Thomas Telford – The road to Holyhead

posted in: Cycling History

     AUTHOR:- David Ackerley,

         CyclingUK, Chester&North Wales.

In this age of more or less instant contact with anywhere in the world where a Sat phone can go, it is difficult to imagine what communications were like two hundred years or so ago: no satellites bouncing signals round the world, no broadband or phones of any sort, no TV or wireless, an indifferent and expensive postal service if you were lucky, no trains, planes, motor vehicles or cycles, an expensive, slow and uncomfortable stage coach system using primitive tracks masquerading as roads. These latter horrors were run by Turnpike trusts, whose main aim was to extract the maximum amount of money from the unfortunates who used the roads for the minimum expenditure. (Ed:- Turpike Trusts – see a Welsh dispute) Most people never stirred more than five miles from their home village, and then they mostly walked. If you were lucky or more prosperous than most of the population, you might ride a horse, but that was an exception.

In the 1790s canal mania set in and this began to improve communications in England, making it easier and cheaper to move industrial goods about the country, though the country’s road system remained very primitive. Because of this Josiah Wedgwood, the famous pottery manufacturer, was a keen supporter of, and investor in, the Trent and Mersey canal, since it helped exports from his factory to arrive at the Mersey unbroken. Prior to the canal, breakages of his wares, carried in panniers on horseback, often reached 20%.

This was the state of affairs that finally persuaded the government to do something about what we know as the A5, but which in those far off days was referred to as The Road to Holyhead. This famous or infamous road, according to your experience of it, cuts right through North Wales CTC’s area, and most members will have travelled on it by bike, car or coach at some time or other. Precious few though will have given much, if any, thought to the prodigious labour which has been put in by civil engineers in the form of bridge building, grading, blasting and excavation to make the gradient so relatively easy in such mountainous country.

In 1801 a number of Irish MPs began to agitate for improvements to communications between London and Dublin, and they succeeded in getting a report undertaken by John Rennie, a noted civil engineer, on the best route to, and sites for, the necessary harbours. Holyhead and Howth were the selected sites, but it was six years before the necessary funds could be prized from the tight-fisted government of the day. In the best traditions of government planning, which was as bad then as it is now, no provision was made for improving the roads. Indeed, Rennie, like many civil engineers of the period, thought that road building was an activity beneath his notice!

There were 24 independent Turnpike trusts responsible for the London-Holyhead road, seven of them between Shrewsbury and Holyhead, and their income depended entirely on the amount of traffic that each section generated. This in turn was affected by the size of the local population: the smaller the local traffic, the less the usage, and therefore the smaller the income, which in turn meant there were fewer funds to invest in road maintenance and so the poorer the surfaces became. The further north and west you travelled the worse matters were, and the route through the Welsh mountains, and especially on Anglesey, was no better than a poor and often dangerous track. It was because of this parlous state of affairs that the London Mail coaches could not operate any further than Shrewsbury. In 1808 the Post Office tried to operate coaches to Holyhead, but it proved completely impossible, and it became obvious that government funds would have to be found if a satisfactory road was to be built.

It is at this point that we encounter Thomas Telford in the story of this road. He was a largely self-taught stone mason, architect and civil engineering genius whose breathtaking works are to be found all over the Chester and North Wales CTC’s area. The Chirk and Pont Cysyllte aqueducts and the bridges at Menai and Conwy are so awe inspiring that we tend to forget that Telford was responsible for building and renovating an immense mileage of roads in the UK including over 1200 miles in the Scottish Highlands; not for nothing was he known by the pun the Colossus of Roads.

