Monthly Archives: April 2015

Tower Hill, Cannock

Then after Easter it was straight off to see about getting some repairs and improvements done to Thebus.

The repair workshops were right by the motorway, but amazingly rural in their surroundings.  It was a mix between the greasy, dusty atmosphere of a huge working garage, and clouds of butterflies on the yellow gorse and primroses.

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I took Phoebe up the tracks nearby and the larks sang, a fishing heron flew off, but too quickly for time to get the camera out, there were beautiful shire horses in the farm fields and we made it to an old folly built in the 18th C when this entire area would have been rural rolling hills and fields.  But the views from there were still stunning.

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It was the last trip with me for my trusty blue scooter, which had accompanied me for much of my journeying.  You can just make it out on the brow of the hill between the tower and the trees.

His replacement was due to arrive the next day.  This new one promises a thirty four mile range, and being three wheeled the turning circle is much tighter, which should make it easier on pavements.  It is also supposed to be even more off road, but it will have to be pretty good to outdo my last journey up to see the tower as we bumped and bounded over the deep tractor tracks, then back down the steep slope to the farm.

 

Easter at Pask Farm

The Britannia Coconut Dancers in Bacup were truly unique and a real slice of English Eccentricity, but now I needed to make haste to get back down to the Midlands as I had promised to help Sally and Niner with their Easter Open Days at the Farm

The weather on Saturday morning at the Coco-nutters  had dawned bright and dry but cold, and driving back down the motorways it was a fair day but nothing special, and I arrived just as the last of the visitors for the day were leaving.  It was lovely to see everyone at the farm again and hear the news about the animals.  Lara – Sally’s Dalmatian – had been ill and rushed to the vets’ a while before with a blockage of her intestines but was looking well, and her weight loss as a result of the diet she was now on had resulted in in much perkier and active dog.  The pigs and chickens and ducks and geese and goats and cows and ponies were all doing what pigs and chickens and ducks and geese and goats and cows and ponies do.  In fact we made up a song based on Old MacDonald’s Farm and had a really good laugh about it all.

I helped out the next couple of days, but it was easy work just sitting at the gate where everyone came in.  The weather was improving day by day and we had clear blue skies and hot sunshine and although I positioned myself in the shade by the end of the day my face was as red as a beetroot and I had to sleep with the window open to cool my skin down.

 

Bacup Britannia Coconut Dancers

My night on top of Pendle Hill started very windy, and I wondered about the wisdom of my decision to stay the night in such an exposed position, especially remembering the high winds we had experienced over the last few days.  Billy from Stornaway had emailed me only recently to say he had been about to get into his caravan when a gust of wind had blown it over, smashing it to smithereens, before blowing the car over!!  I know he was up in the Western Isles, but it seemed pretty high and exposed up here on Pendle Hill 🙁

Fortunately the gusting wind gradually eased off, and I felt happy to settle down for the night, drifting off to sleep, half thinking of the howling wind and our exposed position, and half of the Pendle Hill Witches!

But my choice of site proved unsuitable in ways other than the weather.

We were some twenty minutes or so from the centre of Burnley – probably ten if you were a boy racer – and that was what we had as company.  As I said it was the evening of Good Friday, so the youths had plenty of free time to sleep off a late Friday night, and the steep hill with its twists and turns was probably a nice challenge.  Where I had parked was not only the highest spot on the road, but was the first place to turn round and scream back down.

By now the rain had blown away and it was a fine night with an almost full moon, so they could stop for a bit and have a lark about as well.  I expect it was just normal high spirits and we have all done something similar in our younger days, but of course nowadays the papers are so full of stories of druggies stealing cars and joy riding, that I couldn’t help thinking it might be foolhardy to spend the rest of the night there.  Plus the antics were quite likely to continue till about two or three in the morning, giving me little sleep anyway, so waiting for a lull I careful reversed out in the dark and headed off back the way we had come -partly because Strict Lady insisted I had to go that way, and partly because most of the boy racers seemed to be heading up towards us.

