Our Shropshire Beano is based in a gorgeous country house just outside the town of Ellesmere, in the heart of the Shropshire countryside 15 miles from Shrewsbury. However it’s not unknown for unwary travellers – or those armed with a temperamental satnav – to end up at Ellesmere Port, some 30 miles away at the base of the Wirral Peninsula, within spitting distance of Liverpool. (Spitting at Liverpool is not recommended.) Type “ellesmere” into Google Maps and the Port will be its first suggestion. Once you’ve visited them, the two are quite easy to tell apart:
- Ellesmere: sleepy medieval market town, Regency architecture, a lake full of wildfowl, surrounded by country lanes.
- Ellesmere Port: Vauxhall car factory, huge oil refinery, the UK’s largest outlet shopping village and the Blue Planet Aquarium. (Also, surprisingly, one of the nation’s most scenically-situated Holiday Inns.)
So why the shared name? Just one thing links the two Ellesmeres: the Ellesmere Canal.
Or at least it would. If it existed.
When Parliament passed an Act* authorising the building of the Ellesmere Canal in 1793, the proposed route was for a canal linking the Severn at Shrewsbury – one of the main trade centres for the Welsh Borders – to the major shipping centres on the River Mersey. On the way it would pass through Chester – another large commercial centre – but, despite the name, not Ellesmere itself. Branches would be built to connect the coal mines, copper mines and iron works of North Wales into the canal. A branch to Ellesmere itself was later added to the plan, possibly under the influence of the 3rd Duke of Bridgwater, one of the most famous figures of Britain’s ‘Canal Age’, who just happened to own most of the property and land in and around the town.
The Ellesmere Canal Company started digging several unconnected sections of the canal at once, in the hope of earning income from tolls as soon as possible. The lucrative main line section from Chester to the Mersey opened in 1795, emerging by the village of Netherpool. No-one had heard of Netherpool, so as the village grew into a town it seems voluntarily to have changed its name, first to the Port of Ellesmere then the snappier Ellesmere Port. And so it remains today.
A bridge to nowhere
Meanwhile, the southern section of the canal’s main cut was slowly being extended northwards from Shrewsbury. The planned route involved the construction of two massive aqueducts to carry the boats over deep river valleys: the first over the river Ceiriog at Chirk; the second over the Dee near Ruabon, both designed by the legendary Thomas Telford.
Chirk Aqueduct opened in 1801. Standing 70 feet (21m) above the river, it provides spectacular views and besides crossing the valley, it crosses the border between England and Wales. (We walk across it as part of one of the rides on the Shropshire Beano, before following the canal path east for a while.)
Four years later and just four miles further north, the Pontcysyllte** Aqueduct was opened – at 126ft (38m) high, the largest aqueduct in Britain both then and now. ‘Pontcysyllte’ either means ‘Cysyllte bridge’ (Cysyllte being a nearby village) or, more poetically, ‘the bridge that connects’ (from the Welsh verb cysylltu) – though the latter version does beg the question: how many bridges don’t connect?
As it turned out, Pontcysyllte didn’t have much to connect to. Even before the aqueduct was completed, the company was running short of money and was forced to re-think the route of the canal. Abandoning the original plan, the company did a deal with the similarly-struggling owners of the Chester Canal, some miles to the east, which itself had failed to complete its intended route from Chester to Nantwich in Cheshire. The Ellesmere branch suddenly became the main line and work started to build it eastwards, linking with the Cheshire Canal.
The original main line, with its hugely expensive array of three tunnels and two aqueducts, became a branch. Even more embarrassingly, it was a branch to nowhere: it came to a halt in Trevor Basin, just north of Pontcysyllte. When the aqueduct was opened in 1805, a procession of boats crossed it to the sound of gun salutes and a military band. Speeches were made, the crowd applauded, and the boats crossed back the way they had come. There was nowhere else for them to go.
Fortunately for the blushes of the directors, the engineers had already dug a ‘feeder cut’ (a narrow channel) from Trevor up to the Horseshoe Falls at Llangollen, purely to supply the canal with water. With a bit of work this feeder was made navigable, allowing boats to continue all the way to Llangollen.
End of the line
And there it ended. The Ellesmere Canal Company eventually merged with the Cheshire Canal to form the Shropshire Union. The Llangollen branch became known as the ‘Llangollen Canal’ (ironically, as it had never been intended to go to Llangollen at all), the southern section was absorbed into the Montgomery Canal, and the name “Ellesmere Canal” gradually disappeared from the maps.
Up on the Mersey, Ellesmere Port went from strength to strength. At the end of the 19th century it became the terminus for the Manchester Ship Canal, enabling Manchester to compete with Liverpool for shipping and turning Ellesmere Port into a large and bustling dockland area. The docks are now the home of the National Waterways Museum (and that Holiday Inn).
The Llangollen Canal, from Chirk Aqueduct to Horseshoe Falls, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2009. With 15,000 leisure boats traversing it every year, it’s now busier than it was at any time in its history.
On the Shropshire Beano, our rides not only include the Chirk Aqueduct but several stretches of towpath along different sections of the former Ellesmere Canal network. The approach into Ellesmere Basin is particularly scenic, as we pass through the tunnel to the accompaniment of the chugging engines of brightly-painted narrowboats. Canals also feature on other Beanos: on a Mid Wales Beano ride we follow long sections of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal, while on the White Horse Beano you can spot the remains of the old Wilts & Berks Canal dotted about the landscape of the Vale.
*A subsequent Act of Parliament concerning the canal was wonderfully titled: ‘An Act to explain and amend an Act entitled An Act to explain and amend an Act passed in the Thirty third Year of the Reign of his present Majesty entitled An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Canal from the River Severn at Shrewsbury in the county of Salop to the River Mersey at or near Netherpool in the county of Chester and also for making and maintaining certain collateral Cuts from the said intended Canal and for varying and altering certain Parts of the Course of the said Canal and collateral Cuts between Ruabon and Chester and for making and maintaining several other Branches and collateral Cuts to communicate therewith’
** In case you need to stop someone and ask the way, Wrexham Council helpfully tells us that ‘for the non-Welsh speaker, Pontcysyllte is pronounced “pont-kur-suck-tay”.’ Which is not entirely accurate, but should give the locals a laugh. For a more helpful guide to Welsh pronunciation, see the Cycling Sideways guide to Welsh placenames.