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Elan Village Claerwen Reservoirs Dog Walks Gallery

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South Wales Dog Friendly Walks - Elan Village Reservoirs Gallery

Elan Village Reservoirs Visitors Centre

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Visitor's Centre

Elan Valley Visitor Centre, Elan Valley, Rhayader, Powys, LD6 5HP
Tel: Rangers' Office: +44 (0)1597 810880
TIC/Shop: +44 (0)1597 810898
Cafe: +44 (0)1597 810899  
Fax:+44 (0)1597 810206

The Elan Valley Estate attracts a wide variety of visitors and a good starting point for all is the Visitor Centre which has a wide variety of information and educational and interactive resources.

In total the Elan Estate attracts more than 400,000 visitors annually. Many people come to enjoy the peace and quiet, some come for the wildlife and scenery, whilst others take part in more active pursuits.

The Claerwen reservoir and dam in Powys, Wales, were the last additions to the Elan Valley Reservoirs system built to provide water for the increasingly demanding city of Birmingham. Built mainly of concrete, the exterior of the dam face is dressed stone. The dam itself is known as a gravity dam. This type of dam is built on solid foundations such that the pressure of the reservoir behind should be in equilibrium with the total weight of the dam itself for complete stability.

The Elan Estate is owned by Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, and mostly vested in the Elan Valley Trust, a charity.

Dwr Cymru Welsh Water is responsible for the Visitor Centre, the dams and reservoirs, the woodlands and most of the Elan Valley Trail.

Dwr Cymru Welsh Water is committed to furthering the conservation of the environment as well as protecting both natural and archaeological heritage and promoting access and recreation.

Elan Village Centre the Claerwen Reservoir dam

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Information

The dams and reservoirs of the Elan Estate are situated within an area of outstanding scenic beauty. They provide a lasting amenity in their own right for visitors to enjoy.

The protection of the water catchment to prevent pollution of the reservoirs has safeguarded the habitats of numerous species of flora and fauna.

These immense dams were built to provide water for Birmingham.

The Claerwen dam was finished in 1952 but was given a late Victorian architecture to blend in with the earlier dams in the valley. It was necessary to employ Italian stonemasons as British stonemasons were still working in London on the post-war rebuilding of the late 1940s.

Elan Village Reservoirs Claerwen Reservoir dam dog walk

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Claerwen's Size

The dam took six years to complete and was almost twice the size of the other dams in the Elan valley. The Claerwen reservoir is almost the size of all the other reservoirs in the Elan Valley system combined. Officially commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, the official opening was one of her first royal engagements.

The Elan Estate in Powys comprises 70 square miles of spectacular scenery, including moorland, woodland, rivers and six dams with their associated reservoirs.

The large Visitor Centre is well worth visiting. It has an exhibition hall showing the natural history of the Estate and its management, the water scheme, the building of the dams and hydro-electric power, restaurant and a gift shop. There is an audiovisual display on the Elan Valley and huge information display panels and folders you can flick through. You'll find plenty of reading material - loads of fascinating information and old pictures of the dams being built.

Elan Village Reservoirs Claerwen Reservoir dam

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Building the Reservoirs

The huge scale of the civil engineering task of building the dams, reservoirs and aqueduct for the Elan Valley waterworks scheme meant that the use of steam-powered machinery was essential. Apart from the elaborate network of the specially constructed railway, which reached 33 miles in length at the peak of the scheme, there were massive self-propelled and stationary steam cranes, stone-cutting saws, and crushing plants. Steam cranes were often operated from railway tracks cantilevered out on the near-vertical faces of the dams.

One of the large stone-crushing machines was able to break up as much as 140 tons in a day. Early equipment powered by compressed air was found to be very valuable in the course of the construction work. The air compressors were then known as "wind-jammers", and they made use of very long tubes to power tools at some distance from the steam-driven power source.

This type of plant was used for drilling rock to make holes for dynamite, for drilling in quarries, and for use in metal working shops.  An account written in 1898 noted that "so widely distributed is the plant that there are something like two miles of tube employed from one station."

Preservation of the landscape around to safeguard the water supply from pollution has transformed the area into a nature reserve.