So back down Pendle Hill we went and into Rochdale, where I spotted an all night garage selling LPG at under 50p a litre, so just had to stop for a fill-up, which I needed anyway.  By now it was about two in the morning, and attached to the garage was an all-night supermarket.  The two guys in charge, though absolutely delightful to talk to, and both really interested in Thebus looked – in the modern parlance -as though they could ‘handle themselves’ – and running an all night petrol station in Rochdale selling drink and cigarettes which you could actually get to, I should think they needed to.  Pretty well everywhere I call in after midnight is locked up tight with the cashier speaking to you thorough a loudspeaker from behind what is probably bullet proof glass.

So back on the road.  I knew more or less where I was headed, and it was Bacup – to see the Britannia Coconut Dancers, or Coconutters, as they might more accurately be called.  The Easter Saturday Boundary Dance by this group is something not really easily described.  How can one explain the inexplicable?  I thank God for our English Eccentrics – and shall leave the photos to do the talking

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Pendle Hill – Witchcraft and Wonderful Visions

I suppose along with many people I have heard of the trials of witches in olden times, and the Pendle Witchcraft Trials are probably the most well known of all.

One thinks of the benighted authorities at the time, investigating poor lonely old women, accusing them of being witches and getting them sentenced to death after torturing them into confessing – but reading the background to the Pendle Witchcraft Trials it may not have been quite as I imagined.

It seems there were two extended families in the remote area of the Pendle Forest and Pendle Hill who were making some sort of living by begging, coupled with veiled threats of harm should ‘charity’ not be bestowed.  Rather like the gypsies of my youth who would travel house to house, selling something you would really rather not buy and at somewhat more than a fair market price; should you refuse their importuning, they would depart scowling and muttering doom laden oaths as they turned away.  Or it would be “Cross my palm with silver Dearie – and I’ll tell the pretty lady’s fortune” with similar results should the piece of silver not be forthcoming.

Something along these lines must have happened.  One of the accused “witches” had stopped a peddler on the roads of Pendle Hill – she said to buy pins – he and his son said to beg them, she having no money.  (Pins in those days were expensive and difficult item to produce, having to be hand sharpened. Many people died from sharpening needles and pins; the needle-makers of Redditch having an average life span of thirty five years)

So the young ‘Witch” duly cursed him and further up the road he stumbled and suffered what was probably some kind of stroke.

Now consider the background of the times at which these Witchcraft trials took place.  There was much religious upheaval – we were not all that long past Henry VIII , then Bloody Mary, and we were back to being Protestants again – though it was touch and go.  Those not attending church to take communion were in breach of the law and subject to its full weight.  The King at the time, James I, was not only subjected to the Gunpowder Plot a few years before, but feared he might have been the object of witch-craft, so the “Pendle Witches” were ‘playing with dynamite’ – if not of the gunpowder type

The ‘witch’ in question was obviously convinced of her own magical prowess. When taken to the see the afflicted man she begged his forgiveness, and when questioned by the magistrate said she had sold her soul to the Devil.  The two rival families of ‘witches’ then took the opportunity of publicly accusing each other, with the result that the matriarch of each family was also taken into custody to await trial.

Now with all this in the background what did the daughter of one family do?  She decided to hold a meeting in support of her mother.  Okay – risky enough considering all things – but the meeting was to be held on Good Friday and her son was sent to steal a neighbour’s sheep.  So you have Sheep Stealing, which in those days was a hanging offence on its own!  And what did they do then….. roasted said sheep and had a jolly feast on Good Friday.  For a full forty days everyone was foregoing meat for Lent, plus all good subjects of the King should have been at church on such a solemn day of national Christian mourning.  Talk about pushing your luck!

Of course the local magistrate got to hear of these goings on, and all suspected of being at the Good Friday meeting were arrested.  There were then a series of accusations and counter accusations from all the “witches” involved, and finally the nine year old child of one of the accused was allowed to witness against them, and witness against them she did.  With the result that all but one of the accused was found guilty, and really, for the times, rather unsurprisingly hung.

