A Rich History
The Elan Valley has a rich and intricate history spanning many eras. Though not always the focal point, receiving the spotlight only within the more recent centuries, the valley has remained a stunning backdrop for human history for millennia.
Microliths, Cairns and the Caban Coch Hoard
~ 9000 BC
Although having visited Wales (and other parts of Britain) during warmer seasons by around 31,000 BC, humans first made Wales their permanent home after the end of the last Ice Age, around 9,000 BC, as the climate became warmer and able to support continuous habitation.
~ 8000 BC – 5000 BC
From around 8000 to 6000 BC, as the Ice Age continued to thaw, sea levels rose and Wales became roughly the shape it is today. By 5000 BC, temperatures were actually higher than they are today, encouraging birch woodlands to spread and supporting Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Their presence has been recorded here in the Elan in the form of flint microliths.
~ 4000 BC
The domestication of animals and cultivation of plants heralded the Neolithic period in Britain. These innovations arrived in Britain some 6000 years ago, leading to the first farming communities.
~ 3000 BC – 2000 BC
The Bell-beaker Culture arrived in Britain by around 2500 BC, replacing the Neolithic population. Innovations in technology grew rapidly and early communities thrived under the discovery of copper and tin. Complex social rituals were practiced; the dead were venerated by constructing cairns and erecting large standing stones, such as those at Carnau Cefn-ffordd and Drygarn Fawr. A Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age dolerite battle axe was discovered in a cairn at Clap-yr-Arian. Copper objects were developed around 2400 BC; a primitive, copper ceremonial axe dating to this era holds the title of the oldest metal archaeological find in the valley.
~ 2000 BC – 700 BC
The Bell-beaker Culture gave way to Atlantic Bronze Age societies. From around 2100 BC, smiths discovered how to smelt bronze and, over the next thousand years, bronze gradually replaced stone as the main material for tools and weapons. An Early Bronze Age ogival dagger was unearthed whilst peat digging and a Middle Bronze Age Rapier was discovered on Drygarn Fawr. More famously, however, was the discovery of four bronze socketed axe heads, dubbed the Caban Coch Hoard, unearthed in 1895.
~ 500 BC – AD 48
By around 500 BC, the British Isles were home to many tribal communities. Much of modern-day England, Wales and likely parts of Scotland were inhabited by Brythonic tribes, or Britons. The Llanwrthwl Hoard, four stunning gold torcs, were discovered just outside of the Elan Links area in Llanwrthwl during the 1950s, suggesting that the Elan Valley was once home to high-ranking Britons.
Esgair Perfedd, Roman Jewellery and the Nant-y-beddau Stones
In AD 48, the Roman Era of Wales began. Roman General Julius Caesar had previously landed on mainland Britain in 54 BC and again in 45 BC but the Roman Conquest of Britain began in earnest in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius.
Despite fierce resistance from the Ordovices, a tribe led by chieftain Caratacus, by AD 52 most of the tribes inhabiting Wales were subjugated. It’s possible that the tribes of Wales and the Romans alike used the Elan Valley as a place of worship due to its natural beauty.
Under Roman occupation, military camps were established around the AD 70s. The Elan Valley must have been a significant area, important enough to host a Roman marching camp, Esgair Perfedd, which falls within the Elan Estate.
AD 87 – AD 400
From roughly AD 87 to AD 400, Wales and England were under Roman occupation. Gorgeous Roman jewellery was discovered here in 1899, dating to the 1st and 2nd centuries. The collapse and withdrawal of Roman occupation in Britain left Wales to fend for itself against Scoti (Irish raiders), Pictish and Saxon invasions. There was a huge influx of Irish settlers across west Wales. There’s some potential evidence for Irish settlement in the valley as one of the three “Nant-y-beddau Stones” may contain Ogham, an early Irish writing system. Despite these raids, the first Welsh kingdoms emerged.
Sub-Roman and the Middle Ages
Arthurian Lergends, an Elenydd Ambush and Gerald of Wales
AD 400 – 1000
Welsh culture and identity grew. Legends with roots that pre-date Roman occupation were passed down through generations by poets and bards. The Historia Brittonum, c. 828 AD, preserves a legend which took place right here in the valley at Carngafallt, with the legend retold in the Arthurian Welsh romance Culhwch ac Olwen, featuring the fabled King Arthur.
