The Elan Valley
To the west of Rhayader is the Elan Valley Estate, owned by Welsh Water and managed by the Elan Valley Trust, the series of reservoirs set in the outstanding scenery of the Elan and Claerwen Valleys have created what is known as the Lakeland of Wales.
History: In the 19th century, at the time of the Industrial Revolution Joseph Chamberlain, then leader of Birmingham City Council, set about finding a clean water supply for the City.
The Elan and Claerwen Valleys had been identified by the engineer James Mansergh as having the best potential for water storage - with
• An average annual rainfall of 72 inches (1830mm).
• Narrow downstream valleys which made building the dams easier.
• Impermeable bedrock preventing the water seeping away.
• Altitude - the area is mostly higher than Birmingham enabling the water to be transported by gravity alone, without the need to be pumped.
An Act of Parliament was passed for the compulsory purchase of the area and in 1893 the building work began. Over 100 occupants of the Elan Valley had to move, only landowners received compensation payments. Many buildings were demolished, among them 2 manor houses, 18 farms, a school and a church (which was replaced by the corporation as the Nantgwyllt Church).
A railway line was constructed to transport the workers and thousands of tonnes of building material each day and a village of wooden huts was purpose built to house many of the workers on the site of the present Elan Village.
The Elan Valley Dams were officially opened by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on 21st July 1904, and the later built Claerwen Dam was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952.
Present Day: 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 area to prevent pollution of the reservoirs has safeguarded the habitats of numerous species of flora and fauna and now the 70 square miles of moorland, bog, woodland, river and reservoir are of national importance for their diversity of lower plants (ferns, mosses, lichens and liverworts) and the Estate is the most important area for land birds in Wales.
The Elan Valley Trail, follows the route of the old railway and runs for 13 kilometres (8 miles) from Cwmdauddwr (just outside Rhayader) to Craig Goch Dam. It has been made accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs, walkers, cyclists and horse riders.
Gwestedyn is the hill rising to the south east of the town and identified by a cairn on its highest point. Known as a local vantage point it is well worth the walk to gain excellent views over the town and surrounding countryside. It is also famed for the annual hill race which takes place during Carnival Week in July – from the town clock to the top of Gwestedyn and back!
The River Wye
The River Wye, or Afon Gwy, is one of the cleanest rivers in Britain and is great for wildlife. Its whole length and many of its tributaries are designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and among the wildlife that inhabit the river are salmon, grayling, trout and lampreys, otters and water voles, dippers, kingfishers, grey wagtails, goosanders and common sandpipers, damselflies and dragonflies.
The town’s Riverside Walk is a good place to look for wildlife and follows an interesting and attractive path which takes in both the parks - Waun Capel Park below St Clements Church and The Gro Park over the bridge in Cwmdeuddwr. There are excellent picnic spots and benches with views of Gwastedyn Hill and the waterfalls that gave Rhayader its name.
According to legend the Rivers Wye, Severn and Ystwyth, which all arise on Plynlimon, once discussed the best route to the sea, and the Wye chose the prettiest route. The Wye Valley Walk, which follows the river for 136 miles from its source to its mouth near Chepstow, passes through Rhayader on its way.