So what could be better than a trip up Pendle Hill, especially as it was Good Friday.

On Google Earth some of the lanes looked exceedingly narrow and with nowhere to park whatsoever, but there was one which at least was wide enough to have white lines up the middle and some parking at a viewpoint, so that was our intended route – and it was quite easy driving.  Reaching the top, once again in the pouring rain, we parked up at a little pull-in with what promised to be a wonderful view should it ever stop raining and the clouds lift a little.

A somewhat lesser known fact concerning Pendle Hill is that in 1652 George Fox – founder of the Quaker Movement – had a vision on climbing it

As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.
George Fox: An Autobiography

It just shows haw very much more interested our present society is in evil rather than good.  Few will now associate the very same hill with such a wonderful vision.  Though I have a feeling that if one climbed to the top it would be difficult not to feel uplifted in some sort of way.Pendle_Hill_panorama_(nagualdesign)

 

Climbing to the top was sadly not a option for me.  Even on a good day the paths were very steep, and far too rough to risk it with the scooter.  This morning, with its downpours interspersed with light drizzle, encouraged only the most hardy – though there were a few.  As the day went on the rain did lessen and more walkers parked up and took to the hills, but by now the grass was sodden and paths turned to slippery mud, so I daren’t risk even a short way.

We stayed trapped inside Thebus though in the intervals when the rain ceased and the clouds lifted a little there were  glimpses of the promised view.

 

I was not in anyone’s way and in hopes the weather was improving decided to spend the night there and see the dawn.

Finally just before the day ended the sun came out briefly – lighting the far hills and valleys – so looking forward to the morrow we settled down.

 

 

 

Booming Bitterns

When I was returning to the Midlands for some work on Thebus, after my trip down the Outer Hebrides early last summer, I had intended to stop by at the RSPB reserve at Leighton Moss in hopes of hearing a Bittern booming.

Back in the 60’s I had read a book – Malvern Chase, purporting to have been written at the time of the Wars of the Roses.  The book was in fact written in Victorian times; when we were finally eating our way through the last of our native Bitterns.  They must have been tasty little blighters; either that or our changing agricultural practices were finally doing away with the last of the vast reed beds which were their natural home.  But having read about Bitterns I wondered what their booming sounded like.  It wasn’t until the advent of the internet that I actually got to hear even a recording of a Bittern’s boom – but the idea of hearing one for myself – eerily booming out across the marshes in the early morning was most appealing.

I was returning from Scotland in June last year, and I am not sure if it would have been too late anyway, but when I phoned the warden there said nothing was booming.  Knowing this April I would be not all that far away from Leighton Moss (the reserve I had contacted last year) I thought it might be worth a try.  I phoned again, and though once again they said  – no “boomers” – apparently there had been some ‘activity’ on the Bittern front. So I set off in hopes – even if not all that high.

Most of our journey was in the pouring rain, which didn’t make for pleasant driving, and there is something about the American RV headlights which is decidedly useless when it comes to driving in the dark, let alone in the dark and foggy wet.  Strict Lady  (I really must find time to write an apologia to her, as looking back she has got me out of far more tricky situations than she has gotten me into)  today got herself completely confused, and as we approached a large roundabout told me the right road number, but announced the directions the wrong way round.  So although I needed the second exit, the road she was telling me to take was in the exact opposite direction.  We tried a couple of times, with the same result.  Eventually I could see a lot of vehicles parked up by somewhere with some lights, looking remarkably like an all night diner, so thought I would pull in to get out a map.

What a mistake!

The carpark was completely full, so I headed on past the main buildings thinking there would be better parking beyond……. and found myself – and Thebus – in a holiday park, with chalets in every direction, narrow winding roads and Strict Lady in a complete TisWas.

Up and down, and round and round we went, having to creep past the parked cars of the sleeping occupants, while watching for overhanging chalet roofs and drooping oramental trees, plus unfenced lakes and ponds.  I wondered if I would ever escape!  But finally we did, and suddenly Strict Lady got her bearings, directing me onto the right road, and we continued in the dark towards our destination.

