Llangollen: an L of a place

Castell Dinas Bran; the name has a wonderfully Tolkienesque ring to it. An elven bolthole, perhaps? Somewhere Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee might have spent a night on their journey with the One Ring?

Standing among the scattered ruins of this 13th-century castle, squatting on a hilltop above the pretty northern Welsh market town of Llangollen, it's not much of a stretch of the imagination.

The mountains of Snowdonia are a Mordor-like mass on the horizon and the ruins are dark, brooding and Gothic. As is so often the case in Wales, it has either just rained or is raining or is going to rain. Lord of the Wrungs?

There's nobody else up here. Listen and you can almost hear Gollum snuffling around the perimeter. "Yesssss, my precioussss." Well, it's him or that chap Heathcliff.

It's also said that this is the last resting place of the Holy Grail, that a golden harp is buried in the hill and that fairies live here. What I can say for sure is that from here, 300 strenuous metres above the Dee Valley, the sheep grazing below look like little maggots on a bright green quilt.

To be honest I'd never heard of Llangollen (pop: 3500) until, leafing through a Welsh Tourist Board brochure, I realise that a disproportionate number of tours either start, go through or finish there. The photographs show a pretty, uncrowded yet jostling sort of a place. The clincher is the official Dr Who museum.

On arrival (an easy drive by hire care from Preston via Chester in England), it is disappointing to discover that the museum has long moved to Blackpool (memo to self: brush up on research skills) but Llangollen has much, much more going for it. It's a perfect base for exploring north Wales by car but there's also so much interesting stuff within walking distance.

For a £2 ($4.80) fee the staff at the tourist information centre in the Town Hall, Castle Street, make a few phone calls and finally point me in the direction of the Glasgwm B&B in Abbey Road, just 50 metres from the old Llangollen bridge in the centre of town. My single room at the back of the house is small but perfectly formed, with its own en suite and TV, and all for £27.50 with a glorious breakfast thrown in by the generous and friendly owners, John Spicer and Heather Petrie.

If you go, buy the small booklet by local author David Berry. Walks Around Llangollen and the Dee Valley is a charming series of 20 circular, self-guided walks with simple hand-drawn maps that ensure you never get lost and will see you crossing boggy farmers' fields, clambering over stiles, and climbing parts of Offa's Dyke (built in the 8th century), which runs nearby.

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One of the greatest nearby attractions is the 38-metre high Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, designed by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford and opened in 1805. It carries the Llangollen Canal over the valley of the River Dee and is both the highest and, at 307m, the longest aqueduct in Britain. Just 3.4m wide and 1.5m deep, it consists of a cast-iron trough for barges and a narrow pedestrian pathway supported above the river by 18 masonry arches. It is still a magnificent sight and was, quite rightly, formally nominated for World Heritage status last year.

To get there I did a shortened version of David Berry's Walk Six and mixed it with Walk Five - a day-long tramp that took in Dinas Bran Castle ("go up Wharf Hill by a taxidermist's shop"), a beer or three at the Sun Trevor Inn at Tan Y Bont, and a stroll along the quiet and leafy Llangollen Canal to Trevor Basin, where colourful barges line up for their turn to cross the single-lane aqueduct.

Mark Pritchard, 38, a holidaying Londoner who is waiting his turn in the water-borne queue in a royal blue barge full of excited children, says crossing the aqueduct the first time was a little nerve-racking because of the lack of railings on the non-pedestrian side. But, he adds: "It's also pretty fantastic, too. If you can ignore the drop on one side it's like floating in the clouds. The kids loved it. It's pretty amazing that it's 200 years old."

Towards the end of the day, back in Llangollen, it seems only right to finish off with a 45-minute horse-drawn boat ride at the wharf just above the railway station. From here carthorses pull colourful wooden barges west along the canal and past the field that's the main site of the annual Llangollen International Eisteddfod. Without the usual muted chug-chug of the motor it's a relaxing, almost silent, glide under age-old bridges, the early-evening sun dappled by the trees lining the towpath and ... well, I'd like to tell you more but I fell asleep and had to be woken up when we got back to the wharf.

About three kilometres west of Llangollen, along the A5 and then a little dink north on the A542 towards Horseshoe Pass, are the romantic ruins of the Cistercian Valle Crucis Abbey (Abaty Glyn y Groes). The word "ruins" does them a huge injustice. Founded in 1201 and closed by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the monasteries in 1537, the abbey didn't suffer as badly as some of its contemporaries and what remains today is the result of neglect rather than any specific attempt at destruction.

