'Llangollen is a small and poor town, seated in a most romantic spot, near a pretty common watered by the Dee, which, emblematic of its country, runs with great passion through the valley. The mountains soar to a great height above their wooded bases; and one, whose summit is crowned with the antient castle Brân, is uncommonly grand.
I know no place in North Wales, where the refined lover of picturesque scenes, the sentimental, or the romantic, can give a fuller indulgence to his inclination. No place abounds more with various rides or solemn walks. From this central spot, he may (as I have done) visit the seat of Owen Glyndwr, and the fine vallies of the Dee, to its source, beyond the great Llyntegid: or pass the mountains to the fertile vale of Clwyd; or make the tour of Wrexham; or visit the places which I have just left.'
Thomas Pennant 'A Tour in Wales' 1778
Llangollen is a picturesque small town on the River Dee in Denbighshire. Surrounded by hills, history, legend and myth it resides peacefully in the vale which takes its name. A haven for tourists in all seasons, in retains a charm even at the height of summer when thousands throng its streets to celebrate the arrival of the world at the International Eisteddfod. It takes its name from the Welsh word, ‘llan’, meaning ‘church’ or ‘religious settlement’, a word much in evidence throughout the Celtic world, and the monk, St Collen, the traditional founder of the town in the 6th Century.
St Collen is a curious figure, since other than in Llangollen and St Collen’s, there are no other churches dedicated to him. It has been suggested that there are connections with Cornwall and perhaps Langolen in Brittany in France (Celtic, in origin, of course), but he remains an elusive figure. Collen is said to have arrived in the area by coracle, a traditional small, lightweight boat, and coracle fishing was common on the River Dee until the 1950s.
Of course, the history of Llangollen goes back much further than Christian record. There is evidence of Neolithic peoples moving amongst the hills surrounding the towns, in the very many cairns, most of which have never been excavated. Those that have been opened show evidence of Beaker pottery and objects made of jet. There were people settling in the area during the Bronze Age, certainly. Axe heads have been found on Dinas Bran, while at nearby Tan-y-Llwyn a pair of gold torcs, now lost, were found in the 19th Century. Interestingly, Llangollen is one of only four sites in Clwyd (and thirty five in Wales) which can date a religious foundation before the 12th Century. St Collen’s does fairly dominate the town itself, and is a perfect place to begin a visit to the area.
During the so called ‘Dark Ages’, which as far as the term is used is perhaps more suited to North East Wales than elsewhere, Llangollen and the surrounding area seems to have been a front line in the conflicting ambitions of the Kings of Gwynedd and the Anglo Saxon Mercians, both of whom have left an indelible mark upon the area. Wat’s Dyke and the even more famous Offa’s Dyke are evidence of a Mercian presence, though the exact purpose of these immense earthworks is still unclear. The quite amazing Eliseg’s Pillar records the recovery and defeat of the Saxons by the Powys king in the mid 8th Century. In the centuries that followed, Llangollen was spectator too much, but central to little of the back and forth nature of English and Welsh conflict. Owain Glyndwr remains a ubiquitous figure in the Vale of Llangollen, without ever really establishing a presence in Llangollen itself. Nearby Valle Crucis Abbey was founded at the beginning of the 13th Century by Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, the ruler of Northern Powys.
Llangollen appears from the mist once more with the rise of industry and tourism in North East Wales. The Ellesmere Canal was a venture largely financed by wealthy industrialists such as John ‘Iron-Mad’ Wilkinson, and Thomas Telford took the canal to Llangollen and on to Llantysilio and the stunning Horseshoe Falls. The need to move the slate that was quarried in the hills around Llangollen necessitated such transportation, and the scars of the tramways that linked up with the canal are still visible today around the town. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, and the inconvenience this caused to the wealthy wishing to undertake the Grand Tour of Europe, tourism in Britain began to boom, and Llangollen profited from this.
Today tourists can enjoy the return of the steam train along the old Ruabon to Barmouth line, running between Llangollen and Corwen. Passenger travel was possible from around 1840, when a stop on the Chester to Shrewsbury line was used to coach people to the town along the A5. It wasn’t until 1862 (1861 for freight) that Llangollen received a direct link, and although Mr Beeching (whose name is the equivalent to a curse to many) ripped out the heart of the rail network in North East Wales (as in many places), today the Llangollen Railway goes from strength to strength, offering trips along the Dee in Thomas the Tank Engine during school holidays.
A beautiful town, Llangollen has much to offer. A walk across Llangollen Bridge along Castle Street, with Dinas Bran behind you is a delightful way to spend an afternoon. The little streets off from the main road are a haven for browsing for antiques, knick knacks and the like. There is, indeed, something for everyone in Llangollen. During winter and perhaps with snowfall, the town takes on the aspect of a small mountain resort.