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Elan Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley


Early Tracks and Drove-ways

Various tracks and paths became established across the historic landscape area from early times. Early routes no doubt included ones which gave access to early settlements the Elan and Claerwen valleys from the Wye valley, as well as the mountain route from the Wye valley to Cwmystwyth via the upper Elan valley, a line of communication which the Roman marching camp on Esgair Perfedd suggests has been in use since at least Roman times. This route is shown on a number of late 17th and early 18th century maps, including Morden’s map of South Wales published in Camden’s Britannia of 1695. Other early routes across Elenydd were one linking Claerwen valley with the upper reaches of the Teifi valley and Tregaron, and another which strikes off across the mountain from the direction of the upper Teifi valley towards Aberglanhirin in the upper Elan valley and then directly down to the Wye valley near Llangurig.

Many of these early routes were only suitable for those travelling on foot or on horseback, though a horse-drawn wheeled sledge known as a ‘wheel-car’ (sled olwynion) is known to have been used in the area before the advent of mechanised transport which was ideal for carrying loads of peat, hay, heather or even fern across the wet moorland and steep valley sides. A sledge of this kind, a typical form of agricultural transport on early farms in Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire, was photographed in the Elan valley by Iorwerth Peate in the early 20th century.

A number of the routes across the mountains formed part of recognised drovers’ ways across Radnorshire linking Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion farms with the market towns in either the English Midlands, a trade in its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Four routes have been suggested across Elenydd from the account books of 19th-century drovers, early maps, earthwork and place-name evidence. The most northerly drove-way across Elenydd, leading to Shrewsbury and the north Midlands, went from Cwmystwyth (Ceredigion), along the upper Ystwyth valley and across Yr Allt to Llangurig (Montgomeryshire). A branch from this route probably also struck off along the turnpike road along the upper Ystwyth and Elan valleys to Rhayader. A further drove took cattle either via Llangurig or Rhayader, on a route from Ffair Rhos (Ceredigion) via the upper Claerddu and Claerwen valleys and the ‘Ancient Road’ to join the Cwmystyth-Rhayader road near Aber Glanhirin or to continue northwards into the Wye valley by way of Cefn Bach. The further drove-way from Pontrhydfendigaid (Ceredigion), appears to have gone via Strata Florida, the upper Irfon valley, across Drygarn Fawr, and along the Rhiwnant valley to the lower Claerwen valley and thence to Rhayader via the Elan valley. This appears to have shared part of the same course as a drove from Tregaron (Ceredigion) which crossed the southern tip of Elenydd before taking a course along the Irfon valley to Abergwesyn (Breconshire).

A number of the routes across Elenydd are popularly held to have monastic associations, and although this historical association is uncertain a number of the routes are undoubtedly of considerable antiquity. The ‘Ancient Road’ mentioned above is shown on Ordnance Survey maps of the 1890s and is known colloquially as the ‘Monks’ Way’ or ‘Monks’ Trod’, supposedly linking the Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida with its daughter house at Cwmhir. It was popularised in John Williams’s History of Radnorshire, compiled in the early 19th century, which envisaged the monks of the monastic grange at Nant Madoc, near Elan Village, visiting their mother house at Strata Florida,

‘either for the purpose of their mutual peace and edification, or for consulting together on their temporary interests; and it is recorded that the inhabitants of this religious establishment were accustomed on certain periodical seasons, to visit their brethren in the abbey of Strata Florida . . . marching over the hills in procession, and making the rocks re-echo their loud and chaunted hymns. Their road over the mountains may at this date be traced.’


A few of these early tracks and routes across the mountains were to be improved during the course of the 18th and early 19th century to enable them to carry wheeled transport, in response to the increasing demands of trade, tourists and mail. The most prominent of these was the most direct route between Aberystwyth to Rhayader road across Elenydd, via Devil’s Bridge and Cwmystyth, which was made into a toll road in about 1790. Surviving from this period are two typical early 19th-century round-headed roadside milestones, one to the east of Pont ar Elan and the other to the south of Dderw, inscribed with distances from Aberystwyth and Rhayader.

For many English travellers the sudden transition from lowland to upland scenery as they progressed on their coach journeys across Elenydd west of Rhayader often came as a shock. To quote Richard Moore-Colyer ‘Henry Skrine wrote of his state of ‘perpetual alarm’ as he ascended the rocky road out of the town and subsequently lamented the dreary, treeless expanse of open hill which he traversed ‘in mournful silence’. A more measured tone is registered in the diary of the scientist Michael Faraday in 1819: ‘After a while we got among more mountains and nothing but large concave forms met the eye for a long time. Lively little catle with myriads of sheep now and then diversified the general monotony’. By 1829 this mountain route had been replaced as the main road between Aberystwyth and Rhayader by the more lowland road along the Rheidol and Wye valleys via Ponterwyd and Llangurig (A44/A470) which is now main route.

For a time, between the late 18th and the coming of the railways in the later 19th century there were occasional conflicts between the turnpike roads and the drovers and other travellers. Where possible, drovers would endeavour to keep to the unpaved mountain routes to avoid the tolls. The charges levied on other road users became very unpopular and gave rise to the ‘Rebecca Riots’ in parts of Wales. Trouble arose locally around Rhayader in 1842. In early September two gates where the Aberystwyth road branched off beyond the bridge over the Wye were destroyed and in the following month one of the most violent incidents of the riots took place halfway across the mountains at the Bodtalog tollgate, near Abergwngu Hill, when the lone woman who kept the gate was nearly blinded a powder-loaded gun. The riots resulted in a change in the law which established the County Road Boards which took over the responsibilities of the turnpike trusts from 1845.


The drovers’ roads across Elenydd were to come to an end with the coming of the railways. This was marked locally by the Mid-Wales Railway from Llanidloes to Builth Road which opened in 1864 and which runs across the historic landscape area to the west of Rhayader. The railway closed in 1962, just under a century later, due to competition with road transport, the disused line of the railway still being marked by a cutting and by the short, 271-yard tunnel about half a kilometre south of Rhayader. The junction with the former Elan Valley Railway, just to the south of the tunnel, is described below.

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