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Elan Valley
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Elan Valley


The history of the Elan valley today is dominated by two gentry mansions of Nantgwyllt and Cwm Elan, both now submerged below the reservoir, the families associated with them, and the inspiration they gave to several English poets of the romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. The literary associations, though short-lived, have a profound and enduring effect upon our appreciation of the drowned landscapes of the Elan valley at the present day.

CPAT PHOTO 1539.03

Remains of the walled garden at Nantgwyllt, normally hidden below the Caban-coch reservoir, except during periods of low water. The ruins of the house inspired Francis Brett Young’s A House Under the Water, published in 1932. Photo: CPAT 1539.03.

As noted in the section on landed estates, the first of the poets to commemorate the Elan valley in verse was William Lisle Bowles, friend of Thomas Grove senior of Cwm Elan house. An edition of his extended blank-verse poem entitled ‘Coombe-Ellen’, published in 1801 is accompanied by an engraving ‘from a drawing by Mrs. Grove’. In the words of Desmond Hawkins, the poem begins with an ‘invocation to the spirit of wild untamed Nature’:

‘Call the strange spirit that abides unseen
In wilds, and wastes, and shaggy solitudes,
And bid this dim hand lead thee through these scenes
That burst immense around! By mountains, glens,
And solitary cataracts that dash
Through dark ravines.’

The Groves subsequently became related by marriage with the Bysshe Shelley family, one of whom in 1784 was High Sheriff of Radnorshire. The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley came to Elan valley and stayed a month as the guest of his cousin, Thomas Grove, at the ‘neat and elegant mansion’ of Cwm-Elan in 1811. This was several months after the young poet had been sent down from Oxford following his co-authorship of the pamphlet called Necessity of Atheism and consequent estrangement from his family. In view of his reputation for eccentricity is it no surprise that Shelley was still remembered locally in the late 1870s.

His thoughts on the Elan valley, mostly contained in letters he wrote whilst staying there, were to become known from two biographies published before the end of the 19th century, after his death in 1822 at the age of 30. In a letter to a friend, Elizabeth Hitchener, he wrote from Cwm Elan in July 1811,

‘This county of Wales is excessively grand; rocks piled on each other to tremendous heights, rivers formed into cataracts by their projections an valleys clothed in woods, present an appearance of enchantment but why do they enchant, why is it more affecting than a plain, it cannot be innate, is it acquired?’

In a note to Thomas Jefferson Hogg later in the month he wrote of ‘waterfalls midst the umbrage of a thousand shadowy trees—form the principal feature of the scenery. I am not wholly uninfluenced by its magic in my lonely walks.’

Shelley was back in the valley with his first wife Harriet and sister-in-law in April the following year, and was this time staying at Nantgwyllt, a mile away from Cwm Elan, which he hoped to acquire. He wrote to William Godwin in April 1812 (a matter of only two years before his notorious elopement with Mary Wollstonecraft),

‘We are not yet completely certain of being able to obtain the house where we now are. It has a farm of two hundred acres, and the rent is but ninety-eight pounds per annum. The cheapness, beauty, and retirement make this place in every point of view desirable. Nor can I view this scenery — mountains and rocks seeming to form a barrier round this quiet valley, which the tumult of the world may never overleap.’

A further letter describes the farm at that time consisting of about 200 acres was about 130 acres arable and the rest wood and mountain. On 1 May he wrote, ‘Give me Nantgwillt, fix me in this spot, so retired, so lovely, so fit for the seclusion of those who think and feel. Fate, I ask no more!’

The only mention of Cwm Elan in verse is in a poem of 1812 called ‘The Retrospect, Cwm Elan, 1812’, which though largely concerned with other matters, includes several descriptive passages:

‘Ye jagged peaks that frown sublime,
Mocking the blunted scythe of Time,
Whence I would watch its lustre pale
Steal from the moon o’er yonder vale:
Though rock, whose bosom black and vast,
Bared to the stream’s unceasing flow,
Ever its giant shade doth cast
On the tumultuous surge below’

Shelley tried to secure the lease of the estate for ‘a little colony of enlightened souls’ but protracted negotiations came to nothing. Despite his appreciation of the secluded and picturesque nature of the Elan valley he was not oblivious to social deprivations of the area. On his first visit to Cwm Elan in 1811 he was troubled mentally by an encounter with a beggar who claimed to have suffered at the hands of the better off. Shelley also spoke somewhat disparagingly about the local community: ‘I have been to church to-day: they preach partly in Welsh, which sounds most singularly. A christening was performed out of an old broken slop-basin’, and elsewhere ‘I am all solitude, as I cannot call the society here an alternative to it’, speaking elsewhere of missing letters and ‘the pillage of the Rhayader mail’. Later, in 1812, after leaving the Elan valley he was to write of Wales, though not perhaps exclusively of Radnorshire, in the following terms:

‘It is the last stronghold of the most vulgar and commonplace prejudices of aristocracy. Lawyers of unexampled villany rule and grind the poor, whilst they cheat the rich. The peasants are more serfs, and are fed and lodged worse than pigs. The gentry have all the ferocity and despotism of ancient barons, without their dignity and chivalric distain of shame and danger.’

The cultural significance of Shelley’s appreciation of the secluded and picturesque nature of the Elan valley was recognised before the end of the 19th century, exemplified by the inclusion of an essay entitled ‘Shelley at Cwm Elan and Nantgwilt’ by William Rossetti, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, in Eustace Tickell’s The Vale of Nantgwilt. A Submerged Valley, published in 1894, as the Elan valley reservoir scheme was being constructed.

