Distance: 33 miles (53 km)
Time: 1 day (challenge) / 4 days (at leisure)
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate
Surface: Meadows, Forest Trails
They call it the ‘Permanent Challenge’ – to conquer in a single day the summits surrounding the beautiful Vale of Llangollen on the fully waymarked, high-level 53-km Llangollen Round on the Welsh borders. All you have to do is rise early, have breakfast, and make your way to the Tyn Dwr Outdoor Centre where there will be someone to stamp your route card, give you your Permanent Challenge pack, and take a note of your time. Then off you go, either clockwise or anti-clockwise until you reach the half-way point at the Ponderosa Cafe on Horseshoe Pass, where you collect your next stamp. Then it’s a walk/dash to the finish line back at Tyn Dwr where your time is again noted and you receive your personalized certificate that shows your time and the distance covered. And no matter how exhausted you feel at the end of all this you’ll be glad you did it, because you’ve just completed in a day what most people take three or four to do. Plus your fee of six pounds for the privilege of doing it in a day will be going to Cancer Research UK, the Llangollen branch of which was responsible for devising the route.
Of course there’s nothing to prevent you from making a contribution to CRUK and then doing it in four days anyway, and plenty of reasons why you should not, the least of which is the lovely mix of limestone grasslands, open heather moorlands, and woodlands both deciduous and coniferous that makes walking here such a delight and something to linger over. And for those who are navigationally challenged the trail is a peach – your starting point of Llangollen is almost always visible as you circle it in the hills above.
Most who take the four-day option begin in Llangollen, the attractive market town on the River Dee famous for its annual Eisteddfod and for Chirk Castle, constructed between 1295 and 1310 to keep the Welsh under English rule. The River Dee is crossed twice on the trail: once via the lovely 1660 Carrog Bridge in Carrog, the last stop on the popular Llangollen Steam Railway line; and once courtesy of the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the 307-m-long stream in the sky’. Completed in 1805 using local stone, and a World Heritage Site since 2009, Pontcysyllte is Britain’s longest and highest (38 m) aqueduct with eighteen Piers, nineteen arches, and is fed by the waters of nearby Horseshoe Falls. While it is a part of the official trail, there is also a ground-hugging alternative for those who would prefer not to cross it.
The views along the trail are not to be trifled with – Snowdon and the mountain vistas of northern Wales, the Mersey estuary, the Cheshire Plain, the limestone escarpment of Wenlock Edge with its well-preserved woodlands tumbling down its steep slopes, the Shropshire Hills, and of course the Dee Valley. There’s even an Iron Age fort on Llantysilio Mountain (Moel y Gaer – Welsh for ‘Bald Hill of the Fortress’), with its single rampart and segmented ditch.
The Llangollen Round is divided into six segments of varying lengths, determined by their proximity to road and rail connections. Unless you intend pitching a tent it’s best to walk a segment and return to Llangollen that evening, before setting out on the next segment the following day. There is a regular bus service out of Llangollen to points on the trail. Ascents and descents are generally fairly gentle, the exception being an 11.4-km stretch that takes in several summits in quick succession over a variety of terrain, including a brief walk over shingles, though no scrambling is required.
Once back in Llangollen if you still have some walking left in you, you can tackle the Llangollen History Trail, a 9.5-km walk that begins in town on Castle Street and takes you to the Llangollen Canal, opened in 1805 to carry slate from surrounding quarries to England’s burgeoning cities. A 3-km walk on its towpath goes to Horseshoe Falls, a semi-circular weir designed by Thomas Telford to divert water to the nearby Shropshire Union Canal. The trail also includes Llantysilio church, originally a 13th-century chapel that was enlarged in 1869, the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey, founded by Cistercian monks in 1201 and once Wales s richest abbey after Tintern, and finally the picturesque ruins of Dinas Bran Castle, abandoned in 1282. Which amounts to a lot of history, both built and natural, for one very small valley.