Googling I had found a caravan site not too far from the reserve, but not actually near enough to reach on my scooter, so in hopes that bird-watchers would want to arrive at dawn for their bird-spotting, and that the reserve’s carpark would be accessible early in the morning, that was where I was headed.

Once off the main roads the b-roads and lanes around the reserve were (as usual) fairly narrow.  Why is it that everything I want to do is at the end of a lane – or in the middle of a city?  Having arrived I found the Reserve deserted; the carpark barriers down, chained and padlocked – so that was out.  There was nowhere to stop with the roads being so narrow, and we just had to mooch around the lanes looking for somewhere to stop until the carpark opened.

Driving through the woodlands on the hills just above the reserve there were a couple of pull-ins, but I felt Thebus was a bit too long and wide to be safe for other road users not expecting him to be there.  So on we went, round all the lanes thereabouts, every so often finding somewhere to turn round and start back towards our desired goal.

I was almost giving up heart, and thinking I would just have to press on to my next destination, when suddenly there was a layby wide enough and plenty long enough for us to park up.  And it seemed a wonderfully quiet spot – steep wooded banks behind us, and acres and acres of silent reed beds and marsh in front of us.

By now it was just starting to lighten and the marsh birds beginning to call eerily across the reed beds.  I listened intently but no booming.  Once I did hear something – but soon realised it was Phoebe’s stomach winding up for a loud rumble!

I may have heard some Bittern “Gull Calling” –  which is another sound made when the male Bitterns without partners, call each other to assemble and fly Eastwards in hopes of procuring a mate; but I am not sufficient of a Bitten expert to be certain if it was that, or simply some other marsh bird.

As the daylight strengthened most of the calling from all the water birds stopped, but the traffic increased vastly, and I found, that although I was on a quite minor road, it obviously was a feeder to somewhere much larger, and it was dangerous even putting the steps out to  take Phoebe to stretch her legs with the traffic thundering past so closely.

There was an internet connection and googling I found out that the Reserve’s carpark was closed pretty well all of the time one might have expected to hear Bitterns, so I felt it was hardly worth moving up there, so we stayed pretty well trapped inside Thebus throughout the day.

As the evening drew on I tucked Phoebe up under some nice warm blankets and opened all the windows and skylights so we could hear the marsh sounds – interesting and atmospheric, but definitely no booming. I think I saw an Egret in amongst the willows, but it was partly hidden and I couldn’t get the camera to focus on the bird and not the trees.  And when I tried to record the bird calls on my little camera, nothing really came out worth listening to.

 

So setting the alarm for 4.30 am I went to bed early and did the same the following morning, though sadly still no booming Bitterns, and then grabbing a small gap in the traffic we set off to our next destination – Pendle Hill

Erddig

I first visited Erddig back in the 1970’s having read about the crumbling edifice in the Sunday magazines.

The enormous house was broken in the middle by mining subsidence, one side of its vast frontage being five foot lower than the other, and its owner, the last of a line of Yorkes who had lived there for centuries had now retreated to one room surrounded by basins and baths, and even a dinghy to catch the water pouring in from the fractured roof.

The original house had been purchased by John Mellor, a London lawyer, in 1714 for £17,000 (which must have been a fabulous sum at the time) and who then spent even more refurbishing, enlarging and furnishing his house with the finest London fashions.  He died childless and unmarried and the estate went to his nephew – the first in a long line of “Simon” or “Philip” Yorkes.  I read somewhere that John Mellor had stipulated in his will that “nothing was to be thrown away” and that the family assiduously followed this dictate down the generations, with the result that there are bicycles, coaches, tools, cars, carriages, linens, laundries – well a myriad artefacts from previous times.  The last Philip Yorke gave the estate to the National Trust and one of his stipulations was that nothing was to be disposed of – so even though there are huge quantities of things to see, apparently there are even more in store and the displays are rotated from time to time.

