Saturday, 28 June 2014

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - vertigo faced and vanquished

If you have followed these chronicles for any time, you'll know that I occasionally set myself a personal challenge that involves visiting a place and overcoming a fear. For example, the mission to Blackchurch Rock in North Devon, described in my post Blackchurch Rock on 16 August 2011, in which I had to contend with fear of carnal or murderous attack on a solitary walk, fear of twisting an ankle on rocks, and a long creepy walk in near-darkness back to Fiona through whispering woods.

I set two fresh challenges of this sort on my recent holiday. The first was to walk across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct near Llangollen in North Wales. (You pronounce it, very roughly, as 'pont-kuh-sulta') This carries a canal high across a river valley. It's narrow, and there's just an iron trough for the waterway, a slender footpath next to it, and open railings on one side of the path. Not both sides. Definitely a no-no for anyone who might suffer from vertigo!

I proposed to myself that I would walk boldly across.

Actually my neighbours J--- and K--- had twice in their voyages taken their narrow boat across and back again. But then K--- (at the tiller) had a good head for heights; and J--- (who, like me, hadn't) had been able to get down from the roof of their boat before she froze with fear, and then huddle aft with something solid to cling to. On a boat, you can't actually see one side of the trough that contains the water, and it can seem as if the boat is moving forward unsupported through the air. By the way, those railings are widely-spaced: a child or a small dog could easy slip through and fall to their death. Not an adult, of course: but it doesn't seem that way.

This was a psychological challenge, overcoming an irrational fear of heights and falling that really hadn't much substance to it, unless you were determined to do something silly. But scary enough for someone like me!

At least I didn't attempt it in gathering darkness. I arrived at the north end in cloudy but bright conditions which got sunnier. The first thing that happened was that I met a couple over from Adelaide in South Australia, called Ron and Ruth. Here they are:

We rather took to each other, and had a longish chat. Mutual photography occurred. Of course, deep inside, I was just playing for time. But the sun came out a bit; there was no excuse; no way out; and I had to ask myself whether (though I might be but a feeble woman) I had the heart and stomach of a lion - aye, and an English lion at that! (Even though Welsh) And not for instance the heart and stomach of a craven wimp. So I roared, to prove my fitness for the challenge ahead. And yet this shot of myself approaching the ordeal reveals a certain anxiety in my expression:

But a chappie in running gear came racing towards me along the footpath next to the canal, quite oblivious to any danger. And so I braced myself, and walked forward onto the aqueduct. Astonishingly, I didn't fall. I wasn't instantly hurtling through the air to my doom. All right, then. I can do it. One of those narrow boats that you can buy a place on, to cross the aqueduct afloat and in style, approached. I smiled and waved and said something daft, as you do when nervous. They all had encouraging words for me:

You can see what I mean about those on the boat not being able to see the side of the water trough, only the valley immeasurably far below. Supposing that lady in the orange jacket had leant back? Nothing to stop her falling. Perhaps it helped that she was facing inwards. I was halfway across by now, and starting to feel confident. Then I saw a metal repair that was clearly the only thing holding the two halves of the bridge together:

If that goes, it all goes. Gulp. But another boat passed, piloted by a man who was either too superior and aloof to acknowledge my greetings, or was concentrating fiendishly on keeping the boat those vital two or three inches away from the metal sides of the water trough. Crumple the metal, and it's a major, major disaster. Headline news. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct fell today, killing a man. A woman seen walking across the aqueduct is also missing, feared dead.

Then I was across! I'd reached the south end! Alive! It had been a stroll in the park really, a piece of cake. I frolicked in my personal triumph:

Yet another boat passed. What was this, Boat City? But I felt great. Proud of myself. There was only one snag, one blemish to my victory over naked fear. The return walk, which stretched ahead...

Oh come on, go for it. So I did. At one point I actually stood close to the railings and looked down. That's my foot:

The River Dee in spate: wild, insane. Churning white water far, far below. Jagged rocks that are instant death to anyone falling among them. I ignored this kind of thinking, and continued. The final few yards were a doddle, almost boring. In fact I yawned:

The aqueduct is a spectacular bit of engineering. It was built by the great Thomas Telford, from 1795 to 1805. The stonework and the ironwork are both first-class, and have lasted beautifully. Here is what the thing looks like from the valley. (After the euphoria had ebbed a little, I took Fiona downhill to get some shots)

Next post, a different kind of challenge - one against time and tide, in which I was nearly sucked into a muddy grave, while the relentless sea, surging in faster than a galloping horse, sought to drown me. (And you thought this was 'just another trans blog'!)


  1. I'm afraid I wouldn't have done that walk. I'm not good at heights either though strangely I love parascending and am happy climbing up scaffolding! Not too happy climbing ladders over a certain height either. Have you ever been over the Corinth Canal bridge? Now that is really high above the water.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. I could feel my stomach churning, just looking at your photos. So 'well done,' Lucy for overcoming your fears and making the perilous crossing not once, but twice. Well done indeed!


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