The Elan Valley on the western edge of Powys is one of the remotest parts of Wales. While its sense of nature is one of its most appealing aspects, it isn’t as natural as it first appears.

The estate in which the Elan Valley sits covers more than 70 square miles, and its remote nature, and distance from light pollution, meant it was awarded Dark Sky Park status in 2015, protecting it from developments that might hinder people’s ability to see stars in the area.

While it appears to be a completely natural environment, the estate’s owners should give a clue as to the history of the area - Dŵr Cymru. 

Cardiff-based musician Gareth Bonello (aka The Gentle Good) won the Welsh Music Prize in 2017 for his album ‘Ruins/Adfeilion’. The bilingual multi-instrumentalist has been spending most of his time recently in the Elan valley since being awarded this year’s Elan Valley Creative Wales Fellowship - a project that has seen him attempting to capture the spirit of the valley through music.

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“It feels magical”, he tells me. “I think it was magical before the reservoirs were created. Because the slopes are so steep, and it was always quite remote. If you read descriptions from people like Percy Bysshe Shelley, and his uncle Thomas Grove who owned the valley, they saw it through totally romantic eyes.

The National Wales: The Claerwen reservoir on the Elan Valley estate. Farmers were evicted and their land was flooded to provide water for Birmingham (Image: Gareth Bonello).The Claerwen reservoir on the Elan Valley estate. Farmers were evicted and their land was flooded to provide water for Birmingham (Image: Gareth Bonello).

“When you walk around here you get this sense that the landscape can change minute to minute.”

The most obvious features of the valley are the five lakes, created by dams in the nineteenth century by the Birmingham Corporation to provide drinking water to the people of that city, having, without compensation, evicted the tenant farmers  who worked the harsh landscape  for centuries.

Unlike many of the other reservoirs built in Wales to serve rapidly industrialising English cities, which provide water by regulating the flow into rivers such as the Dee and the Severn, the Elan Valley’s reservoirs provide water to Birmingham via a 73-mile long aqueduct.

The beauty of the reservoirs of the Elan Valley lies in their subtle utilitarianism in contrast to the remote wilderness which surrounds them.

The National Wales: The wilderness of Cwm Rhiwnant on the Elan estate (Image: Gareth Bonello).The wilderness of Cwm Rhiwnant on the Elan estate (Image: Gareth Bonello).

Travelling at only 2mph, the water takes nearly two days to reach Frankley reservoir, but its journey represents not only an emotive issue for many people in Wales - it is after all the extraction of a natural resource for the benefit of the England - but also a legally tricky grey area. 

The emotive side of water flowing east out of Wales is easy to see, with little need to be reminded of the history of Tryweryn and how water became a spark for fighting back and ignited a sense of fury into the Welsh nationalist movement.

It may appear that this small part of Wales turned its back on the rest of the country relatively recently to concentrate on its relationship with Birmingham, but the paths across the tops of the mountains were walked for centuries by drovers taking their livestock to the markets of England. 

Last week Gareth walked from the Elan Valley across the ancient drovers’ path to Tregaron where he’s performing at the National Eisteddfod.

“I’ve definitely had a lot of inspiration just from walking, and trying to understand the land, and seeing it through the eyes of the people who would have walked here in the past,” he says.

When the Tory government privatised water in England and Wales in 1989, the assets were sold to newly formed companies with one aim - to make money for shareholders by selling water.

The National Wales: A "Cofiwch Cwm Elan" mural (Image: Gareth Bonello).A "Cofiwch Cwm Elan" mural (Image: Gareth Bonello).

Dŵr Cymru owns the land in the Elan Valley, but in 1984 its predecessor the Welsh Water Authority sold the aqueduct that sends the water to Birmingham to the Severn Trent Water Authority. 

The proceeds of the sale of the Elan aqueduct were invested into a trust fund which has been used to help finance Dŵr Cymru’s operations ever since.

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Since Dŵr Cymru’s re-establishment in 2001 as a not-for-profit company, there’s been a conflict between its aims, and those of Severn Trent Water. 

The English FTSE 100 company inherited the contract that Welsh Water and Severn Trent agreed in 1972 to provide water for Birmingham until 31st March 2073. Severn Trent Water has the option to renew this agreement for an extra 99 years if they so wish.

As part of that 1972 agreement, which the new water suppliers continue to honour, Dŵr Cymru is paid an annual fee by Severn Trent Water which relates to the cost of supplying that water. The firm gets the water at cost price.

The National Wales: Pen y Garreg dam. The Elan Valley is home to a diverse range of habitats including man-made forests, ancient broadleaf woodland and rough highland pasture (Image: VisitWales).Pen y Garreg dam. The Elan Valley is home to a diverse range of habitats including man-made forests, ancient broadleaf woodland and rough highland pasture (Image: VisitWales).

Last year, Severn Trent Water reported a profit of £506m.

In response to a written question in Parliament in June, Rebecca Pow MP, a minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs revealed that over the last three years, Severn Trent Water had reported leakage on its network at an average of around 408 million litres a day.

Let the English have their water, but there must be questions about how such an increasingly precious resource can be treated so carelessly in the name of profit.

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