In 1808 Telford was given the task of reporting on the road between Shrewsbury and Holyhead. After considering various alternative routes through the Tanat and Ceiriog valleys, he settled on what is now the A5. Prior to this, the route from Betws-y-Coed to Bangor followed the River Conwy valley and the coast of the Menai Straits, a long and tortuous route. There was already a possible Stage route marked out via Capel Curig and the Nant Ffrancon pass, probably by Sir Richard Pennant the owner of the Penrhyn slate quarries, but it followed the bottom of the valley and then climbed steeply over the hills. This was of no interest to Telford, as his aim was to provide a road whose maximum gradient would not exceed 1 in 20 in order to make it reasonably easy for the coach horses. As a result this meant that the new road through the Nant Ffrancon pass would require very considerable blasting and much hard labour; it also turned out to require a lot of maintenance, though this was not obvious at the time.

As a result of Telford’s work, Parliament issued a report with recommendations in 1811, but due to apathy it gathered dust for another five years; it doesn’t do to hurry these things! Eventually an energetic champion of the project surfaced, in the shape of Sir Charles Parnell, MP for Queen’s County in Ireland, and the plans were dusted off and the Holyhead Road Commission was born. This marked the start of the construction of the first civil trans-Britain highway since the Romans had left the country. Telford was given the job of surveying the whole route from London to Holyhead, no small undertaking, and it took him and his three assistants eighteen months to do it. The survey also included the coast road from Chester to Bangor, which was part of the Mail Coach route from Manchester and Liverpool.

Telford was a believer in building roads to last, so he copied the Roman way and laid very substantial foundations, which was expensive, but effective. This however cut very little ice with the parsimonious Turnpike Trusts. Macadam, a fellow Scot who laid his road top without much foundation, was much cheaper; his roads didn’t last as long and required more maintenance, but that was in the future and the avaricious and short-sighted Trusts didn’t look that far ahead, taking the view that tomorrow was another day. As a result, Macadam is better known than Telford as a road builder, and the Holyhead and Chester roads are the only major roads of any note that Telford built outside Scotland.

Telford persuaded the Holyhead Road Commission to buy out the seven Turnpike Trusts between Shrewsbury and Holyhead. Once this difficult task was done – the Trusts knew they were in the driving seat and bargained accordingly – work commenced and it took fifteen years to complete, although coaches were getting to Holyhead before completion was achieved. The section between Berwyn and Glyn Dyfrdwy was especially difficult, requiring as it did much cutting through rock and building embankments. The Nant Ffrancon pass was the jewel in the crown of the road, having a gradient of 1 in 22 and is still the easiest road for traversing the Snowdonia massif. The most expensive section of the road, apart from the bridges, was the Stanley embankment, built across the sands of that name between the Anglesey mainland and Holy Island on which Holyhead is situated. At the time this was 1300 yds long, 114 ft at the base and 34 ft at the top. This massive construction and its protective wall were built in a year, and opened in 1823. It has since been enlarged to carry the mainline railway from Holyhead. Nowadays it also has a cycle path across it.

In 2000 an eighteen-month long survey of the A5 in Wales, which was funded by the Welsh Assembly’s heritage organisation CADW, revealed that about 40% of the road survives in much the same way as Telford built it. It also emerged that 80% of the Toll houses and bridges still survive in one way or another. To me, one of the most surprising results is that the modern day tarmac surface is laid on top of Telford’s original foundations and surfacing. This is the ultimate justification for his resolve to avoid cutting corners and to build like the Romans did – properly – and puts Macadam well and truly in his place!

