The problem with Llangollen was that over the preceding days we had become accustomed to the tranquillity of quiet pastoral lands and untamed mountains as we followed Offa’s Dyke north from Chepstow. Any towns we passed through were small. Hay-on-Wye was an exception, but even on its bustling streets, there was a calmness to the place. Llangollen, on the other hand, was rammed with people and cars – the road through the centre of town was in a constant state of gridlock during daylight hours. Stepping from the trail into a mad maelstrom came as a harsh culture shock.
The contrast between countryside and busy town is understandable, especially when you’ve been completely immersed in the great outdoors. But that wasn’t my only issue with the picturesque Welsh town. After two nights there, I have developed a yin and yang attitude to it. There are many things I really liked, and there are others which didn’t charm.
Llangollen – the good
Location, location, location
Situated on the River Dee, Llangollen is a scenic stunner. Dropping from the canal, we were stopped in our tracks by just how beautiful it was, especially from Llangollen Bridge. Originally built in the 14th-century, it’s one of the ‘Seven Wonders of Wales.’ What makes it different from other riverside towns is there’s a verdant wilderness to the surrounding scenery, something that’s aided and abetted by white-water rafts attempting to negotiate the rapids below the bridge.
Location, location, location part 2
The approach to Llangollen was one of the highlights of walking Offa’s Dyke. As well as the expansive scenery from the Panorama Walk, there was also the mystical view of Castell Dinas Bran silhouetted in the late afternoon sunshine.
Old ways on the canal
As our accommodation lay a mile from the centre, the canal’s towpath was the quickest way to get into town. Despite initially grumbling about having to walk more after a 29km hike, I was soon charmed by the serenity of the towpath and its horse-drawn barge. The café at Llangollen Wharf was also a good little people-watching oasis away from the frenzy of the centre.
Another visual treat is the railway with its Victorian Station, steam engine (it was a special diesel weekend while we were there), tea rooms, and themed shop. It’s pure Agatha Christie, and an endearing throwback to another age.
There are some fab independent shops in Llangollen. Had we not been walking, we would have bought loads of things at the Market on the Fringe, a showcase for the area’s talented artists and craftspeople. Prices were decent as well. Andy picked up a couple of snazzy necklaces for a fiver. Pro Adventure, a mini emporium for outdoor enthusiasts, also caught our eye, as did the goodies on display at Porter’s Delicatessen and the irresistible cakes in Sidal’s window next door.
The food scene
This makes it into both the good and the bad. The Eagle has a good reputation, but we were unable to reserve a table. Where our Friday night experience was disappointing, Saturday night at The Corn Mill revealed a very different side to Llangollen’s gastro scene. The building is gorgeous, as is its location on the river, the staff friendly and highly professional, the atmosphere buzzing with a good mix of people, and the food (roast fillet of sea bream; pan fried chicken with gorgonzola gnocchi) was very good. If it hadn’t been for our experience at The Corn Mill, we wouldn’t have been impressed with Llangollen’s culinary credentials.
Llangollen – the bad
I’m wary of places that cater for a lot of day-trippers. In my experience of visiting such places around Europe, there are usually two things that suffer from an influx of people who only hang around till the shops shut. One is quality, the other is opening hours. There are a lot of takeaways and cafés in Llangollen. That’s great when you’re popping in for the day and fancy grazing. But when you’re staying somewhere, it’s a different matter, which brings me onto…
The food scene
I’ve outlined our Friday night dining experience on my author website, but there was more to it than I mentioned there. For a start, a lot of places close late afternoon. Others shut relatively early in the evening. For example, S&G’s opening hours are 9am-9pm, yet on a Friday night, we saw one couple being turned away at 8.40pm. While we were looking for somewhere to eat (having been let down by an online booking system), we perused the menu at Chapel Street Bar & Kitchen. Inside, we saw four members of staff lounging about the bar area, so we figured the restaurant wasn’t busy. When we inquired, a rather disinterested waiter scanned a book and told us they could only fit us in if we ate outside … at 7.30 on a cool September night. Maybe the restaurant was full – we couldn’t hear or see any other diners – but the overall attitude was shoddy, disinterested.
I’m of the view that you don’t see the full personality of a place unless you spend time in it after dark as well as during the day. Llangollen at night was a very different place.
And the ugly
We like a beer at the end of a hard day’s walking, and a glass of wine to end the evening. On Friday, we rounded off the night in the bar at The Bridge End Hotel – quiet, but friendly – listening to 90s pop music. On Saturday, we decided to try out another pub in town, The Bull Inn. I like the buzz of lively pubs, but the Bull was a throwback to another time, when drinking establishments were mainly populated by men. It was the ‘laddiest’ bar I’ve been to in many years, and these were mainly middle-aged ‘lads’ – loud, boorish, aggressive, sweary, and pissed out of their skulls by 7pm. Simply not a pleasant place if you weren’t one of the ‘lads’. We met a lot of non-British walkers on the trail. God knows what they’d have thought of UK culture had they stumbled into the Bull Inn on a Saturday night. Thankfully, it wasn’t an experience replicated anywhere else along the trail.
Luckily, decamping to The Corn Mill revealed another, more appealing and palatable side to Llangollen otherwise we’d class it as a great place to visit during the day, but not at night.