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Historic Landscapes

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley

CPAT PHOTO 1941-55


The following description, taken from the Historic Landscapes Register, identifies the essential historic landscape themes in the Elan Valley historic landscape area.

This remote area includes the larger part of the catchment of the river Elan and its tributary, the river Claerwen, which drain the south eastern side of the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales. It comprises an extensive area of heavily dissected upland plateau between abut 400m and 550m above OD, with the deeply incised valleys of the Elan and Claerwen providing the only routes east-west across this otherwise isolated and deserted part of Wales. The valley floors fall from over 300m above OD in the west to 200m above OD in the east, from where the river Elan continues to flow for a short distance beyond the area described here, to join the river Wye south of Rhayader.

This area is a prime example in Wales of a landscape showing human endeavour on a grand scale, having been substantially altered by major civil engineering projects connected with the water industry and its managed estate. The projects encompass the construction of a series of massive dams and ancillary works undertaken in two principal states between the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries. The first stage was amongst the greatest 19th century civil engineering achievements in the whole of Britain, and was reported once as being the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

The series of reservoirs, known collectively as the Elan Valley, was started by the Birmingham Corporation in 1893, with the commencement of the Caban-coch dam. This massive structure and its three subsidiary dams were described in an official report of the time as being ‘of cyclopean rubble embedded in concrete and faced up-stream and down-stream with shaped stones arranged in snecked courses’. By the time they were completed in 1904, the Corporation had not only built the expected range of straining and valve towers, settling tanks, filter beds and other machine and generator houses necessary to control the water level and maintain its steady flow, but also enclosed most the land immediately surrounding the reservoirs with a succession of massive stone walls and elaborate boundaries to protect the water from contamination. The height of the reservoirs enabled water to reach the outskirts of Birmingham by gravity alone, without the expense of pumping, along a remarkable system of buried aqueducts, 126km long. The Birmingham Corporation employed direct labour for the scheme, which involved the construction of a railway to transport materials from the Cambrian Railways at Rhayader; in excess of 50 kilometres of track had to be laid to serve the various construction sites. Between 1906 and 1909, a small, high quality garden village in distinctive Arts and Crafts style, comprising a neat collection of detached and semi-detached stone houses ranged along the southern bank of the Elan, was built at the foot of the main dam to house those destined to work at and maintain the machinery and apparatus of the dam complex. The village included a school, a shop and an estate office.

Much of this imposed landscape has survived more or less unaltered since the turn of the century as the estate has been strictly managed, to preserve water purity, by successive water boards and companies. The landscape has, therefore, avoided many of the recent trends for large-scale forestry and other upland agricultural improvements. Provision was made for the future expansion of the original scheme with the construction of the Claerwen dam in the adjacent valley during 1948–52, making the Elan Valley complex one of the largest drinking water supply schemes in Britain with a combined capacity of over 100 billion litres. Since the privatization of the water companies, the ownership and management of the Elan Valley Estate has been passed to a charitable trust, which is charged with preserving the area’s unique heritage and continuing its sympathetic management. This will, hopefully, maintain the landscapes atmosphere and serenity.

The remote and inaccessible upland areas which surround the reservoirs are liberally scattered with spectacular Bronze Age burial cairns and standing stones, while there is a Roman marching camp at Esgair Perfedd. In the medieval period, the area was part of the extensive Cwmteuddwr grange of common pasture and isolated holdings belonging to the Cistercian Abbey at Strata Florida, Ceredigion. There are also post-medieval farmsteads, and a considerable number of late 18th and early 19th century mining sites and industrial monuments. Although physically dwarfed by, and secondary to, the theme of this landscape, many of these sites have been so well-preserved by the estate that they form a valuable historic adjunct to an otherwise modern landscape. The area also has important associations with Percy Bysshe Shelley who extolled the virtues of its character whilst writing his poetry at Nantgwyllt.

The Making of the Elan Valley Landscape

Though representing a quintessential Victorian and early Edwardian designed landscape, the Birmingham Corporation reservoir scheme in the Elan Valley was in fact superimposed upon a much more ancient landscape which had developed over the course of many thousands of years. The forces which have helped to form this special landscape are outlined in the following sections.

Environments, Boundaries and Perceptions


Early Settlement and Land Use

Medieval and Early Post-Medieval Land Use and Settlement

Landed Estates and Agricultural Improvements in the 18th and 19th Centuries

Metal Mining in the Late 18th and 19th Centuries

Early Transport and Communication

Literary and Antiquarian Associations

The Elan Valley Reservoir Scheme

Other sources of information

Further sources of information on the Elan Valley can be found in various published and unpublished sources.

Published and unpublished sources of information

Other websites with information about the Elan Valley

Character areas

The following historic landscape character areas have been defined within the historic landscape area.

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Character areas defined in the Elan Valley Historic Landscape

CPAT PHOTO 1526.14

1131 Elan Valley Reservoirs character area. Diverse landscape within, around and below the Victorian and Edwardian reservoir scheme, including dams, reservoirs and ancillary structures, remains of features associated with construction, the flooded landscape in the valley bottoms exposed periodically when the water level is low, together with conifer plantations, remnant natural and semi-natural broadleaved woodland, fields and farms around the valley sides. Photo: CPAT 1526.14. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 1538.15

1132 Elan Village character area. Small and well-preserved estate village with stone-built houses, school, estate office in Arts and Crafts style built by City of Birmingham Corporation largely in 1909. Photo: CPAT 1538.15. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0658

1133 Claerwen character area. Dam and reservoir constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s to enhance Birmingham’s water supplies from the Elan valley, built in a style which harmonizes with the earlier Elan Valley reservoirs. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0658. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0607

1134 Cwm Elan Mine character area. Compact and well-preserved former lead and zinc mining landscape, principally of the late 19th century, with traces of earlier mining remains. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0607. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0669

1135 Dalrhiw character area. Dispersed copper and lead mining landscape of the mid to late 19th century in the Claerwen valley and adjacent upland stream valleys, comprising the Nant y Car North, Nant y Car South, Dalrhiw and Nantygarw mining sets. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0669. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0653

1136 Elenydd character area. Extensive, unenclosed moorland with small upland lakes, peat bogs, prehistoric funerary and ritual monuments and small and dispersed medieval to early post-medieval encroachments. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0653. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0688

1137 Cwm Dulas character area. Landscape of dispersed farms and small irregular fields of medieval and later origin in upland valley between Carn Gafallt and the Elenydd uplands, with indications of much earlier, prehistoric activity. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0688. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0687

1138 Carn Gafallt character area. Small isolated upland area between the Cwm Elan and Cwm Dulas valleys with steep, wooded sides, now partly managed as a nature reserve, with prehistoric burial monuments and traces of possibly post-medieval cultivation. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0687. (back to map)

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CPAT PHOTO 03-c-0691

1139 Deuddwr character area. Undulating lowland fieldscapes and farms of medieval and later origin along the lower Elan valley and its confluence, between Elan Village and Llansantffraid Cwmteuddwr, to the west of Rhayader. Photo: CPAT 03-c-0691. (back to map)

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For further information please contact the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust at this address, or link to the Countryside Council for Wales' web site at

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