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VISIT | The Elan Valley That Quenches The Thirst of Birmingham | Powys

The Elan Valley views
The Elan Valley views

A Victorian Dam and Reservoir High Up in Mid Wales

An evocative Welsh Victorian Dam and Reservoir

Close to the Welsh Market Town of Rhayader

Walks - Picnic - Wanders - Views

The heather on the hills above
The heather on the hills above

"...the ethereal place of water and wild - where human engineering and wild Welsh mountain sides intertwine..."

Description |

They say that you can immediately tell from the taste. It’s sweeter. It’s softer. And in some parts of Birmingham where the supply doesn’t venture that far – well the water just doesn’t taste the same. But of course that is the point.

In 1892, Birmingham City Council badgered the government to allow them to get a reliable, voluminous and pure source of water for the city. Birmingham had been reliant on a handful of wells and streams. Things had to change. By virtue of a Royal Charter and the Birmingham Corporation Water Act of 1892, the Birmingham Corporation and more specifically their water department could now compulsorily purchase the thousands of acres of the Elan Valley in mid Wales to create their reliable pure water supply to the ever-increasing numbers of people that the late Industrial Revolution had brought to Birmingham.

Were there other options? Well, yes of course. One option was to expand their wells, their streams and drilling. One option was to tap into the Severn, the Wye or the Teme Rivers. There were six options in all. But the most significant of them was the option in the Elan and Claerwent Valleys concerning the River Elan – a tributary of the Wye. A natural high point which meant that if the engineers got it right, that the water would require no pumping; that it would just flow down from its high point heading east to Birmingham City.

A wide mostly unpopulated area that ranged in altitude from 800 feet to over 2,000 feet above sea level. With the use of a respected civil engineer, the Birmingham Corporation believed that they could get their water to Brum. That man was an engineer by the name of James Mansergh. He was a Lancaster native but with huge experience in railway, water, and sewerage engineering across Britain and elsewhere in the world including Philadelphia in the USA and Melbourne in Australia. If there was a man who could do it – it was Mansergh.

Mansergh employed a man on the ground – a senior engineer to oversee the entire Elan Valley project. The man he selected had a fascinating appearance – thick black hair with a bushy moustache and eyebrows – his father a Greek man living in Ireland and his mother Irish. His name George Yourdi. A stickler for rules but a man of the people. He once lived in one of the big houses formerly lived in by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, now under the waters. He became known as the ‘King of the Valley.’

They had first begun by constructing the railway to bring in equipment and materials, as well as the navvies to complete the work. It meant connecting the Elan Valley to the Cambrian Railway; work completed by Henry Lovatt’s company from Wolverhampton in 1894. By August 1894, the army of Birmingham Corporation’s navvies arrived to start building the foundations of the Caban Coch dam which was finally begun to be built two years later.

In the meantime, the ‘village’ of Elan was growing. To service the massive influx of manpower, a municipal canteen was built in 1894 followed the building of a village hospital – to feed and to patch up the plentiful array of accidents. But this was a model village – accommodation for two thousands workers, a schoolroom, public hall, bathhouses and a fire brigade.

It took a whole decade. But in July 1904, the King Edward VII officially inaugurated the new Birmingham water supply from the hills of Wales. The cost was approximately £5,885,000. The entire Elan Valley complex comprised six reservoirs across the Elan and Claerwen.

And so the waters of the Elan still flow but now they are held in these industrial masterpieces to water managements. But there were once communities here – once a church (though a new one was built), farms and homes. Only the landowners received compensation, not those who worked these lands.

But the point of the Elan Valley is that the reservoirs are still used. The dams still hold. The Victoriana is still here in mid-Powys. And for those who love the walks and the wild, there are so many trails and wanders including the Elan Valley Trail which runs along the track of the old railway. Beyond further into the pink and purple heathers and tussock grasses are more challenging getting lost options.

The Elan Valley – industrial heritage, Birmingham’s sweet solution, water that supplies clean, pure refreshment to those who otherwise wouldn’t. A Welsh gift.

Directions and Map |

Find the Elan Valley signed from the Welsh market town of Rhayader in Powys

Longitude: -3.572877

Latitude: 52.269368

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