I was so taken by the beauty of Shrewsbury last night that I was roaming the streets till late, and when I did make my way back to the guest house it was via a rather lovely old pub called The Three Fish and a rather fetching little restaurant just under the castle walls (as was the guest house, incidentally) called the Castle Thai.
Yes, I know, it was curry again... I'm a man, I'm weak. What else did you expect?
I was out before breakfast taking more photographs, then left for the Arriva service 70 to Oswestry. This bus had no less than 6 CCTV cameras inside, though interestingly no escape hatch in the roof. Anyone care to explain the logic?
Out of Shrewsbury and onto the A5 (I'm beginning to think its following me). This is lush, fertile agricultural land with fields of nodding cereals disappearing off into the distance in every direction. Large bulbous hills start to appear on the horizon - could this be Wales?
As we get closer to Oswestry (the local's I heard on the bus pronounced it 'Oztry'), the hills become a lot clearer and they seem to be standing right across our path. Except for the huge hill we passed under at Nesscliffe, which I didn't even notice until we were below it. How could I almost miss something that big? I think perhaps they're creeping up on us...
The landscape is definitely getting lumpier as we roll into Oswestry. The town is steeped in history but somehow doesn't show it, apart from the huge hill fort clearly visible on the road into town. I even missed the Transport Museum (blast!) though I suspect this had more to do with the Cambrian Railway than anything else (I'll have to check).
The whole town seems... well, a little bit run-down, somehow. It's lively enough, and the pedestrian streets in the town centre are sheltered and tending to quaintness (which is good), but the market somehow seemed a little half-hearted, and it's all just a bit knocked about. Pity. I was expecting more of a feel of a frontier town, but it was just another High Street.
Onwards via the pithily-entitled 2a to Crick, and this time we really were going over the border (the 'Welcome to Wales' signs in two languages on the outskirts were a bit of a giveaway). Crick is a fairly ordinary little village with a cobbled (though cobbled in the European flat brick sense) High Street and a pleasant park. But its real glory lies just behind the village.
Thomas Telford, builder of bridges and canals and improver of what is now the A5, was given the difficult task of constructing a canal across some of the deepest valleys in the Welsh borders, a job which, at Chirk, saw him create a massive 10 span aqueduct across the 700 foot-wide valley of the River Ceriog. It's a stunning piece of construction, but no less stunning is the 420m tunnel which immediately follows it (and which I walked through along its tiny towpath, in near total darkness – quite an experience!).
Of course, when the railway arrived in Chirk it made the canal look pretty slow and unfashionable and so last-century, fact the railway's engineers maliciously rubbed in by making their railway viaduct, which runs alongside the aqueduct, deliberately and unnecessarily higher. Showing off, in other words.
After lolling around under an oak tree in the park for a little while, I took the 64a Bryn Melyn minibus to Llangollen. This led us ever deeper into the hills and back along the A5, which seems at this point to be carved out of the hillside, with tier and tier of trees above us and the deep valley floor below. Thomas Telford, who built this road to ease the journey from London to Holyhead, certainly knew what he was doing, though I doubt he had tourists like me in mind when he built it. Nonetheless, the views across the valley are breathtaking.
This is big, muscular countryside. It has the ruggedness and roughness you'd expect of wild, mountainous places, yet it's leavened by the soft, sloping meadows and the flower-strewn hedgerows. The green counterpoises the purple of the heather above and it's a strange and beguiling mix, both tough and attractive, a bit like a rugby player in a Laura Ashley frock... but a little easier on the eye.
Llangollen caters very well to the millions of visitors it receives every year. There are shops dispensing all manner of tourist tat – postcards, toys, cheap ornaments, more postcards – and there are whole rows of cafes serving tea and scones and 'something with chips' for the kids. It's a profoundly attractive little town, lodged as it is in a deep tree-backed cleft in the River Dee so it's easy to see why people come here. Good heavens, it even has its own splashing falls under its bridge, and there's even a steam railway, whilst a little up the hill there's the canal again with the chance of a horse-drawn canal boat trip.
This is, I suppose, the Llangollen that most visitors will see. But look beyond the obvious, ignore the shop fronts and the ice cream sellers, and you will see a perfect little Welsh town with churches and chapels and steep, blue slate roofs. With the steep valley sides offering a lush and verdant backdrop, this really is a very pretty place and well worth a look. It's just a pity that millions of other people feel the same...
The short ride into Wrexham gave me the chance to try the other side of the valley, which seemed less hilly somehow, so either Telford really didn't know what he was doing or we have become a lot better at building roads since his day. Out of the Dee valley the road becomes more level and the landscape broadens out and we roll into Wrexham with the Welsh hills seemingly far behind.
Llangollen was certainly busy, but Wrexham seems infinitely noisier. Is it all a lot brasher and aggressive, or is it just that I've lost the knack of large towns and cities? Whatever it is, I'd better get used to it because tomorrow I'm going on a ferry across the Mersey to one my favourite cities, Liverpool. And that won't be quiet!