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The Holyhead Road (Chirk to Menai Bridge)

David Richards

Novenber 2017

The need for this road arose from the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800, with the resulting need for mail, Members of Parliament and Government officials to be able to travel quickly (by the standards of the day) between London and the port of Holyhead, for Dublin. The road became the first major state-funded road in Britain since Roman times.

 Thomas Telford was by now established as the leading Civil Engineer in the country, and having surveyed the route over a three-month period he became responsible for the construction. The most difficult part of the route was the 85 miles in Wales, involving the crossings of the Stanley Embankment to Holy Island, the Menai Strait, and the Conwy estuary, the traverse of the mountains of Snowdonia, and, not least, crossing the boggy areas between Cerrigydrudion and Pentrefoelas. The new road, initiated in 1815, took 11 years to build, and was completed by the opening of the Menai Suspension Bridge in 1826. 

 The London-Holyhead highway was the most sophisticated and advanced highway of the Industrial Revolution. It replaced a road which included stretches described as "a miserable track, circuitous and craggy, full of terrible jolts, round bogs and over rocks where horses broke their legs". Whereas the old road had twisted and turned and had gradients of one in six, Telford's new highway was relatively straight and being designed for fast horse-drawn stage  and  Mail coaches  the gradient never exceeds 1in17 (5.9%). Telford adopted a sophisticated technique, layering the roadbed first with large stones on edge, then covered with gravel , the surface having a clear camber, providing good drainage in to lateral ditches - the key to a long-lasting roadway as well as an essential in the Welsh Highlands!

For the crossings of the wetlands, thousands of brushwood bundles were sunk into the bog and stabilised before the stone surface could be laid on top.

Through the Nant Ffrancon  Telford created a new route along the opposite (north) side of the valley to the original packhorse road. As well as greatly easing the gradient, the south-facing aspect meant that it would receive more sunshine and be less affected by snow and ice.

The modern A5 road through Wales retains many of the original features of Telford's road and has, since 1995, been recognised as a historic route worthy of preservation. An 18-month survey by CADW in 1998-2000 revealed that about 40% of the original road and its ancillary features survives under the modern A5. 

A present-day drive along the road reveals the following:

Roadside walling and ditches – some of the original walls remain though they   now appear to be lower than they were originally as the surface of the road has continually been built up. The walls were not just boundaries but also offered weather protection.

'Depots' along the route, being roadside alcoves to store grit and materials

Some surviving and distinctive toll houses ,  and toll gates in a 'sunburst' design, a few of which have survived, mainly on local farms

Distinctive milestones  - many originals having survived . These like the walls, are now partly buried and appear to be much smaller than they actually are. The locations shown on the milestones are stabling points.

A weighbridge remains at Lon Isaf, between Bangor and Bethesda

All of these were designed by Telford himself.

.... and, of course, there are the bridges. Most of the bridges are of stone, built to a standard design, of one or (exceptionally) two arches  for which the dimensions could be adapted according to the site requirements. A Telford trademark is the thin overhanging course of 'drip stone' below the parapet, to reduce the  effect of rainfall on the lower structure.  These bridges were built at right- angles to the watercourse, causing the few 'dog-legs' on the road – as at Padog and Ogwen. The different challenges of the crossings at Betws y Coed and Menai presented a very different challenge – the details of these  magnificent bridges – imaginative, functional and beautiful - are freely available elsewhere.

At  Ogwen, Telford preserved the remarkable 16th Century packhorse bridge beneath his new road bridge.

However, one important location along the road is now largely forgotten -  Cernioge, now just a single farm house, lies on the watershed of the Dee and Conwy west of Cerrigydrudion. There were extensive stables here as this was an important location for the changing, resting and feeding of horses, accommodation for ostlers, and of course a lively inn.

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