Claerwen National Nature Reserve is now a lonely expanse of dramatic mountain scenery lying half way between Rhayader and Pontrhydfendigaid.

Although this landscape can seem bleak and inhospitable, in fine weather it is just beautiful. The mainly peaty and acidic soil provides a home for numerous species of plants and animals. The British carnivorous sundew plant or Drosera can be found here, and it is a known breeding site for the rare Merlin and Red Kite birds.

Elan Village Claerwen Reservoir water flowing over dam

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Increasing need for water

The severe drought of 1937 gave warning of increasing need for greater water storage capacity.

The three dams were proposed for the Claerwen Valley 45 years before the drought, as part of the original Elan Valley waterworks scheme of 1892. Yet they had not yet been built, aside from the base of the dam at Dol-y-Mynach. This was constructed early because of its location below the top water level of the Craig Goch reservoir.

The Dam Busters Connection

The Nant-y-Gro dam and a small tributary of the River Elan, which joined it about half a mile upstream from the Caban Coch dam site, was to earn a place in the story of one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War, the Dambusters Raid of 1943.

The small masonry dam was built across the Nant-y-Gro stream in the early stages of the construction of the dams and reservoirs in the Elan Valley. This dam created a million gallon reservoir on the rocky slopes above Caban Coch which was used to provide a water supply fed by a pipeline to the navvies village below.

The supply also filled water storage tanks used by the locomotives, steam cranes, stone cutting machines and other steam driven plant in the two valleys.

After the completion of the waterworks scheme, the Nant-y-Gro dam was no longer needed. The permanent stone-built Elan Village replaced it. The Nant-y-Gro dam, however, was still intact at the time of the war, so the government requested the use of the 35 feet high dam for secret experiments.

These were linked to the wartime military objective of breaching a series of large dams in the Ruhr Valley in Germany in order to disrupt armaments production in the industrial heartlands of the Ruhr below the dams.
A great deal of highly secret experimental work was being carried under the direction of Barnes Wallis. The Nant-y-Gro experiments were preceded by trials on scale models at government research stations near London, involving the detonation of scaled amounts of explosives at varying distances from the walls of the model dams.

In May 1942 the first live explosive tests on the dam itself were carried out in the Elan Valley, watched by Barnes Wallis. These first attempts were spectacular, but they did not seriously damage the Nant-y-Gro dam. This provided a valuable testbed for devising a practical means of breaching the huge Mohne, Eder and other masonry dams.

A further advantage of the use of the Elan Valley site was its remoteness, ideal for top secret trials without fear of being observed!

The 'bouncing bomb':

The so called 'bouncing bomb' was actually a revolving depth charge, to be suspended in a belt-driven cradle beneath a Lancaster bomber.

Resembling a large oil-drum, the bomb was to be set spinning in reverse before being dropped at a height of just 60 feet and at a very precise speed and position in front of the target dam.
The action of the device was to skip across the surface above the defensive netting until making contact with the face of the dam, and then roll down under the surface due to the spinning action of the mine. The depth charge was then intended to detonate underwater right beside the vertical dam wall.

The story of the Dambusters raid itself is well known, and the story here is mainly concerned with the Elan Valley connection. The last stage in the sequence of events, however, was that 19 specially equipped Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron, RAF led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson took off from Scampton in Lincolnshire, England on the night of May 16th/17th, 1943 headed for the Ruhr Valley.
The mission was an exceptionally risky one because of the heavy underslung payload beneath the bombers and the need to approach the targets at a very low altitude, while exposed to heavy defensive ground fire. The Mohne and Eder dams were breached in the attacks, and the Sorpe dam was damaged.

Eight of the 19 aircraft failed to return, and 53 of 133 aircrew were killed in the operation. The outstanding bravery of those involved was recognised by the number of medals awarded, including the Victoria Cross presented to Guy Gibson.
Elan Village Reservoirs Claerwen Reservoir water flowing over dam

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Information

Construction was to be substantially delayed by the two major world wars after the completion of the first Elan Valley phase in 1907.

The ambitious civil engineering project of building the Elan Valley dams and reservoirs in the rugged terrain of mid-Wales lasted in total for thirteen years, from 1893 to 1906. The work was substantially complete, however, by 1904, when the scheme was officially opened by King Edward VII.

