The Elan Valley Estate is the location of a dam and reservoir created to supply Birmingham with fresh water. The city needed the increased supply desperately due to the growth of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and the spread of water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera.
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The Elan and Claerwen valleys were chosen due to the average annual rainfall of 1830mm, narrow downstream valleys making dam building easier, impermeable bedrock which prevented water seepage, and altitude—the area was higher than Birmingham thus allowing gravity to transport the water.
An act of Parliament was passed to purchase the 180 square kilometres of land, and building work began in 1893. The 100 occupants of the Elan valley were forced to move with only landowners receiving any monies. Many of the valley buildings were demolished, including three manor houses, 18 farms, a school, and a church.
Included in the construction was a railway line to haul the workers and building materials to the site. The total time needed for completion was three years. Where Elan village is today was once a wooden hut village for housing the workers. Any children of workers were allowed to go to school until age 11, then they were put to work. The hut village included a hospital, bath house, and a pub for men only. A library, public hall, shop, and canteen were provided.
There were two phases to the construction. The first was in the Elan valley and the second the Claerwen. Local rock was used for the inside of the dams, but they were faced with stone from Glamorgan. When all was completed in July 1904 King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra opened the three Elan dams which created four reservoirs: Craig Goch, Pen-y-Garreg, Garreg-Ddu, and Caban-Coch. The water began to flow along the 118km pipeline to Birmingham.
The total cost was £6 million and the construction had employed 50,000 men. Up to 300 million litres of water a day from the Elan valley can be used to supply Birmingham. Hydroelectric turbines at the base of all the dams and one in the Foel tower (52m high above the Frankley reservoir in Birmingham) provide an energy output of 4.6 megawatts. The Elan river which flows into the River Wye can be replenished from the Caban Coch reservoir.
Further construction took place in 1946, having been delayed by two world wars. One large dam, creating the Claerwen reservoir, was constructed of concrete and stone faced by 100 Italian stonemasons. 470 men worked on this dam and completed it in 1952. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II.
An exhibition details information on the water supply, local history, and wildlife. There are 12 sites of Special Scientific Interest in the estate. Oak woodlands, flower rich meadows, heather moorland and raised mires make up the countryside. The estate also includes the Claerwen National Nature Reserve.
There are walks and nature trails in the valley and a wood nature trail. Birds can be seen at all seasons with the best viewing time in May and June. 180 species have been recorded. There is a hide at Dolymynach.
Elan Valley Visitor Centre and Estate
On the B4518 from Rhayader at Elan village
Tel. 0 1597 810 898
Open: Easter-end Oct, daily, 10am-6pm
Shop; café; picnic area; guided walks; exhibition on wildlife, water supply and history of the area; special events, birdwatching trips; parking; picnic areas; play area for children
Web: Elan Valley
Photos © by Barbara Ballard and courtesy Geograph Britain and Ireland as follows:
Syphon house by DI Wyman; Elan valley scene and Garreg-ddu by Andrew Hill; old bridge by Claire Ward; Elan valley view by Ian Paterson; Elan valley Foel tower and Elan valley aqueduct at Hope Bagot by Mr M Evison; Elan valley waterworks by Trevor Littlewood; Elan Valley visitor centre water turbine by Chris Allen; Elan valley trees by Nicholas Mutton.