Just a year after the Norman Conquest of England, the first of the Welsh kingdoms was overrun by the Normans.
For the next 200 years, the Normans monopolised on Welsh infighting, gaining land and influence. Throughout the end of the 11th century and much of the 12th, ownership of the commote of Cwmteuddwr was contested between the Welsh kingdom of Deheubarth and the Anglo-Norman Marcher lords. Not all was grim warfare, however; in 1164, a Norman knight, Robert FitzStephen, granted land to the monks of Whitland Abbey in Carmarthenshire. With patronage from Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys), the Cistercian Strata Florida Abbey was founded. Upland Elenydd pools supplied the monastery with fresh eels and trout.
Toward the end of the 12th century, Wales was shrinking under raids and Norman incursions. By this time, Rhys ap Gruffydd ruled much of Wales through Deheubarth. Elfael, a region which lies in modern day Radnorshire, was overseen by Lord Einion Clud. Maen-serth roughly marks the location of Einion’s death at the hands of Roger de Mortimer, who ambushed him in the winter of 1176.
It’s probable that Rhys ap Gruffydd built Rhayader Castle the following year in 1177.
The lands of Cwmteuddwr parish, including the Elan and Claerwen areas, were given to the Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida by Rhys ap Gruffydd in 1184.
1188 – 1194
In 1191, Gerald of Wales was selected to accompany the Archbishop of Canterbury, touring Wales on a recruitment campaign for the Third Crusade. In 1191, Gerald produced the Itinerarium Cambriae. His work included a description of the Elenydd area, thus producing the first written historical record of the Elan Valley.
1196 – 1197
After King Henry II’s death, Rhys ap Gruffydd believed he was no longer bound by the agreements he had shared with the late king. Rhys attacked Norman lords encroaching on his land and defeated an army led by Roger Mortimer and Hugh de Say near Radnor though at a considerable price: 40 knights were slain in this last battle fought by Rhys, who died unexpectedly in 1197.
Late Middle Ages
Politics, Prized Elenydd Wool and the Dissolution of Strata Florida Abbey
Considerably after the death of Rhys ap Gruffydd, Llywelyn Fawr ruled much of Wales through the northern kingdom of Gwynedd. Llywelyn Fawr expanded his domain further with the Elan Valley and the surrounding area changing hands. In 1231, Llywelyn destoryed Rhayader Castle and it was subsequently never rebuilt.
Strata Florida Abbey became the venue for Llywelyn Fawr’s famous council where he met with fellow Welsh rulers, asking them to acknowledge and swear featly to his only legitimate (but not eldest) son, Dafydd.
1200 – 1300
After the death of Llywelyn Fawr, the Edwardian Conquest brought Wales under the rule of Edward I. A ring of mighty castles was built in north Wales to solidify Edward’s rule. Edward ordered the clearance of the Elenydd area due to “the trees sheltering thieves.”
1300 – 1400
Throughout the 14th century, monks exported wool from the Elan Valley as to as far as Flanders and Florence where it was highly prized.
1401 – 1415
A dispute between neighboring land owners, Lord Grey Ruthin and Owain Glyndŵr sparked a fourteen year-long rebellion against King Henry IV. Strata Florida Abbey was repurposed by Henry IV as a military base from which to quell the rebellion. The abbey was subsequently returned to the Cistercians with the end of the rebellion.
1536 – 1538
The Act of Union brought Wales under English law in 1536 and the legal system of England replaced the native laws of Wales. Two years later, John Leland, an English antiquarian, was sent by King VIII to access Strata Florida Abbey. Leland recorded his encounters with the local Elenydd herdsmen, who told him a local legend concerning a giant named Arthur.
With Henry VIII’s Reformations of the Church came the dissolution of the monasteries, a policy which had been introduced in 1536. Monasteries were closed, their lands and wealth in England and Wales confiscated. This included Strata Florida Abbey in 1539.
One of the earliest references to the local growing of corn was in a lease of the farm of Ciloerwynt in the Claerwen Valley in 1569.
Early Modern Period
Gwaith-y-mwynau Mine, the English Civil War and Bowles’ ‘Coombe-Ellen’
Gwaith-y-mwynau Mine was owned by Sir Hugh Middleton who, in 1609, began the construction of a 61km canal to gravity feed fresh water into the city of London, known as the New River. His work was completed in 1613.
