Abandoned Communities ..... Reservoirs of Wales
As Lake Vyrnwy came into being the Birmingham Corporation was planning an even more spectacular system of reservoirs in the valley of the River Elan a few miles west of Rhayader. On this occasion no entire villages were flooded, but two large houses, a small church, a Baptist chapel, and 18 cottages and farmhouses had to be submerged.
Information about the Elan Valley reservoirs can be gained from two excellent sources, the superb website of the Powys Digital History Project and a book published in 1894 with the title "The Vale of Nantgwilt: A Submerged Valley".
The section of the Powys Digital History Project website on the Elan Valley will tell you about the dams and the aqueduct to Birmingham, about some of the senior engineers who led the project, about the roads and railways that had to be constructed, about the steam engines, air compressors and other machinery used on the site, and about the "navvies' village" built to accommodate employees. It has a photograph of King Edward VII at the opening ceremony on 21 July 1904. It reveals that in 1942 at Nant-y-Gro dam, a dam built for temporary use during the construction of the main reservoirs, experiments in preparation for the dambuster bombings in Germany were conducted.
It also has a section on the community that existed in the Elan Valley before the 1890s. This section is based on memories recorded by Hetty Price, who lived as a child in the Claerwen valley in the 1880s. The River Claerwen was a tributary of the Elan, and its lower stretches became part of the Caban Coch reservoir. Hetty Price's father owned a farm on the southern side of the Claerwen, directly opposite the mansion of Nantgwyllt. She recalls that "at Christmas we always had a treat and Christmas tree in the drawing room at Nantgwyllt, and the young ladies waited on us." The school attended by local children was run by Miss Gertrude Lewis Lloyd, "a sister of the Squire", who "was always doing good deeds, giving suits of clothes for the poorer children, and material to make frocks for the girls."
Hetty Price also recalls that "lower down the road from the School was Nantgwyllt Church where most of the children and parents of the two valleys went to worship every Sunday afternoon. The Parson had to come all the way from Rhayader on horse back." Not far from the church was the mill, "a lovely quaint old wheel fed by a brook, to saw all the timber for the estate, and also to grind the oats and barley. Nearly every farmer took their grain to be done in the autumn. There was also a kiln to dry the grain. It was done by night, and most of the young men around would congregate to have a good time around the large fire that was kept up all night."
Hetty Price continues: "Further down the road was Seth Thomas's shop where they sold most things, flour and groceries and bottles of sweets, but it was very rare indeed that we should have a penny to buy them." Just beyond the shop was the home of Bennoe, who as well as being the local tailor kept a cow and a pig. On the east bank of the River Elan was the Baptist chapel. Hetty Price would have to use stepping stones to get across to it, and she would watch with fascination as "the converts were being baptised in the river". "On the end of the Chapel was a little house, where a dear old man used to live by himself. He used to lead the singing in the Chapel, and how my sister and I used to love the evenings there! Oh, the memories of it all. It is too sad to think about."
Garreg Ddu submerged dam, with the straining tower beyond it
The memorial to Shelley at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre, created by Christopher Kelly in 1988
Click on the map for a larger version