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Exploring road history in North Wales

Pont Pen y Benglog

IF YOU'VE ever done research for a project, youll know that things you find along the way of researching can be a real surprise. A proper delight you were not expecting. I had several of these moments when doing field visits to further document my first book, Roads and Trackways of North Wales.

You may not think of roads as being historic monuments. Signposts, mileposts, disused routes, embankments, bridges, surfaces - or even the layering (or stratigraphy) of roads construction - are indeed historical documents of sorts to yield tales of years past.

Some interesting road heritage, stories of human interaction, can be manifest in places where the landscape forces the same route to be used and re-used over a long time. Successive innovations in technology, the need to improve the capacity of the road and perhaps most of all - finances available - all render new layers of history to interpret.

A favourite spot of mine for road history is the spectacular but unusable pack horse bridge surviving at Pont Pen y Benglog in North Wales. South east from Bangor, and north west from Capel Curig, its thought to be early mediaeval, and rests underneath Telfords later bridge. Protected from the worst of the elements under the newer construction, and far enough recessed from the relentless flow of water exiting from Llyn Ogwen, this testimony to forms of transport long ceased in our country is a marvel.

It was once part of a very significant route first improved by Lord Penrhyn whose castle now sits on the east side of Bangor. In 1791 he had a road built from his quarries at Bethesda northwards to Llandegai and Port Penrhyn, and south-eastwards along the west side of the great glacial cwm of Nant Francon to Capel Curig. In 1802 turnpike toll-roads opened up the way from Llandegai to Pentrefoelas, with a new route up the east side of Nant Francon and over Pont Pen y Benglog.

In 1808 the postal route, the Great Irish Road was diverted along Penrhyns route. Around 1820 rock was blasted from the neck of the mountain precipice next to Llyn Ogwen and the 1802 trust road, enabling Thomas Telfords engineering magnificence to significantly improve the route.

In the days of animal droving, before mass transport and refrigeration of meat, droves would have used these routes to get livestock from far north west Wales to markets in England. Given the width of the bridge crossing at Pont Pen y Benglog on the east side of the valley, the droves would have been better taking the trackway on the west which avoids the narrow bridge. Some spoke of the horrors of the Nant Francon pass. The route then would have taken the south shore of Llyn Ogwen, beneath the peaks of The Glyders to the south and The Carneddau to the north.

Today you can view all of these routes. A small layby just north of the bridge allows car users to pull up, walk through a gate to see the sequence of bridge construction and improvement on the east side, and on the west side, the toll trust road can be seen lower next to Telfords route which uses the contemporary route, and on the other side of the valley can be see Lord Penrhyns track.

Looking at the history of routes really revolutionises the way in which you interact with travelling, and this is a spot which really does bring together many different threads of the way in which people have journeyed through the landscape for many centuries. You can see some of it on Google Streetview.