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August 23, 2012

Wales: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

A narrow passes high over the Welsh countryside

“A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y and W.”

This mantra for remembering the English vowels used to be taught in grade school. Did you ever wonder why “W” is included?  My teachers never bothered to explain why “W” is sometimes a vowel.  Admittedly it might just have been judged a waste of time to try to explain to school kids that in simple English a “W” is an approximant consonant.  In fact, it seems that nowadays the W-vowel has largely been dropped from the grade school teaching curriculum perhaps to avoid lengthy interrogations from overly curious third graders.

I confess that when I was young I briefly and fruitlessly searched through a dictionary trying to find a word where a “W” seemed an obvious vowel.  The quest was unsuccessful; my dim future as a linguist was instantly extinguished.

For decades I had forgotten about the W-vowel mystery.  But when we visited Wales for the first time the curiosity of what exactly a “W” sounds like as a vowel resurfaced.  On road signs we were seeing words written in Welsh; strings of consonants were spiked with overly frequent Y’s and W’s.  A, E, I, O, and U’s were were there too but less common than in English.  We had no clue as to how to pronounce such words.  How does the “w” sound in a word like “dwr, the Welsh word for water?

No matter how confusing, the Welsh language, both written and spoken, served as a reminder that we were in a different country.  That is always good thing.  But it did make me think:  In the Welsh version of “Wheel of Fortune”, do you have to pay for a “W”?

We were in Wales heading in a rental car towards the coast and the Irish Sea.  Tight narrow roads verged with rude cement curbs led the way.   We snaked through the lush green hills of the Welsh countryside pushed along by determined drivers familiar with the route.  A break from the drive seemed a good idea.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, was near.  We took a slight detour to visit an historic place in Wales with a name predictably short on the standard vowels.

As we entered the GPS coordinates for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct into Homer our GPS all we knew about our destination was that it designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009.  The UNESCO listing was sufficient motivation for a visit.  What we’d see when we arrived was left as a surprise.

When Homer Simpson, our GPS’s voice, exclaimed “WooHoo!  You’ve reached your destination”, the mystery of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was revealed.

We quickly discovered that the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a navigable canal bridge supported 126 feet above the River Dee.  The whole edifice seems quite improbable.  Built by Telford and Jessop in 1805, an 11 foot 10 inch-wide 1,007 foot-long cast iron channel is supported by masonry pillars high above the river valley.  Pontcysyllte remains as the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain.  Today the aqueduct remains in use.  Narrow pleasure boats navigate its channel; drinking water is supplied to South Cheshire.

From below Pontcysyllte Aqueduct looks more like a train bridge than a canal.  The illusion that you are looking up at a railroad bridge is quickly shattered when you see boats moving along the aqueduct high above the trees.

From the top there’s no mistaking the purpose of the span.  On a warm summer day traditional narrow boats compete for space on the waterway.  Boat-less we walked across the bridge.  We had a front row seat to watch the hired long boats filled with inexperienced boaters banging and smashing their ways around the bends.  The boaters were struggling to maneuver their barges into Pontcysyllte Aqueduct’s chin-deep water trough so they could cross over the verdant valley.  Could Telford and Jessop imagine that their iron creation would become a bumper boat tourist attraction 200 years after it was finished?

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is worth seeing, even with a stressful drive on narrow roads through quaint villages with vowel challenged names.  Summer is the best time to visit.  (Not an unusual assumption in Wales.)  For the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct summer means the narrow boat circus is in full motion.  Why not visit when a UNESCO World Heritage site seemingly merges with an amusement park ride.

Traffic jam on the water

Looking down from the aqueduct


  1. This is an amazing post! Your pictures are just beautiful, and so sum up canal boating. I envy you going over the aqueduct – it’s something I have always wanted to to. Stunning stuff.

    Comment by letterfrombritain — August 23, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

  2. Interesting post with wonderful photos… 😉

    Most languages ​​have some fun variations also through local dialects – it should not be too easy for us foreigners to learn – it may well include a little sweat – for the local people too… ‘hahaha’

    Comment by ledrakenoir — August 23, 2012 @ 8:47 pm

  3. I am amazed! Your story telling is absolutely magnificent.

    Comment by Lago — August 23, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

  4. Cool Photos – thanks for sharing!

    Comment by cravesadventure — August 23, 2012 @ 11:19 pm

  5. WOW! Excellent pictures and text. I really enjoyed this post. BTW, this was the first time I’d ever heard of “W” as a “sometimes” vowel. That’s no what the taught me in New Hampshire (almost a half century ago!).

    Comment by dougstinson — August 24, 2012 @ 2:32 am

  6. […] central village as a destination resort on a roughly eight-acre plot along the tidal estuary of the vowel-challenged River Dwyryd.  Between 1925 and 1975 Williams-Ellis over saw the building of Portmeirion’s […]

    Pingback by Wales: Portmeirion a.k.a “The Village” « Another Header — August 27, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

  7. […] Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (Wales, United Kingdom, 2012) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — August 31, 2012 @ 4:23 am

  8. […] the engineering design of the Menai Suspension Bridge.  (Telford also collaborated on the design Pontcysyllte Aqueduct that we visited earlier.) Rather than using suspension cables, as is commonly done today, Telford […]

    Pingback by Wales: Menai Suspension Bridge « Another Header — September 15, 2012 @ 12:46 am

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