By now readers will probably have gathered that I am one of Thomas Telford’s keenest admirers; he was, without any doubt, one of the greatest men of his time, having an immensely beneficial influence on the life of the country, especially in Scotland. However, we must not forget that no one, however talented, could do what Telford did without the devoted assistance of highly skilled assistants in the form of stonemasons, iron founders and civil engineers. These included William Hazeldine, Matthew Davidson, John Simpson, William Provis and John Wilson, all of whom spent all their working lives in association with Telford and who became great personal friends. Whilst Telford was the inspirational genius, he authorised these very capable men to modify details of his designs where necessary, and thus they ensured that the constructions were carried out to the very highest standards.The first obstacle on the Holyhead road after Shrewsbury was the crossing of the River Severn at Montford Bridge. It was the first major bridge that Telford had designed and was built between 1790 and 1792, long before he became involved with the Holyhead road. It was built with stone quarried from nearby Nesscliffe and its construction was supervised by Matthew Davidson, an old school friend from Scotland, with John Simpson from Shrewsbury as the senior stonemason. To assist the local workforce, French prisoners of war were “persuaded” to do much of the labouring. In 1963 it was widened by the addition of a reinforced concrete roadway being placed on top of the unaltered original construction; that gives an indication of its strength. If you go down to the riverside in the caravan park by the Old Swan Inn by the bridge, you get an excellent view of this graceful structure. Compare it with the starkly utilitarian concrete structure of the nearby Montford bypass, which carries the A5 now. Will that still be standing in 200 years time?

The new route for the Holyhead road through Betws-y-Coed meant that the River Conwy had to be bridged, and this was done with one of the very few structures that Telford designed with decorative ironwork.  Known as the Waterloo Bridge, it is made of five cast iron beams with a span of 105 ft, and was only the seventh of its type made. The spandrels are decorated with impressions of the Rose, Thistle, Shamrock and Leek in honour of the home countries, and the arches carry the sentence “This arch was constructed in the same year the battle of Waterloo was fought”. That is not strictly true, as although these items were made in 1815, it was not until the following year that the contractor, William Suttle, put them in place and built the bridge. Due to the local topography it is not easy to see all this decoration, but if you get over the fence and go down the steep bank a little way taking care (it was only the mercy of providence that saved me from an involuntary bath in the river when I scrambled down the bank some years ago), it can be seen in all its glory.

William Hazeldine produced the ironwork at his Plas Kynaston foundry at Trevor, where he also made the troughs for the Chirk and Pont Cysyllte aqueducts, as well as the ironwork for the railways, locks and swing bridges of the western end of the Caledonian Canal. The site of this foundry is now occupied by Flexsys, and there is a plaque on the premises commemorating its origins as the birthplace of the aqueducts’ ironwork. In 1923 the bridge’s three inner beams were encased in concrete and the road deck was strengthened. This was added to in 1978 by the inclusion of a 10-inch reinforced concrete deck to give a wider road and footpath. Remember, the original cast iron girders that are nearly 200 years old carry all this extra weight!

In 1801 Lord Penrhyn built the Capel Curig Hotel just off the line of the track that masqueraded as the stage route that he had made from Bangor to Betws-y-Coed, and in 1870 the name was changed to the Royal Hotel. The official line is that he built it away from the track in order that full advantage could be taken of the superb views over the twin lakes in the Mymbyr Valley and of the Snowdon Horseshoe. Being of a cynical turn of mind, I suspect that it was moved away from the appalling track in the hope that the passengers would forget about the road for a few hours!  In 1955 it was bought as a memorial to King George VI, by his Trust fund, and given to the Central Council for Physical Recreation. It is now one of Sport England’s five national sporting centres, even if it is in Wales, and is an internationally known centre of excellence for mountain and kayak training.

The milestones and the toll houses were all designed by Telford and a number still survive. The toll houses were erected at roughly 5 mile intervals, and all the ones on Anglesey have survived, the best preserved being at Llanfair Gate on Anglesey, soon after the Road to Holyhead had crossed the Menai Straits, though the toll board is a replica. One of the others is now a private house and the last one, at Holyhead, was moved brick by brick away from the road and is a café (at present closed, but see photo below).

Although not on the Holyhead Road and nothing to do with Telford, Holyhead’s breakwater, the longest in the UK, is worthy of a mention here. At 1.48 miles long, it protects the harbour, and was built as a direct consequence of the decision taken in 1801 to make Holyhead the northern terminus of what became the Road to Holyhead. Work commenced on building the breakwater in 1845 using 7 million tons of stone quarried from what is now the Breakwater Country Park, in addition to several thousand tons of dressed stone quarried at Moelfre on the NE side of Anglesey. It was completed in 1875 at the cost of £1.285 million and the lives of 40 workers. This huge loss of life would have appalled Telford, since he always took immense pains to ensure the safety of his labour force, another area in which he was well ahead of his time. Later, a brickworks was established in the quarry and its remains can be seen today.

