Navigating a labyrinthine of lanes, the soggy ground around us suddenly announces the presence of varying creatures. A loquacious band of brothers covered in blue, with yellow chests and green backs, perform a quick scurry – as most blue tits’ do – among the leaves. While their sizeable neighbours – the starlings – enact a slow stride, communicating their status as the birds’ boss. A short distance off and only slightly audible above the vociferous river, the tell-tale sounds of sheep and cows act as our “tour guide” to the Elan Valley, known as the Welsh Lake District.
What’s special about the Elan Valley?
As the land of dragons, or so the story goes, Wales has for as long as time joined itself with the two kingdoms of the natural world and animals. Even now, over 50% of farms are dedicated to cattle and sheep grazing. Another 35% are heavily focused on livestock products. There’s no escaping our mammalian friends, and a road trip in Wales wouldn’t be complete without them. Indeed, the Elan Valley is no exception. Only it also offers a side to Wales that’s little discovered.
Its 70 square miles, with 80% of its lake and countryside labelled as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, takes on the mantel as one of the most vital areas for wildlife. It safeguards unusual entities like wild birds. While the Elan Valley reservoirs are a catena of man-made lakes, they only enhance the area’s outstanding scenic beauty. The valley dams were created in the late 1800s by damming the Claerwen and Elan rivers to provide drinking water for Birmingham. These dams hint at the restorative and crucial quality of clean water. And as the only “Model Village” in Wales, taking a road trip around the Elan Valley bequeaths an insight into the culture of the tight-knit Welsh community that built these six dams.
The Elan Valley Road Trip Route
The Elan Valley has been on the Welsh map since the Stone Age. A collection of Neolithic chambered tombs, Bronze Age burial cairns, standing stones, and a Roman marching camp can be found on almost every walk in the area. It’s a canvas for an immersive road trip. It is the place to go for the curious, naturalist, and nature-lover alike that embraces how the great outdoors has been cherished for secular and religious purposes over the centuries. And if the Elan dams and reservoirs do not interest you, these will design an itinerary that’ll leave you dreaming about bygone times.
First Stop: Caban Coch Dam
Operating the Welsh countryside is perhaps as great a challenge as tackling the Scottish Highlands. So, set your sat nav to Rhayader at the crossroads of the A44 (from the east) or the A470 (from the North or South Wales). From here, follow the B4518 to the west, looking for the Elan Valley Visitor Centre signposts. This will bring you to Caban Coch dam. When the reservoir is full, Caban Coch resembles a magnificent waterfall. At its widest point, thousands of tonnes of water cascade and curve into a gentle flow under a three-archway bridge, past low-hanging trees and over protruding rocks, waving hello to the passing village.
From the Elan Valley Visitor Centre, embark on a pleasant circular jaunt around Caban Coch. Set off across the grey stone bridge which crosses the river below the dam, and turn right. Here, you’ll journey through conifer forests blanketed with a mattress of moss and fine grass. On this path, you’ll come to the Nant y Gro valley before coming back along the untroubled reservoir banks.
Second Stop: Garreg Ddu Dam
From Caban Coch, head to Garreg Ddu Dam through tree-canopied roads, parking opposite Nantgwyllt Church. An ominous and black cloud had drifted over our view, and the apricot-tinted mountains turned a dark bronze, casting an inky shadow over the once lustrous water. With or without the dark weather, there’s an undeniable Harry Potter meets the Lake District vibe. Hagrid’s hut springs to mind when roaming Nantgwyllt Church, constructed by Stephen W Williams. Mr Williams also built Elan Village to house the workmen labouring on the dams. Inside, sculptured corbels depict Mr William and the water engineers involved. While the exterior aligns with the viaduct and the Foel valve tower at the north end, creating a splendid medieval-Victorian aesthetic. There’s a small path following the bends of the road that’s popular with both walkers and cyclists along the reservoir.
