The Horseshoe Pass to Llangollen

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If you love scenic drives, The Horseshoe Pass should be on your ‘to do’ list. It is one of many great drives you can take in Wales and we think it’s one of the best.

On this page we’ll share the story of our journey along the Horseshoe Pass and highlight the main things to see and do in the town of Llangollen.

Hobo Gav’s great-great grandparents lived in Llangollen – just south of the Horseshoe Pass – so it seemed fitting that we should take a trip along the old routes of our Roberts’ ancestors.

But before we even reach the main part of this road trip story, we’re going to start back over the border in England…

Roberts family crest

From the Snake Pass in England to the Horseshoe Pass in Wales

During a visit to the Peak District, we wild-camped one night in Castleton before enjoying the glorious drive along the A57 ‘Snake Pass’ to Glossop. From there, we drove south toward Buxton and then followed the A537 to Macclesfield – itself a beautiful route, twisting and turning across the desolate moorland hills.

Looking at a map of the UK, you’d never think it would take the best part of five hours to get from the Peak District to Wales. Gav thought it would be a couple of hours at most. But five hours is exactly what it took in our old VW Cree.

We eventually crossed the border and headed in the direction of Wrexham and, once through the town, found the A525. A little further on we turned left, joining the A542 – the start of the drive south along the Horseshoe Pass.

At some point – if you’re driving an older van like ours – you’ll start to feel the gentle climb upwards, and it’s not long before you reach the Ponderosa Roadside Cafe. It made a welcome break for us, having been on the road a lot longer than expected.

Indeed, it’s a very popular place to stop for a rest and a bite to eat – and to enjoy the views.

The car-park is plenty big enough for motorhomes and we took a little walk on a footpath beside the road to take in some of the scenery.

view from Horseshoe Pass, Wales, toward Llangollen
View toward Llangollen from a footpath near the Ponderosa Cafe on the Horseshoe Pass

The Horseshoe Pass in Wales – the A542

Once you leave the roadside cafe the views open up and you find yourself driving right close to the edge of a very steep drop. Of course, there are barriers to stop you falling off the side but you need to keep your wits about you, applying the brakes all the way down.

Gav’s parents did this same route on a coach trip way back in the mid 60s. He remembers them telling the story with some trepidation of the sheer drop they saw whilst looking out the bus windows.

One person’s fear is another’s excitement.

The drive is best taken slowly so that you have time to admire the scenery. That’s not easy, of course, if you’re trying to keep your eyes on the winding road! However, there are a couple of laybys after the cafe (if you’re heading south) where you can pull over and stop for photographs. We’d encourage you to take the opportunity to do so!

Like on all our best road trips, whilst Gav drives, Hobo Trudi is busy with her cameras. And along the Horseshoe Pass she didn’t quite know where to look because there were so many great views to capture.

The history of the Horseshoe Pass

So, what’s the history of this famous Welsh road?

What we’ve found is that Horseshoe Pass dates back to the early part of the 19th century and was one of a series of turnpike roads in the area.

It rises to 1367 feet above sea level and its name probably derives from its shape as it curves its way around the mountainside. The proper Welsh name for the Horseshoe Pass is Bwlch yr Oernant, which translates to ‘pass of the cold stream’.

That sounds about right, as it can be cold up here, even in summer time if the wind is in a certain direction. And in winter, the Pass is sometimes closed due to heavy snow fall.

We certainly wouldn’t recommend driving it in bad weather, especially not in a motorhome!

Once you’re round the two main hairpin bends the road begins to level out and before you know it you’re kind-of freewheeling all the way downhill to Llangollen just a few more miles on.

And this is what awaits you…

What is there to see and do in Llangollen?

So, we arrived in Llangollen – the Roberts’ heartland – and found a nice little campsite close to the Llangollen Canal. We hadn’t pre-booked anything, preferring to chance it. Being October, there was plenty of room. Indeed, there were only a couple of other vans on site.

We’d driven through Llangollen once before (in the summer time) when the place gets really busy with tourists. You can see why because there’s so much to see here…

Not only is there a nice little selection of shops, but you can enjoy walks along the river and canal, take a ride on the Llangollen steam train, and take in the spectacular views over the town from the castle ruins (more on this below).

And following in the footsteps of poetry giants Wordsworth and Shelley, it’s also worth visiting Plas Newydd, a gothic mansion whose most famous inhabitants were the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, two women who ran away from Ireland to Wales to set up home together in the 1770s.

Then, of course, there is the magnificent 126 ft high Pontcysyllte Aquaduct, described as a ‘masterpiece of creative genius’. You can walk across this or take a leisurely narrow boat cruise.

The magnificent 126 ft high Pontcysyllte Aquaduct – Image: damo1977

Dinas Bran – the castle ruins of Llangollen

When lockdowns finished and we were able to travel again we managed to fit in another trip to Wales. We covered the north coast, staying at a few Britstops locations, before heading south down the A5 on the eastern edge of the Snowdonia National Park.

On our final night we decided that if the weather was okay the next day we’d take another visit to Llangollen before heading home. As luck would have it, after a brief rain shower the sun came out and we decided to breakfast at Dinas Bran, the castle ruins of Llangollen 1000 feet above the town.

It was quite a slog up there, taking the best part of an hour’s walk from the town centre (where we’d managed to park the motorhome).

What incredible 360 degree views…

Dinas Bran castle ruins, Llangollen, Wales
Hobo Trudi atop Castell Dinas Bran, Llangollen

We didn’t even know it at the time, but this site was purportedly used by the Knights Templar. Perhaps even King Arthur himself stayed here?

Whatever, surveying our domain over breakfast – humble porridge pots from Lidl with hot water from a flask – we felt like king and queen. For a few minutes, at least!

Have you driven along the Horseshoe Pass?

We’d love to hear of your journeys and road trips. Have you travelled along the Horseshoe Pass? Have you climbed up Dinas Bran or taken a barge over the aquaduct? And do you know anything of the Knights Templar staying at the castle? Share what you know via email.

Check out these old pictures showing some of the history of Llangollen.

And if you’re interested in other road trips in Wales, read about our drives around Anglesey, the road trip up the West Coast of Wales and the Llyn Peninsula, and our two visits to the spectacular Elan Valley.

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