Attention was being drawn to the antiquities of Elenydd and the surrounding area early in the 19th century, in a fashion which combines the picturesque and romantic with a stab at a more rational and historical interpretations. In the second volume of his History of the County of Brecknock, published in 1809, Theophilus Jones speculates on the purpose of a number of antiquities on the southern portion of Elenydd in the parish of Llanwrthwl.

‘A great part of this parish consists of lofty hills, bogs and commons; among the first is the Drygarn or Derwydd garn, (Mount Druid or Druid’s rock) . . . . On the top of this are many Carnau or Carneddau, large heaps of stones, as there were also upon a less elevated eminence not far from hence, called Gemrhiw [Gamriw].

On the road from Llandovery and Llangamarch to Rhayader, are seen stones placed irregularly in the ground, which have given a common, partly in this parish and partly in Llanafan, the name of Rhôs saith maen, or Seven-stone common; whether they are sepulchral, military or druidical remains, is not known, but from the name of Rhos y beddau, the common of the graves, not far from hence, nearer to the river Wye, it should seem that they commemorate a battle, most likely that of Llechryd and the slaughter in the flight of Riryd and Cadwgan.’

Jonathan Williams in his General History of the County of Radnor, published posthumously in 1859, likewise tried to associate what is in reality most probably a prehistoric burial monument in the neighbouring parish of Cwmteuddwr with historical events with which he was more familiar:

‘Near to Gwaith-y-mwynau there is a considerable tumulus, or barrow [probably the monument now known as Clap yr Arian, above the head of the Nantgwynllyn valley] . . . . from thence may distinctly be seen the Castle of Rhayader, to which fortress therefore, it must have served as an outpost to give intelligence to the garrison of the approach of an enemy.’

Jonathan Williams also, as we have seen above, drew attention to the remains of the monastic grange in Cwmteuddwr, associated with the Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida.

In the 1840s, Lady Charlotte Guest, translator of the Mabinogion, became excited by the realisation that the cairn known as Carn Gafallt was mentioned in the 10th-century manuscript known as Nennius’s Historia Brittonum recording early folklore associated with the Arthurian legend that she ‘prevailed upon a gentleman to undertake a pilgrimage . . . to the summit of Cefn Carn Cavall. Her correspondent, who remains anonymous, prepared the following account of his expedition which combines romanticism with a rational interpretation of the association with one of Arthur’s hounds.

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Aerial view of Carn Gafallt. CPAT Photo 03c0687.
‘Carn Cavall, or, as it is generally pronounced, Corn Cavall, is a lofty and rugged mountain, in the upper part of the district anciently called Buellt, now written Builth, in Breconshire. Scattered over this mountain are several cairns of various dimensions, some of which are of very considerable magnitude, being at least a hundred and fifty feet in circumference. On one of these carns may still be seen a stone, so nearly corresponding with the description in Nennius, as to furnish strong presumption that it is the identical object referred to. It is near two feet in length, and not quite a foot wide, and such as a man might, without any great exertion, carry away in his hands. On the one side is an oval indentation, rounded at the bottom, nearly four inches long by three wide, about two inches deep, and altogether presenting such an appearance as might, without any great strain of imagination, be thought to resemble the print of a dog’s foot . . . As the stone is a species of conglomerate, it is possible that some unimaginative geologist may persist in maintaining that this footprint is nothing more than the cavity, left by the removal of a rounded pebble, which was once embedded in the stone.’

The monastic associations of Elenydd and the Elan valley were being elaborated upon in the 1880s by the researches of Stephen Williams, the Radnorshire architect, who contributed a chapter entitled ‘The Grange of Cwmteuddwr’ to Eustace Tickell’s book, The Vale of Nantgwilt, published in 1894. Both Williams and Tickell were to be engaged upon the Elan valley reservoir scheme, Tickell being the civil engineer responsible for the construction of the Penygarreg dam. He was also a competent writer and artist, the numerous sketches in his book of the Elan valley before it was flooded by the reservoir, including views of Capel Nantgwyllt, and the houses at Nantgwyllt and Cwm Elan, amply illustrating its picturesque qualities. The object of Tickell’s book was to

‘commemorate scenes in one of the most charming valleys in Great Britain. Scenes which are soon to be lost for ever, submerged beneath the waters of a series of lakes, which, by a colossal engineering undertaking, are about to be constructed for the purpose of supplying water to the city of Birmingham . . . Beautiful lakes they will doubtless be, winding up the valleys with sinuous margins, wooded promontories such as are seen on Derwentwater, frowning crags and screes which will remind one of Wastwater. But their construction dooms many a picturesque and interesting spot to destruction, and it would be indeed a pity if they should be allowed to pass away without some record, however inadequate.’

There were few visitors to the valley, since as Tickell observes ‘It lies hidden away amongst the mountains and leads to nowhere. . . . The valley is visited by few, there being no inn for the tourist to put up at’. Tickell was conscious of the inevitable march of progress, however, and in counting the losses, observed that ‘it must be remembered that, sad as it is, it would be difficult to find in this island a place where more than 70 square miles of land could be taken for a public purpose without dispossessing very many more people, destroying many more homes.’

In the same book, William Rossetti, perhaps with a vision of Millais’ iconic Ophelia before him, was to introduce a more melodramatic air, prefiguring a theme which was to recur in a number of romantic novels of the early 20th century:

‘Harriet Shelley died by her own deed in the Serpentine in 1816, Shelley in the Mediterranean waves in 1822; and now a watery doom effaces the scenes of their short-lived love, Nantgwilt and Cwm Elan. A world of waters, a world of death.’

These literary associations were well known when work began on Birminghams’s reservoir scheme and are likely to have had a subtle influence on various picturesque aspects of its design.

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