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When I first visited not long after it was opened in 1977,  it was still undergoing massive restoration and I was fascinated to be taken in “the back way” via the outhouses and stabling, then though the servants quarters before finally making it through to the grand entertaining rooms.  This was a novel idea at the time and it was probably one of the first National Trust properties to have allowed a “behind the scenes” look at a great house.  Normally in those days one was restricted to viewing the major state rooms, so to see the laundry rooms and kitchens was really interesting. Possibly this approach had been adopted as large areas of the house were still undergoing repairs, and the garden restoration had hardly begun.  Revisiting, it was fascinating to see all the changes.

One recent change is the route one takes and I must say I preferred the entrance via the service quarters, so I have re-ordered the photos in the YouTube clip to reflect this.  Little things were impressed on my mind from that early visit; the first thing one saw were the drying fields for the washing, then the saw pit – where the “Top Dog” stood on the log pulling the upward stroke, and the “Under Dog” pulled the downward stroke, getting showered with sawdust and bits in his eyes! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Then on through the hound kennels with their running spring and ‘lapping pools’ set in the brick tiled yard floor; leading on to the lime kilns, midden and stablingOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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Interestingly at Erddig the family had a series of portraits painted of their servants, each with a verse extolling their talents: being highly varnished oil paintings they were extremely difficult to photograph, but there are couple beneath.  This tradition was carried on with photographs and many are still on show around the house.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Nowadays the National Trust has learned from our current interest with how such great houses were serviced – Erddig often being voted one of their most popular attractions – and the working parts of many of their houses are open to view.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

I had been lucky with the weather at Stokesay, but as I got closer to Wales the rain came in and the wind got up.  So much so that I had to drive quite slowly especially on exposed stretches of the road with Thebus being blown about quite severely.  Even the big heavy artics had slowed right down, but they still gave out huge quantities of spray to coat our windscreen – the windscreen wipers were going so fast they looked as though they might fly off with the backlash at the end of each stroke.

The intention on reaching Pontcysyllte was to take a canal trip over the aqueduct and back.  I had already telephoned “Jones the Boat” – a friendly and helpful canal boat firm, and explained  I wasn’t one hundred percent certain that I would be going, as it depended on what the weather looked like, but they said, no problem, just turn up and pay on the day – the trips ran every hour on the hour and took about forty five minutes.

The closer I got the worse the weather looked, and in the end I just parked up in a layby with the lorries to wait it out and see what the morning might bring.  In fact it poured all night, and the morning bought more of the same, but as I had just gone through a series of very early mornings I was happy to have a lie-in, and when the rain seemed as though it was abating I got up to see what the weather forecast looked like.  In fact the prediction was for more rain, but my prediction was that the weather looked as though it was improving so we pressed on to Pontcysyllte.

I had explained I was driving a large motorhome and they said there would be room for us in the carpark.  I generally say Thebus is as big a bus now – though folk still seem surprised when I turn up – and so it was this morning.  “I know you said it was big, but I wasn’t expecting that – I thought you meant a campervan!”  But fortunately, and probably owing to the doubtful weather there were not many others, leaving us plenty of room to park.  In fact for a while it looked as though I was to be the only passenger, then just at the last minute a few more folk turned up.

While I was waiting I had a nice cup of coffee and natter with the folk there, and got to try some of their excellent Bara Brith – cooked by ‘Jones the Boat’ himself.  I think so far I must put his Bara Brith ahead of all the competition.  It was Bara Brith as I remember it.  Not too cakey, but with a lovely sweet fruity taste, and thinly sliced as a bread should be, ready to be spread with butter – not a doorstop of fruit loaf. with butter only provided if you ask.

Having boarded our barge the trip started out in lovely sunshine, but before we reached the aqueduct there was a flurry of snow, sleet and hail.  This was soon over and by the time we had crossed we were back to sunshine again.  The turn for the boat was quite tight, and it felt uncomfortably familiar bearing a great similarity to some of the manoeuvres I have to go through when getting Thebus turned round.  But it was expertly done and we headed for our return crossing.

