Clwydian Range Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, can be found at www.northwalesborderlands.co.uk