Claerwen Reservoir water flow over dam steps

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Building Claerwen Dam

Proposals for the main large new dam in the upper Claerwen Valley were at an advanced stage by early 1939, but the Second World War and the demands of wartime production put even greater strains on existing water supplies.
Increasingly urgent calls for a new dam and reservoir on the Claerwen were to be reactivated soon after the end of the war. Progress in civil engineering techniques and in mechanisation, however, made it easier to build much larger dams by this date

The work carried carried out over a hundred years ago to build the Elan Valley dams and reservoirs was only part of the total project. Almost as impressive was the challenge of delivering the enormous quantities of water by gravity alone, across very hilly country and over many river valleys, to a new reservoir on the outskirts of Birmingham in the Midlands.

This involved constructing a new 73 mile long aqueduct down which the water travels at less than 2 miles per hour, taking one and a half days to get to Birmingham.

Construction of the main dams project was handled by Birmingham Corporation, but work on the aqueduct was by outside contractors. Work on the first 13 miles of the route from the Elan Valley was started in June 1896.
The Elan Valley aqueduct used a combination of three types of construction, depending on the nature of the terrain it had to cross.

"Cut and cover" was essentially a brick lined channel which was manually dug as a trench, then roofed over and concealed underground. The water travels along these sections like an underground stream; 25 miles of the total is of this type.
Where the route of the aqueduct encountered high ground above the gradient needed to maintain the downward slope, tunneling was required using the same type of channel as above. This totalled 12 miles and includes one 4 mile long tunnel.

The third method was the use of pipelines and syphons. This was necessary to cross valleys and rivers where the ground level dropped too steeply for the required hydraulic gradient. The pipeline was continued at the other side of the valley at the same height as the delivery pipe, as the water naturally fills the pipe due to the head of water travelling along behind.

The route of the aqueduct had to cross eleven major valleys.

Most of the pipes were made of cast iron, with some sections, such as the syphon which crosses the River Severn, made of welded steel to cope with very high pressures. The syphon which crosses the Rivers Severn and Stour is 17 miles long.

See links to further information on Elan Valley Aqueducts.

Claerwen Reservoir sign plaque

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Information

The initial dams, reservoirs, and the 73 mile aqueduct of the Elan Valley waterworks were built a hundred years ago to supply desperately needed clean water to Birmingham.

In the closing years of the nineteenth century Birmingham was under pressure from the growing pace of industrialisation. Its population was expanding rapidly as workers and their families were attracted by the prospect of new jobs in the factories and mills, even though living conditions for many in the slum districts of the city were appalling.

Similar problems existed in many other industrial cities in Britain.

Large numbers of people had to use wells polluted by sewage. The crowded and unsanitory conditions often resulted in deadly epidemics of water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

The essential need in order to combat these was an ample supply of clean water, as the water use in the city had doubled between 1876 - 1891. There was no prospect of meeting the ever growing demand for water from existing sources.
The Corporation of Birmingham was anxious to secure new water supplies sufficient to meet its needs for many years ahead. The Water Committee commissioned surveys in 1891 of possible sources of new water, and the area around the valleys of the rivers Elan and Claerwen in mid-Wales, some 75 miles to the west, were ideal.

The choice of the Elan Valley as the source of Birmingham's future water supplies was to lead to the creation of a spectacular new landscape in mid-Wales.

Claerwen Reservoir dam drain

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: High ground, high rainfall

There were a number of reasons for the choice of the Elan Valley district as the source of supply for Birmingham. The annual rainfall was high, and the valleys of the rivers Elan and Claerwen near Rhayader were narrower downstream, making it easier to construct masonry dams.

The city of Birmingham was built on relatively high ground, and the use of reservoirs constructed in the higher moorlands of mid-Wales would allow the water supply to be fed by aqueduct on a suitable gradient by gravity alone, without the need for costly pumping.

Further factors in favour of the area were that the local bedrock was ideal for retaining the water held in the reservoirs. Aso the relatively sparse population a remote upland area lessened the task of securing ownership of over 70 square miles of the watershed.

