The Far side: of the Elan Valley at Garreg Ddu


Zany US cartoonist and satirist, Gary Larson has made a fortune out of his comedy sketches, the Farside, where speaking cows, insects and such like have given laughter to many in America and on this side of the pond, so to speak.


A particular favourite of mine is a scene with identical looking aliens all sitting around a breakfast table. On a milk carton in the middle of the breakfast utensils and food is a wanted ad which contains an alien identical to all of the rest, with a caption: 'Have you seen me?'


But perhaps a cartoon, that sticks in my mind most these days is one that makes fun of people's underlying propensity and predeliction to be lazy.  A family in a living room sit staring hard at a bare wall, and Larson gently mocks ....... 'in the days before television'.


It seems that people today are more sedentary than ever before and live their lives vicariously through the TV, soap opera stars and unending re-runs of Ricki Lake or Judge Judy. But, perhaps it's about time people put themselves collectively at the centre of their own universe and started collecting real life experiences instead.


Well, perhaps that's where we can help ..... our contemporary holiday cottage in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park can transport people to an enchanting rural paradise, where a whole host of natural, and not so natural, wonders are just waiting to be discovered and explored.



And one such place, at about one hour and 20 minutes drive from Glyn-yr-aur, that would provide families or friends with hours of fun is the 70 square miles that make up the Elan Valley system of reservoirs.


That, intriguingly, is where the not so natural moniker would apply. With all of the mile upon mile of magical and beautiful landscapes, mountain ranges and coastal resorts, many of the massive water systems that now exist within the Principality have only been developed within the last 130 years.


These developments can be attributable to the seismic events that took place, from the end of the 18th century onwards, throughout England and Wales in the form of the Industrial Revolution.


Major industrial cities that rapidly sprung up as a consequence of this era in the north and the Midlands could not keep apace with the demand for simple basics such as food, sanitation and water.



And as more and more people abandoned their former rural lifestyles to seek out new jobs in the ever-growning conurbations in say, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, cholera and typhoid epidemics were rife as living conditions remained next to primitive.


With the foresight of such cities founding fathers and dignatories, committees were formed to look into such problems. Over several decades from the end of the 19th century onwards, reservoirs were seen as the undeniable answer to providing the required clean fresh supply of water. Meanwhile an advanced network of sewerage systems and rows upon rows of cheap, affordable housing were also constructed en masse.


Records of the time show that large numbers of people had to rely on wells contaminated by human waste, which resulted in serious outbreaks of deadly diseases such as the aforementioned cholera and typhoid.


But urgent action was forced on Birmingham's council leaders because the city's population had doubled within the space of 15 years from 1876 to 1891.



The council's water committee commissioned a survey to discover possible sites for a reservoir to more than adequately meet the area's demand for water well into the future.


The Elan and Claerwen Valleys in Mid-Wales were eventually chosen and in 1892 work began as land was purchased by an act of parliament and saw some 400 local people displaced. (The high annual rainful, bedrock and suitability of the valleys for flooding and little in the way of population settlement ensured the area was considered the most suitable for the scheme, despite fierce opposition locally and also in parliament).


Typically the landowners were compensated for their loss of land, but their tenant farmers had no such luck, and were often left with no other option than the local workhouse. Some it was said moved onwards to Birmingham.


The project also saw the enforced destruction of two grand country houses (Cwm Elan and Nantgwyllt that had connections to the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley), a mix of 18 cottages and farmhouses, and a church, chapel and schoolhouse.



Today, five massive dams, which contain a total of just under 100,000 megalitres of water, completely submerge what once stood before within the confines of the Elan River catchment.


And the said dams are believed to hold a mere 15 days worth of water to supply the whole of Birmingham's resident population, which in turn takes on average a day and a half to travel along the 73 miles of transitory aqueduct and pipeline.


Back in 1892 when work on the project began, consulting engineer, James Mansergh of London, was brought on board to work on the reservoir plans, and his experience on the Mid-Wales Railway of 1862 was said to have been pivotal in his appointment.


He recommended that four major dams be constructed from near the mid-Wales town of Rhayader in a series of steepening gradients that would come about by flooding various sections of the River Elan's valley.



Today, the Caban Goch dam is the first of these dams that was ever constructed is then closely connected to the Garreg-ddu, where this walk takes place. They both have a joint capacity of 35,530 megalitres and span almost 202 hectares in size. The Pen-y-Garreg and finally the Craig Goch dam are the other two reservoirs that can be found further up the valley, and are both equally impressive in size and scale - while at the same time retaining their own particular landscape and character.


Another three dams were to be built along the River Claerwen, but this was shelved until 1952, when a large single dam was built after the Second World War to keep apace with the demand for fresh water from the Birmingham area.


Presently, the area is affectionately known as Wales' own miniature Lake District, but it wasn't always like this and was an area renowned for its rugged beauty and wide flowing streams. Nevertheless,  this man-made oasis of calm and tranquility in its new form still manages to attract over 400,000 tourists a year, and is definitely worth the journey to see it.


However, it would truthfully take several visits to complete all of the walks around the current dams and their attendant lakes; but a lot of the pathways are remainders of the miniature railway tracks that were built first to help transport all the stone and so forth around the site as it was developed and came to fruition.