Tucked serenely at the bottom of a steep green hillside, the abbey retains much of its former glory. Which means it's easy to imagine the rest. The west front remains, complete with a beautifully carved doorway, the monks' original fishpond and, almost intact, the Chapter House (the main meeting hall) with its astonishing rib-vaulted roof. It's an object lesson in medieval ecclesiastical architecture. If you like that sort of thing - and I do.

There's an office selling tickets, souvenirs and books but once through this and into the grounds it's like stepping back in time. The grounds are well kept and, as you wander through, the feeling of actually connecting with history is palpable. A beautiful spot and worth a good few hours of your time. Take a picnic.

East from Llangollen and we go from the sublime to perhaps not the ridiculous but certainly the eccentric, at Plas Newydd (new mansion). In 1780 Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, two society women, fell in love, fled from their families in Ireland, arrived in the town and set up home in a small cottage where they lived together for almost 50 years.

The cottage didn't remain a cottage for long, however. Between 1798 and 1814 they began what the Plas Newydd tourism brochure now calls "the elaborate gothicisation" of their once humble home. Now a short walk through suburban streets on the edge of Llangollen, Plas Newydd is set in pretty, manicured gardens and is well worth the entrance fee (which includes a black "wand" for the fascinating audio tour).

A guardian at the front door allows only a limited number of people into the house at one time - it's not very big either in overall size or the height of the rooms - but once inside the extent of the ladies' renovations are astonishing. They installed intricately carved black oak panels in the hallway and all the way to the top of the stairs, there are stained glass windows and a carved front door designed by a local carpenter.

Gradually, the Ladies of Llangollen became known throughout Georgian and Regency society and many luminaries made the pilgrimage to visit them, including the Duke of Gloucester, Walter Scott and William Wordsworth.

After this it's back to town and an early dinner at the Old Corn Mill. You have to get in early because it's hard to get any decent food past about 9.30pm - it's just not that sort of town. The mill sits on the bank of the River Dee and has a balcony out back that looks across to the railway line and the old bridge which is one of the official Seven Wonders of Wales.

Later in the evening I stroll across the bridge, built in wood in 1284 and rebuilt in stone in 1345 before being widened in 1969, and head to the Ponsonby Arms. The many other pubs in Llangollen are quaint and quiet, full of nooks in which to drink and read and chat. But it's a Friday night and this one is full, noisy and smoky and obviously a place for the sexes to mingle - Miss Sarah would definitely not have approved.

Destination

Llangollen, Wales

* PRONUNCIATION

To say Llangollen: for the "ll" position the tongue to say "l" and then breathe out. Like the "ch" in "loch". Wales is the place that vowels forgot but at least try to speak the language. The locals will love you for it and will also help out if you swallow your tongue in the process.

* GETTING THERE

By rail: the nearest railway stations are Ruabon and Chirk. Buses to Llangollen from Ruabon are every 15 minutes during the day Monday to Saturday. All trains arriving at Chirk are met by the local bus services to Llangollen.

By water: follow the Shropshire Union Canal over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and turn left onto the Llangollen Canal. Follow this until just before Llangollen Wharf, where mooring is available.

By road: see the interactive map on the Llangollen website.

* PLACES TO STAY

The Tourist Office in the Town Hall, phone: +44 (0) 1978 860 828, for a fee will find you a place to stay within your budget (it's best to book ahead in peak times). Glasgwm B&B in Abbey Road has great breakfasts at a communal table. Room rates vary based on the length of stay and range from £27.50 to £32.50 (single); and £22 to £30 (double).

* ATTRACTIONS

Piler Eliseg: remains of a bronze age pillar after which Valle Crucis (valley of the cross) abbey was named. Built between 800 and 820AD.

Chirk Castle (Castell y Waun): dating from the 14th century and now owned and managed by the National Trust.

Llangollen Motor Museum: see http://www.llangollenmotormuseum.co.uk .

Llangollen Museum: open daily 10am-4pm. Admission free.

International Musical Eisteddfod: takes place every July, and has done since 1947.

For more details, see www.llangollen.org.uk

- Sydney Morning Herald

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