Only the affected landowners, however, were to be given any financial compensation. The tenant farmers and smallholders, who needed it most, were evicted without recompense. Servants and other workers employed by the two large estates of Cwm Elan and Nantgwyllt also lost their income and their accommodation. It is likely that at least some of these ended up in the Rhayader workhouse.

The Elan Estate is the largest single area of land owned by any of the national water companies - 10% of the total. The Estate has been managed to protect the quality and quantity of the reservoired water since 1892. The 70 square miles of moorland, bog, woodland, river and reservoir are of national importance for their diversity of lower plants. The Estate is the most important area for land birds in Wales.

The Estate consists of rounded hills dissected by steep valleys, many of which are covered in deciduous woodland dominated by Sessile Oak. The better soils of the valleys are now mostly submerged under the reservoirs.

The majority of the Estate is included in a Special Protection Area under the EC Directive on Wild Birds and falls within the Cambrian Mountains Environmentally Sensitive Area. 6,000 ha of the Estate is included in three Special Areas of Conservation under the EC Habitats Directive. 80% of the Estate is contained within 12 separately designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). These cover a range of habitats, from unimproved pasture and species-rich meadows to ancient woodland.

Claerwen Reservoir mountain view

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Information

A member of the Water Committee wrote in 1892 - "The rainfall in these mountains is greatly in excess of that of our own district, owing to the nearness of the mountains to the sea and their lofty height. With the exception of a very small portion of land under cultivation, and a small lead mine employing about 30 men, very high up in the mountains, the moorland waste is only tenanted by a few sheep farmers and their flocks".

Although remote, the flooding of the valleys led to the loss of two historic country houses, both briefly residences of the poet Shelley, and of a church, chapel, schoolhouse, and 18 cottages and farmhouses. Some 400 people were displaced.

Claerwen Reservoir open mountain-top dog walking above reservoir

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Memories of Lost Valleys

Hetty Price, a farmer’s daughter who lived in the lower Claerwen valley in the 1880’s, recorded some of her memories of the lost valleys when she was in her seventies. Her father’s farm was on the other side of the River Claerwen opposite "the Grand Mansion of Nantgwyllt where the Squire lived."

"At Christmas we always had a treat and Christmas tree in the drawing room at Nantgwyllt, and the young ladies waited on us. It was looked forward to for months."

She recalled the old school attended by the children of the two valleys:

"There was a nice School and School-house attached, kept altogether by Miss Gertrude Lewis Lloyd, a sister of the Squire. She was always doing good deeds, giving suits of clothes for the poorer children, and material to make frocks for the girls."
The tiny church which served the community was also remembered:

"Lower down the road from the School was Nantgwyllt Church where most of the children and parents of the two valleys went to worship every Sunday afternoon. The Parson had to come all the way from Rhayader on horse back. He had a very long beard, and we children stood in awe of him, and also the Gentry of Nantgwyllt."

The church was drawn by Eustace Tickell in 1893, as one of a series of charming illustrations reproduced in his book "The Vale of Nantgwilt - A Submerged Valley".

See more on the remarkable history of this lost community in rural Wales here: http://history.powys.org.uk/history/rhayader/memories.html

Elan Village Reservoirs dog walk in mountains above Claerwen reservoir

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: A Lost Community

Hetty Price wrote of the Gro-Mill at Nantgwyllt:

"Just by the Church was the Mill, a lovely quaint old wheel fed by a brook, to saw all the timber for the Estate, and also to grind the oats and barley. Nearly every farmer took their grain to be done in the autumn. There was also a kiln to dry the grain. It was done by night, and most of the young men around would congregate to have a good time around the large fire that was kept up all night.
Recalling the lost community

A little shop is mentioned in Hetty Price's account of the lost community:

"Further down the road was Seth Thomas’s Shop where they sold most things, flour and grocery and bottles of sweets, but it was very rare indeed that we should have a penny to buy them."

Claerwen Reservoir view of dam from reservoir water level

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Workers Town Built Specially

As the new dams and reservoirs were being built in such a remote location, it was necessary to construct a temporary "navvies village" to house the large number of workmen employed on the project and, in many cases, their wives and children as well.

A Birmingham Corporation official remarked that "the settlement designed by the Committee may be regarded as a model village, and should serve as an example to other public bodies."