Reportedly, over 1000 men were needed to bring the whole project together, and just 7 horses. The new technology of the time, ie compressed-air-powered drills, and steam driven cranes was embraced enthusiastically and saw the 9 year project achieve a scale and height that had only hitherto been dreamed of.


As the railway tracks were built and developed further in to the valleyside, it was said that at least 140 tonnes of stone was carried each day on them when the work was at its peak.


The dams at higher levels were not even begun until the railways reached them, however all these narrow gauge trackways connected with the mid-Wales main network at Rhayader.


A village was built for the workers and was run along strict lines. However, despite several accidents and mishaps, the works were said to be well run and there was good, industrious spirit among all those employed.


Dynamite was regularly used to fashion and shape the area, which was initially stripped of all its vegetation in a bid to make the site's workings easier.


However, today, nature has reclaimed the area once more with much help from the Forestry Commission, and Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water) who now manages and owns the site. Pine trees have been planted assiduously all around the reservoirs, but there are still many native trees such as aldar, ash, birch, and oak.



This particular walk describes a stretch on the far side of the Garreg Ddu dam, which is in fact the only dam to be mostly submerged. It has a roadway sitting astride its top, and it leads almost seamlessly in to the Caban Goch below it. Its major role is to ensure a continual supply of water into the Caban Goch reservoir and to ensure that the River Elan has a constant water level as it trails off from the dam base to join the Wye near Rhayader.


To get to the starting point of the walk, you should follow the roadway along the right hand side of the lake to its far end, where a series of car park markings can be found. The walk starts through a way-marked gateway by some rocky outcrops.


From here, you can gain a wonderfully elevated view of the lake and the whole valley floor. Straightforward in parts, it also has its fair share of more challenging sections, which cross fields, narrow valleyside pathways, and after rainfall some partiularly muddy areas. So this is certainly a walk for the more adventurous, and takes around 2 hours to complete. Good sturdy footwear is advised, and a walking stick.


However, those wanting a more simple stretch, can just park by the Baptist chapel across from the Garreg Ddu viaduct, and follow the trackway onwards from the Foel straining tower. Once at the end of the reservoir, they should just retrace their footsteps back to the car park.


Popular with visitors, it's common to see hikers, cyclists and dog-walkers on this particular route.



However, we're going to take a journey along the more varied and challenging side, mostly because it affords much better vantage points to take in all the magnificent views, and go around in a full circuit, taking in the easier route.


And the views, it has to be said, are something that has been a major draw to people over the centuries, and particularly to the romantic poet Shelley.


His uncle, Thomas Grove, was the owner of one of the now submerged country houses, Cwm Elan - this he bought in 1792 and its surrounding 10,000 acres.


He asked Shelley to visit him after he dropped out of Oxford after six months, and the poet enthusiastically accepted the invitation.


True to his eccentric nature, he decided to walk all the way from his family's home in Sussex to mid-Wales and said this of his time there in one of his letters: "Rocks piled on each other to tremendous heights, rivers formed into cataracts by their projections and valleys clothed with woods, present an appearance of enchantment.



"This country is highly romantic; here are rocks of uncommon height and picturesque waterfalls. I am more astonished at the grandeur of the scenery than I expected. I am not wholly uninfluenced by its magic on my lonely walks."


So taken with the area was Shelley, that he tried in 1811 to gain the lease of the Nantgwyllt country house that lies further down the valley from his uncles. But, he was unsuccessful in his bid to set up home their was his new wife, Harriet. This house, the ancestral seat of the Lewis Lloyd family, was decidedly not for sale. However, eventually it went the way of Cwm Elan and was lost to the Elan Valley reservoir scheme some 80 years later. The compulsory purchase order made sure of that.


Today, however, people can walk in the footsteps of Shelley and marvel anew at all the area's realigned and refashioned beauty and landscape.


Wales often overwhelms people by the sheer breadth and depth of her awesome landscape, and every so often, poets, writers and so forth have redisovered her and encouraged people to find out more about her.


Perhaps now, particularly in recessionary times, people are rediscovering her hidden wonders and enchanting scenery once mroe.


Past the gnarled and weather-worn and moss-marked gate, there is a rough tarmac walkway, which is strewn with twigs, leaves and tufts of wild grass.



The sheer rocks rising to the right of you are also deeply eroded with cracks and crevices and have wild outcrops of vegetation lavishly taking root.


Fortunately, when this walk was taken it was mid-Autumn, and many of the lake-side trees where bare so you had a welcome, and uninterrupted view of the surroundings.


Fir and spruce trees tower high above the roadway, and the mountain sides across from the reservoir rise steeply upwards, while masses of scree tumble down to fan out towards their base.


The trackway rises up higher, so that in a clearing exceptionally breath-taking views radiate forth from the valley floor and far horizon.


When the sky is almost cloudless, save for a few willowy wisps of cirrus, the lake waters metamorphose from a murky green to a deep azure blue.


After walking for 15 minutes or so, another wooden 5-bar gate will be reached. Pass through this and then people will eventually arrive at an isolated farmstead. You have two choices here, to either follow a higher woodland track or take the pathway that mirrors the water's edge.