1632 – 1651
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, most of Wales sided with the Royalists. Wales was crucial for raising recruits and money for the Royalist cause. Gwaith-y-mwynau Mine provided silver to finance the royalist war effort of King Charles I.
English poet, critic and clergyman William Lisle Bowles visited the Elan Valley in 1798, producing the poem Coombe-Ellen, an enormous 351-line piece expressing his vivid appreciation for the life and beauty of nature in the area.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Rebecca Riots and the Construction of the Dams
Thomas Grove Jr, cousin to famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, became Master of the Elan Valley Estate in 1809.
Shelley visited the Elan Valley between June and August of 1811.
In April, Shelley returned with his wife Harriet to settle into the Elan Valley, this time residing at Nantgwyllt House. Financial and political circumstances force them out of their home by June.
1843 – 1844
Economic depression and the long-standing discontentment with the tolls charged by the Turnpike Trusts led to the Rebecca Riots, so named because of the rioters disguising themselves as women. The Turnpike tollhouse known as Blaenycwm tollgate, located at the top of the Elan Valley, was attacked by rioters in 1843.
1877 – 1899
After a vein of lead ore was discovered around 1877, work began at the Nant y Garw Mine in 1882. The mine switched hands from Builth Lead Mining Co Ltd to Nantygarw Mining Co Ltd until work was abandoned in 1899.
The rapid development of the industrial city of Birmingham led to the lack of clean, available water. The people of Birmingham relied on unsanitary water, leading to outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and dysentery. This caused the Birmingham City Council to petition to the British Government, passing the Birmingham Corporation Water Act in 1892 which was signed by Queen Victoria in July of the same year. This Act of Parliament allowed for the compulsory purchase of the watershed land within the Elenydd area for the purpose of constructing reservoirs, dams and filter stations for collecting, cleaning and directing drinking water to Birmingham.
1893 – 1896
A year after the Birmingham Corporation Water Act was signed, construction of the dams began. A railway line was constructed over three years and a village of wooden huts was built to house the labourers at Elan Village.
The construction of the aqueduct began in 1896, carried out by outside contractors in allotted sections.
1903 – 1914
From 1903 to 1914, the Elan Valley hosted annual exercises from the Royal Garrison Artillery who camped across the moors with batteries of howitzers. By 1904, the construction of the dams had been completed. The foundations of Dol y Mynach Dam were also laid in phase one. On July 21st 1904 King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra opened the dams and just a week later on July 28th 1904, the first continuous flow of water through the aqueduct took place.
1914 – 1918
The building of the second phase was delayed due to the First World War. Special Constables were brought from Birmingham into the valley to guard the treatment works.
1939 – 1945
During World War II, full time guards were placed at both ends of the road into and out of the valley. From 1940 to 1941, pillboxes were built to protect the water supply from attacks. In October of 1940, motor launches provided by the Admiralty were placed on several reservoirs. However, this scheme was abandoned after a month when armoured cars took over.
In order to accommodate the growing demand for water by Birmingham, work began in 1946 on the construction of the ambitious Claerwen Dam. Although built out of concrete, the huge dam was faced with dressed stone at considerable extra cost in order to match the appearance of the other dams.
On October 23rd, 1952, Queen Elizabeth II opened Claerwen Dam as one of her first duties as monarch.
The first Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), was designated on the Estate in 1965.
In 1974, the individual water companies were designated and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water was given responsibility for the Elan Estate, dams and reservoirs.
In 1985, the Elan Valley Visitor Centre opened.
The Elan Valley was included in the Cambrian Mountains Environmentally Sensitive Area in 1989 and The Elan Valley Trust was established after privatisation of the water companies. The Trust’s responsibilities include protecting the wildlife of the estate and encouraging public access and understanding.
In 1995, Elenydd-Mallaen was designated a Special Protection Area under the European Wild Birds Directive.
In 2002, the Claerwen Dam celebrated its half-centenary with the dam opened for visitors to look inside.
The Elan Valley celebrated their half-centenary with a series of special events.
Having been in development since 2013, the Elan Links scheme began. Elan Links is a National Lottery Heritage funded scheme which aims to secure this heritage and boost the opportunities available in the Elan Valley for the future.