Despite the difficulties that Telford and his contractors had experienced so far in constructing the Holyhead Road, the remaining problem of carrying the road over the Menai Straits was by far the biggest challenge in the entire project. Apart from the engineering involved in designing and building what would be the world’s biggest suspension bridge at the time, the project was hindered by various local worthies who had their fingers in a number of financial pies. There were seven ferries operating across the Straits, the owners of which, along with slate quarry proprietors and other assorted gentry, including the one-legged Marquis of Anglesey, were against the scheme, either on principle or because it would hit their pockets. Between them they caused a good deal of trouble and delayed the commencement of the supporting towers for a year or so. Blasting operations for the base of the towers had commenced in 1818, but work came to halt as a result of the machinations of the awkward customers noted above. Finally, the Commissioners for the Road to Holyhead obtained an Act of Parliament that was passed in 1819, which enabled work to commence in earnest.

In order to satisfy the Admiralty’s demand for sufficient clearance for its largest battleships to use the Straits, the bridge had to be at least 100 ft above high water spring tides (HWST). To do this, the towers were built to a height of 153 ft above HWST with a span of 579 ft between them. The towers were linked to the land by a total of seven masonry arches. The limestone for the towers and arches, which was quarried from Penmon on the eastern tip of Anglesey close to Puffin Island, brought the landowner, Viscount Bulkeley, the princely sum of 6d per ton. This brings to mind another difficulty that contractors faced in those times: that of paying their men in a locally acceptable currency. Following agitation by the workforce and the pubs and shops where they spent their cash, the Anglesey Magistrates demanded that Telford pay his men in Bank of England notes; but Telford was paid by the government department concerned in bankers’ drafts. These were duly exchanged at par by Telford’s Shrewsbury bankers for their own notes. If they were to change them for Bank of England notes, they would only do so at a discount! Presumably Telford adjusted his charges to the government accordingly.

Two hundred men and five coasters were employed moving the stone to the site and building the stonework, all of which was overseen by William Provis, another of Telford’s lifelong contractors. The suspension chains were to be anchored in the rocky ground on each shore, and to this end three tunnels about 6ft in diameter and sixty feet long were excavated on each side of the straits. The central tunnel had two rows of chains in it and the others one each. At the end of these tunnels large chambers were cut in the rock, in which the very substantial cast-iron frames, to which the chains would be attached, were assembled.

In his original thoughts on how to suspend the roadway, Telford had intended using laminated iron cables, as were already used in other small suspension bridges, but about this time he heard of roadways being carried by long iron bars bolted together, thus forming chains, to a design of Captain Brown, another bridge builder of the time. The two pooled their knowledge and Telford decided to use 16 of these chains to carry the road over the Straits. There were to be four rows, each of four chains placed vertically under each other. Each link consisted of five wrought iron bars, 10ft x 3 ¼ ins x 1 in, with spacers between them. Coupling plates secured by bolts 3 inches in diameter and weighing 56lbs each joined the links. All this ironwork was carried out at Upton Forge near to Shrewsbury at the foundry owned by William Hazeldine. As this was cutting edge technology, Telford proceeded very cautiously, continuously testing all the theory with practical experiments.

From the forge the bars were transported by the Shrewsbury canal to Hazeldine’s Coleham works at Shrewsbury where every bar was subjected to very rigorous testing on a rig designed by Telford. The bars were designed to give a safety factor of 100%; or put another way, they would carry twice the maximum load that they were ever likely to have imposed on them.  Once this test was completed, the bars were transported by narrow boat from Weston Lullingfields to Ellesmere Port via the Ellesmere Canal, later to become the Shropshire Union Canal, and put on coasters to be taken to the site. Those cyclists who have ridden in the Bert Bailey Memorial Veterans’ 100, may have seen the remains of the Weston Lullingfields canal as a bank in front of a linear wood. It is visible on your left very soon after going through Hordley at about 64.8 miles. Originally this branch of the canal was supposed to go to Shrewsbury, but lack of cash and the advent of the railways put paid to it.