Third Stop: Claerwen Dam
Before returning to the main road, continue straight over the Garreg Ddu viaduct and skirt through the valley backroads. You’ll move along roads with miniature waterfalls and secluded ponds where boathouses straddle the shores. Before long, your drive will open to an expansive mountainscape that’ll lead you to Dol-y-Mynach Reservoir and then Claerwen Dam in the Cambrian Mountains. Claerwen is almost twice the size of the other Elan Valley dams. Its reservoir is nearly the size of all the other reservoirs combined.
Before setting off, head towards the 6-mile long track starting along the lake’s northern shore. Set within the Claerwen National Nature Reserve, the upland provides an environment of oligotrophic lakes, ponds, mires, and considerable terrain with minor man-made changes. Welcome to the heart of the Welsh countryside! More remote, less popular, and indeed the location for a serious walk, spend some time traversing beyond the borders of Claerwen. Here, you shall find nationally scarce water plantain, as well as carnivorous plants like Butterworts. It is also a breeding ground for Red Kits and Red Merlin. At the end of the walk, travellers will come to the Monastery of Strata Florida. Latin for ‘Vale of Flowers’, where generations of Welsh princes have been buried in a lush meadow next to the River Teifi.
Fourth Stop: Pen y Garreg Dam
Drive back past Garreg Ddu and follow the road heading north along the Pen y Garreg dam. This is perhaps one of the quietest and most intimate locations in the Elan Valley. With barely a parking space and less imposing mountains enveloped by a colony of trees, you’ll find complete peace here. While we were there, no sound rang out, and the glassy water operated as an intricate mirror, reflecting the kaleidoscopic trees. The Elan Valley Trail is a linear path pursuing the line of the old Birmingham Corporation Railway. While the trail starts near Rhayader, you can commence your walk from Pen y Garreg to Craig Goch dam. This offers unsurpassable nature walks with exquisite countryside charm.
Final Stop: Craig Goch Dam
Graig Goch dam is an elegantly serpentine wall with a sequence of arches bearing a narrow road across its top. With a turquoise domed valve tower set within a Birmingham Baroque structure, the dam is the highest of them all. It stands at the height of 1040 feet above sea level. The work on this dam started with the arrival of the railway line at the site. In the case of this dam, the line had the furthest to go, and it had to battle a rocky outcrop. Knowing the workers’ considerable effort to make this dam possible only adds to the magnificence and awe of the dam now!
Additional Information About the Elan Valley
As the sun goes down, the valley turns into darkness. The only light comes from the moon, which reflects the viaducts in the water. With little light pollution, the night sky becomes a sparkling sea of stars, planets, and constellations. Its splendour and dreamlike nature are comparable to seeing the Northern Lights. The Elan Valley Visitor Centre hosts regular meet-ups from the Elan Valley Astronomy Group. This allows visitors to explore the sky through telescopes. Additionally, the Elan Valley has the International Dark Sky Park status. This continues to protect against light pollution so that generations to come can enjoy the same natural beauty.
the elan valley Accommodation
From camping, self-catered to pet-friendly accommodation, the Elan Valley has something for everyone. One place of historical note is Hen Dy and Y Beudy. It is a Grade II* listed building dating back to the 16th Century. However, the property is now used as two self-catered components. The cottages retain many traditional features, such as Gladstone flooring, an open fireplace, uneven stone twisting staircase, and beamed ceilings. These houses are situated close to Claerwen Valley and less than four miles from the Elan Valley Visitor Centre.
For more road trips in Wales, check out my Portmeirion day trip guide or my 3-day North Wales itinerary!
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Megan Openshaw says
Great to see another post from you, Jade – “I came as soon as I heard!” Beautifully written, as always, and packed full of historical and cultural detail! I’m particularly intrigued by the Astronomy Group and Y Beudy. Definitely adding to my travel bucket list!
Thank you Megan! I hope you get to visit these areas soon as I’m sure you’ll love them!