The small market town of Rhayader could not accommodate many of them, and it was, in any case, some eight or nine miles from the remotest parts of the huge site. The location chosen for the "model village" of accommodation huts, accident hospital, public hall, school, shop and other facilities was on the bank of the River Elan below the site of the lowest of the dams at Caban Coch.

Claerwen Reservoir dam flowing with water

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: No Outsiders Allowe

The new village was purposely sited on the opposite side of the river to the road from Rhayader, so that access to the village could be strictly controlled. No outsiders were allowed to enter the village without permission.
The Water Committee of Birmingham Corporation was justifiably proud of the very high standards of the provisions made for its workers on the waterworks scheme, which were very much better than those for most other major civil engineering projects of the time.

In return for this commendable treatment of its employees, the Corporation not unreasonably insisted upon high standards of work and behaviour from all who were employed on the project, and from all who were permitted to stay in the village.

See more on the history of Elan Village - it makes fascinating reading!

Claerwen Reservoir valley as seen from the dam

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: The Doss House

People were attracted to the Elan Valley in large numbers as the massive construction project got under way, drawn by the prospect of employment which could last for several years.

New arrivals who were seeking work at the construction site were not allowed to enter the village without first spending a week in the rather spartan "Doss House" on the other side of the river. They had to take a bath, have their clothes and possessions disinfected, and undergo a medical examination.

These precautions were very necessary in order to keep the large community in the village free of the infectious diseases which were very common at that time.

Advice on the running of the Doss House was provided by Branwell Booth of the Salvation Army, which had experience of providing basic dormitories for vagrants in London. Access to the village was over a suspension bridge.

This bridge was guarded round the clock by a bridge keeper. He carefully examined the contents of every cart making deliveries (right) and ensured that only employees and family members could enter the workers' village.

Two watchmen continually patrolled the village at night to guard against crime or the risk of fire among the closely packed wooden buildings.

Read more on the History Of Elan Village and the community - again, fascinating reading. Follow all the page links through for an excellent study of what the reservoir covered over.

Elan Village Reservoirs, Pen y Garreg dam water spilling over dam

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: Accident & Emergency

There were two hospitals provided for the hundreds of workers employed during the building of the Elan Valley dams. An accident hospital was sited alongside the navvies village on the far bank of the Elan River, and an isolation hospital was provided on the other side well away from the close-packed village community. Both were much needed at the time.

An 1897 photograph of the main ward in the Accident Hospital in the village (see link below) shows the very high standards of the facilities. This was dangerous industrial work, accidents happened, and the hospital provided an A&E service. The floor was carpeted, and there was ample heating and even plants and flowers in the ward.

A contemporary report on the services provided in the navvies village in the Elan Valley referred to the work of the accident hospital: "Most of the cases arise through the men either falling on the rocks, or through rocks falling on them. Injuries to the eye are also frequent in the masons yard. Occasionally an accident occurs through the careless use of explosives, and there have in addition been two or three deaths through men being crushed on the railways".

The separate isolation hospital for infectious diseases was to prove its worth in 1896, when a severe smallpox epidemic, which spread through the west of England and south Wales, was kept out of the village.

"Notwithstanding the large number of tramps coming to the works, the village was fortunately preserved from any outbreak of smallpox, and it is only reasonable to suppose that the precautions taken prevented what would, under the special circumstances of the place, have proved a dire disaster".

See more on the history of Elan Village Hospital.

Pen y Garreg dam, Elan village reservoirs, water spilling over

Elan Village and Claerwen Reservoir Dog Walk and Driving Tour: A self contained community

The new Elan village grew steadily, becoming totally self-sufficient with a post-office, stores, community hall, public baths, washhouses, and even a gymnasium all being provided for the workers and their families. Newspapers and books were provided in the recreation room, and writing classes were laid on to help workers to keep in touch with friends and families.

Many workers were itinerant men who stayed a while and moved on. A contemporary report noted that "the navvy leads a peculiarly roving life". Over 50,000 men were employed on the construction sites over the 13 years of the waterworks scheme.

By March 1895 the population of the village had reached 1,000, growing to 1,500 three years later.

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