All went well until we reached the part where the bank plunges away to the sudden sheer drop to the Dee Valley.  A squall blew up and was so fierce that it held the barge pinned against the side of the canal.  I am pleased to say it was holding it against the side with the path and the railing rather than the side with six inches of metal and a sheer drop of over a hundred feet.

Under_Pontcysyllte

But the wind kept up and even though the crew tried to lever the boat away from the side the force of the wind was so strong they could do nothing other than slowly inch along every time the strength of the gusts died down a little.  So we didn’t arrive back to base until twenty past the hour – and I certainly felt I had my money’s worth in both time and excitement 🙂  One of the other passengers had got into position to abandon ship and jump off onto the towpath should things take a turn for the worse, and the crew looked somewhat ashen faced and had to be given mugs of strong sweet tea!

A truly exhilarating trip, possibly nicer on a calm sunny day, but even in a squall it is one I can thoroughly recommend

There is a good Wikipedia article on the aqueduct, but here are a few facts.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontcysyllte_Aqueduct

-Built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop and finished in 1805
-It is1007ft (307m) long and 11ft (3.4m) wide
-The cast iron trough holding the canal is supported 126ft (38m) above the river
-The trough is of flanged cast iron plates bolted together.
-The trough is not fixed to the arches but relies on lugs cast into the plates
-The joints of the trough are bedded with welsh flannel, white lead and iron particles.
-The sides of the trough rise 6” (15cm) above the water level of the canal
-Each of the nineteen spans is 53ft (16m) wide
-The brick piers are hollow and the mortar was lime and ox blood mixed with water

Stokesay Castle

After the Pax Cakes Service I followed the last car to leave the church in hopes that they would have cleared the lane before me, and so it seemed, and we arrived back at the main road without meeting anything coming the other way, which was a blessed relief (thank you St. Dubricius)

So I was now heading north again.  Not far away and on my route was Stokesay Castle.  Many years ago, over forty in fact, I had visited Stokesay Castle in Shropshire.  It was a magical place, and all those years about felt as though it was in the back of beyond.  Travelling there we had met a falconer just walking along the lane with a magnificent Peregrine falcon on his wrist.  He had just taken it out hunting was happy for us to stop and chat about his beautiful charge.  Of course in forty years much has changed and Stokesay  Castle is now owned by English Heritage, with the obligatory gift shop and cafe.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stokesay_Castle

But the buildings are still enchanting and set in wonderful rolling Shropshire countryside.

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Plus English Heritage have opened up far more of the property for the public to enjoy.  From memory when I first visited only the Great Hall was open, but now not only can one stand inside the Great Hall where the beams of sunlight flood in though its magnificent high windows, but see other rooms as well.

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On the far wall of the Great Hall you can just see two small openings.  These were little “peeps” from the Solar on the first floor next door, where the Lord and his family would have spent most of their time.

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And the shuttered alcoves each side of the fire place allowed a view of what was going on in the Great Hall below

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Then you could climb the narrow stone steps to the tower (very carefully in my case, and even more so on the way back down)

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On the top of the tower were the old archery slots which would have been fitted with wooden shutters to protect the defending archers both from the weather and incoming arrows

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Stokesay Castle also had openings for cross bow archers – something which, if I had seen before, I was not really aware of.

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So I spent a happy morning there, once again fortunate with some sunshine, and as I was so early in the day few other visitors. As we are approaching Easter the amount of other folk I meet at these tourist attractions is now beginning to increase; but Britain is such a small place and so very heavily populated, especially in southern half of our islands.

On my previous visit all those years ago I had driven up to Wenlock Edge to take in the view, but this time I decided against it – considering Thebus’ bulk and Easter holiday makers to contend with.

So having renewed my acquaintance with the castle – castle in name only and more fortified manor house really – we drove further north – Lancashire being the intended destination for this little trip – but before that I took a slight detour from my route to visit the Llangollen canal at the point it crosses the River Dee via the world famous Pontcysyltte Aqueduct.