Once the towers, connecting arches and tunnels were finished, the demanding and dangerous job of putting the suspension chains in place could commence, and in April 1825 Thomas Rhodes, another of Telford’s valued workmates, who was in charge of the chains’ assembly, declared everything was ready to begin raising the first chain from the raft. This vessel on which the chain was floated out between the towers, was 450 ft long and 6 ft wide, and was manoeuvred by four boats manned by oarsmen. Bearing in mind that at full bore the tide runs through the Straits where the bridge is situated at anything up to 12mph, it would only be safe for the raft to be in place for about 1½ hrs around high water when the tidal flow would be almost non-existent or at least manageable.

The first part of the chain on the mainland shore had been connected to its anchorage in the rock, then laid over the tower and allowed to hang down to the high water mark. The chain on the raft was connected to this by one end whilst the other was joined to cables, each 6 ½ inches in diameter, that led over the Anglesey tower and then to capstans set up inland. It took 1½ hrs for the 150 men who worked these capstans to raise the end of the 24 ton section of chain to the top of the tower, where it was connected to the other piece of the chain previously raised up and attached to its anchorage. To enable men to work safely 153 ft above the water, a platform had been constructed at the top of the tower, and Telford, John Wilson, Thomas Rhodes and William Provis were up there to see the last pin inserted to complete the first chain.

Such was the interest in the project that the shores were lined with many hundreds of spectators, some of them no doubt attracted by the possibility of seeing a disaster! The capstan crews were rewarded with a goodly quantity of ale, which so affected three of them, that they walked across the strait on the 9-inch wide chain as far as the mainland tower before returning safely! What Telford, who was very insistent on safe working practices, thought of this escapade is not recorded. On the 9th July the last chain was lifted into place and the suspension rods, bearer bars and the wooden roadway were installed. The total suspended weight was 644 tons, and the chains were able to support 732 tons in addition to the weight of the roadway.

The Menai Bridge carried its first coach, The Royal London and Holyhead Mail, at half past one in the morning of 31st January 1826, a wild and stormy night. It may be thought that it was an odd time for such an historic event to take place, but Telford hated fuss and ceremonials, and was content to let the first coach go over whenever it arrived. Despite this and the atrocious weather, everyone else ignored Telford’s opinions about such junketing, and the next day saw a continual stream of the local bigwigs, townspeople and farmers drive and walk back and forth across the bridge gladly paying the tolls, for which there was a considerable queue. Such was the enthusiasm for the new crossing that at times traffic came to a halt due to congestion, whilst the day’s tolls raised about £18, a very considerable sum for the times.

Although he was an engineer of genius, Telford was working in unknown engineering territory and in 1839, five years after his death, there was a severe storm which caused the roadway to oscillate badly enough to need alterations and additions to the chains and suspension rods to cure the problem. In 1893 a steel deck replaced the wooden roadway and in 1938 the original iron chains were changed for steel ones. The Menai Bridge stands today as one of the most beautiful and practical expressions of civil engineering anywhere in the world, and is a fitting tribute to the genius of Telford and to the craftsmanship and courage of those who built it.

Related article  – Cernioge, Resting Place of Distinction.

Cyclingnorthwales says:-

In 2014 our author David received the prestigious Arthur Moss Trophy. He was judged to be CTC’s National Volunteer of the Year after holding administrative positions and organising events over many years.  Yes, a man for all seasons and all roles.  Even of the humblest such as washing dishes at the AGM. 

Without such stalwarts we are the poorer – and we get no beans on toast and tea!



  1. Simon

    Fascinating, thank you very much for publishing this.