When the weather has been dry, the latter option is certainly the most worth taking. However, when it has been very wet, the high road is definitely the most sensible option.


However, much mud was encountered after passing the farmland, and a few sheep-filled fields, as you moved further towards the riverbank.


But after some careful footwork, a sturdy, but narrow pathway was joined that gave a superbly close and intimate perspective of the Garreg-Ddu reservoir.


In places, wooden piers and planks have been put in place to ease the traversing of some of the marshland. But once on the riverside path, people are afforded excellent views of the river and stay close to its edge for the rest of the journey.


Eventually after passing through some woodland and through a style, the pathway widens to form a larger forestry trackway.  This then leads round to the Garreg-Ddu car park and picnic area near the baptist chapel.



People can rest a while a here, then they need to complete the circuit by walking across the sturdy and baroque stle viaduct and past the Foel Tower - it has the latest equipment to regulate the straining of the reservoir and the water's movement along the aqueduct to Birmingham.


The viaduct does give a wonderful view of the whole span of the Caban Coch and the Garreg Ddu at its other side. Those in particularly energetic mood, can also follow the pathway at the side of the Caban Coch, right to the front of its dam head. When there is particularly high rainfall, the overspill cascades down its front, just like a waterfall into the River Elan below.


On the Garreg Ddu pathway nearest to the road, it's certainly very easy underfoot, and the pathway was actually one of the now defunct rail trackways that used to be found at many different levels when the Elan reservoir site was under construction.


Broad leaf trees in the main especially birch adorn either side of the pathways and it typically takes about a comfortable hour to reach the far end of the lake and the smaller area designated for cars there.


The Cwm Elan house was said to have been situated in the vicinity, but even so there is no hint or trace of its existence anymore. In its original form, the house would not have been far from the banks of the River Elan on this particular stretch of the walk. And it's perhaps intriguing to note that the poet Shelley was sure to have been very familiar with these hereparts. It may not now be as he would have remembered it, but I'm sure even he would approve of the restyling of this rural idyll and how it continues to inspire all those who take the time to travel here.


Enjoy the Garreg Ddu Far Side slideshow  and the Garreg Ddu Easy Route slideshow  too.


Another walk in the Elan Valley alongside the Pen y Garreg reservoir


The Pen y Garreg's 'Birmingham Baroque style' dam does an impressive job of holding back a staggering 6,000 megalitres of water each and every day of the year.


The thick solid walls of the dam, which are 37 metres high and 161 metres across, have in fact been keeping water from the River Elan comfortably in a 50 hectare basin for well over a century.


The second reservoir in the series at the Elan Valley site, down from the Craig Goch, also just happens to have a fantastically scenic walking trail along its right bank.


What's particularly interesting about this route, is that it lets you climb a series of terraced steps into the hillside, so you can take in the dam at every level right from its very base to its very top.


Water cascades over the dam lip at regular intervals in effervescent sheets and torrents, and into the stagnant pools and river below. Interestingly, the valve tower or water tower right at the Pen y Garreg's centre, can be reached by a tunnel within the dam itself. Small apertures or windows across the wall top mark out this passageway.


It's certainly an intriguing sight to watch the water as it tumbles precariously down the dam face and into the water course at its base.


Initially the Elan Valley was commissioned just to provide Birmingham with most of its water needs at the turn of the 20th century. However, today, the area supplies water to the Rhayader area and also to parts of South Wales aswell.


It has also become an area of special scientific interest, not just for the wildlife, but for the many plants, trees and lichens that can be found here in abundance. En route to the dam, people will pass a specially signposted 300 year old sessile oak, which would have been standing when the Romantic Poet Shelley was a regular visitor to these hereparts.



To continue the walk, people should then pass through a gate at the top of the dam and keep following the trackway until the Craig Goch reservoir, say an hour's walk away is reached.


To begin with, however, people should park in the Pont car park and follow the trackway from here, right up past the Pen y Garreg dam itself. Cyclists can also cycle on this route if they prefer. Because most of the pathway was a former narrow gauge railway used in the building of the site, it is relatively flat and suitable for most ages and abilities.


Once through the gateway near the dam head, people can then forget about watching their footwork and relax into a comfortable pace on the gravel path that stretches out in front of them.


Through another gateway onto the offical Elan Valley Trail, people should then turn a corner and see a picturesque island, carpeted in trees right in the centre of the reservoir.


The trackway then climbs higher above the reservoir the further you walk, and picnic tables and some wooden art in the form of a gothic style throne bench can be found along the way.


Most of the route has a pleasing array of deciduous trees flanking both its sides, until they give way to some gently sloping hillside and a picnic area and toilet facilities at the Craig Goch dam.


Interestingly when this walk was taken a small bird, came up very close to me in a bid to beg for some scraps or crumbs.  Unfortunately without any tasty morsels to offer, the bird had to try converse with other day-trippers further up. So, if you do venture here and take a picnic, our feathered-friends here are always grateful for first dibs on what's left.


For a pictorial illustration of the walk, please see the following slideshow (Elan Valley)