‘The bridge, which was founded by the first John Trevor bishop of St Asaph, who died in 1357, is one of the Tri Thlws Cymru, or three beauties of Wales: but more remarkable for its situation than structure…The river usually runs under only one [arch]; where it has formed a black chasm of vast depth, into which the water pours with great fury, from a high broken ledge, part of the smooth and solid rock, which composes the whole bed of the river. The view through the arches, either upwards or downwards, is extremely picturesque’.
Thomas Pennant, ‘Tour in Wales Vol 1 (1778)
Llangollen Bridge is thought to have been the first stone bridge across the Dee. Given that Llangollen was thought to have been founded at some time in the 6th century, it would make every sense to build a bridge here. At its current site, the River Dee can be forded, unless of course heavy rain has made of it a torrent, but of course that would be most inconvenient to trade. We can be clear that a bridge was built here, at its present site, under the instruction of John Trevor, at around the time he became Bishop of St Asaph in 1346, perhaps as a means of assuaging the anger of the people of Llangollen, who were in open dispute with the monks of Valle Crucis over river rights. There is however, a tradition that states that there was an earlier bridge here, ordered to be built in the reign of Henry I of England (1100 – 1135) and that a stone was found, during the 14th century restoration dated 1131. Unfortunately, that stone has since been lost, if indeed it existed at all. In truth, any earlier bridge, and an earlier bridge seems entirely plausible, would probably have been wooden. While during the summer the Dee can seem benign, to watch it in the height of the autumn or spring rains is to appreciate why a wooden bridge was not likely to have had a meaningful lifespan.
The present bridge is thought to be largely 17th century, although pieces of sepulchral slab have been found in its fabric, dating to the period of the Dissolution of Valle Crucis. Its huge arches are irregular, governed by the River Dee which cares little for symmetry. The Rondle Reade stone in Hall Street and dated 1656 has been linked to work done on the bridge at that time. It is thought to have been removed to its present site, a now defunct Masonic Hall after the 1873 widening. Rondle Reade was paid the huge amount of £250 for his work, which suggests a major undertaking.
Situated now on the frontage of a defunct Masonic building in Hall Street, the Rondle Reade stone remembers the work done upon Llangollen Bridge in 1656.
The widening for the railway led to a curious folly being built, a castellated tower which apparently became a sweet shop and a café. It was demolished in 1939, and by all accounts is much missed. The bridge was widened again in 1969, due the amount of traffic.
The Covid Pandemic of 2020/21 played havoc with the Royal International Eisteddfod, resulting its outright cancellation in 2020, and forcing it to go online in 2021. With no parade, the town still managed to bring colour and spectacle to view, the bridge playing its part, being covered in a patchwork of fabrics, the idea of the artist Luke Jerram and representing all corners of the globe, during what would have been the Eisteddfod week.
Llangollen Bridge has enjoyed a long life, has featured in the Tri Thlws Cymru (though no one seems to know what the other two were), the Five Beauties of Wales and of course the Seven Wonders of Wales. Rare praise indeed.
Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon's mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winefride's well,
Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells.
The Seven Wonders of Wales