From the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley

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Wales is not only about the beautiful coastlines and the mountains of Snowdonia! The scenery through the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley in Mid Wales can be just as spectacular.

This page tells the stories of our numerous visits to the area – on one occasion by car rather than in the motorhome. The reasons for this will soon become apparent!

craig-goch dam - Elan Valley road trip

Magic on Pen Y Fan – the highest peak in South Wales

On our first visit to the Brecon Beacons – back in 2018 – we’d spent a few days exploring the area, climbing some of the lesser hills. But on the final day – come rain or shine – we decided to make the long slog up Pen Y Fan, Southern Wales’ highest peak.

Typically, the mountain was shrouded in thick cloud all the way up. Once at the summit we had the customary photo taken then sat down to eat our sandwiches, hungry after the ninety minute climb.

The intention was to head straight back down (there was nothing to see here other than greyness) but then something quite magical happened…

The clouds parted east and west – like curtains opening at the theatre – and rolling green hills, extending a thousand feet below, revealed themselves to us. Like the lifting of a veil, we saw the hidden beauty underneath.

Ours, and everyone else’s spirits, lifted.

On the summit of Pen Y Fan in Wales
Views from the top of Pen Y Fan, Brecon Beacons, Wales

After twenty minutes the ‘curtains’ closed once more and the show was over – but the magic didn’t quite stop there…

On the way down we heard the haunting, plaintive voices of a small Welsh choir, not what we expected to hear halfway up a mountain. It’s a sound we’ll never forget.

In that moment we stood mesmerised by the voices drifting through the mist. We imagine now that it sounded something like this…

From the Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley

After four enjoyable days camping in the small town of Crickhowell we were wondering where to head next when serendipity lent a hand…

Popping into a charity shop, a little ‘tourist guidebook’ jumped out at us. And in those pages we learned about somewhere called the Elan Valley and how it had captured the heart of romantic poet, Percy Shelley, some 200 years before. (1)

We simply had to go. Little did we know it would have the same effect on us!

So out came the maps and we were soon on the A470 heading toward Rhayader in Mid Wales, somewhere we’d never been to before…

This is where this road trip really begins…

The A470 road in Wales: Britain’s favourite road?

The A470 is a wonderful road, following the river Wye as it meanders its way from the Brecon Beacons National Park up into the county of Powys in Mid Wales.

Many a Top Gear test drive has been shot in the Brecon Beacons and the A470 was once voted ‘Britain’s favourite road’ in a survey of drivers. (2)

The road is in great condition with many sections having been resurfaced over the last few years. You can get a real move on but there are some twists and turns to look out for and it’s best to take your time anyway as the scenery is beautiful in places.

From the Beacons you’ll reach Rhayader within an hour and a half. Then it’s a left turn onto the B4518 that will lead you right into the Elan Valley.

Though nothing prepared us for what was to come…

The Elan Valley – the Lake District in miniature

The little guidebook we’d found said nothing about narrow roads right on the edge of deep, dark-water reservoirs!

Flimsy wire fences were our only protection at certain sections of the route!

Luckily there were a few passing places to pull over – and sometimes the roads were wide enough for two cars to pass – but these roads were not designed for motorhomes!

road trip - The Elan Valley - Wales

On our first visit (in August 2020) we saw maybe only two or three other motorhomers who were brave (or stupid) enough to drive these roads.

And a little further on, we found out why…

Motorhome vs car: which is best for road trips?

We’d already found out during a road trip through the Peak District that our old motorhome wasn’t too keen on going up hills with anything more than a 20% incline. And now, in the Elan Valley, we were faced with the same dilemma.

Having successfully negotiated the roads around several of the spectacular reservoirs and dams we now sat staring at a hill ahead of us that was probably beyond the van’s capabilities.

We discussed our options: do we take a chance and go for it or simply turn around and head back the way we came?

This is where you need to know the limitations of your van. The weather hadn’t been favourable; the road was wet and even though there was no signpost indicating the percentage of the incline it looked damn steep to us! We sat there watching cars snaking their way up and around the hairpin bends in second gear.

Not surprisingly, we chickened out and followed our route back. Not such a bad thing, as it gave us another chance to view the stunning scenery, but we vowed to return soon so that we could complete the route – this time in our car.

Dambusters in the Elan Valley

So, less than two months later we returned to explore the area fully and complete the drive in a more nimble vehicle.

It led to an interesting discussion about which is best for road trips: motorhomes or cars. Assessing the pros and cons of each, for us the motorhome wins every time – until you come to a hill!

This time, in the car, we’d chosen a great location for our stay, right in the heart of the valley at Penbont House.

After popping in to the Elan Valley Visitor Centre where we acquired a free map, we set off and spent a glorious autumnal day negotiating the tiny roads that led to the five dams: Claerwen, Craig-goch, Pen Y garreg, Garreg ddu, and Caban-coch.

There is a sixth dam that never got finished, the one that was used in the famous WWII Dambusters film.

You can see why Shelley loved this place so much. Though, of course, in his time before the dams were built, the landscape would have looked very different.

There is a poignant reminder of this at the Visitor Centre where 27 large stones stand like sentinels, each reminding us of the villages that were lost forever when the taps were turned on and the water filled the valleys.

the 27 lost villages in the Elan Valley, represented by standing stones at the Elan Valley visitor centre
27 standing stones, each representing a village in the Elan Valley that was lost under the water

The old metal mines at Cwmystwyth

After visiting all five dams we headed for the road we had avoided in the van back in the summer time. It presented no problem for the car and at the junction at the top, we turned left on to the B4574. Even though this leads you out of the Elan Valley the drive is none the less spectacular.

Here, the roads get even more twisty and narrow – with fewer passing places – and we felt justified in having chosen to do this route in the car. We pulled over and spent an hour exploring the old metal mines near Cwmystwyth, transported back a hundred years or more. Some serious hard labour took place here and it’s well worth a visit.

Then we pressed on to the Devils’ Falls Bridge but, with light fading, this was as far as we went. With more time we might have carried on to Aberystwyth on the coast for some fish and chips for tea. Gav’s excuse was that he didn’t want to attempt the drive back on these tiny, winding roads in the dark, even in the car.

Chicken…again!

the old metal mines at Cwmystwyth near the Elan Valley
The old metal mines near Cwmystwyth – well worth exploring

Check out our other road trips…

Have you been to the Brecon Beacons or the Elan Valley? Let us know in the comments section below or send us your story via email. We’d love to hear from you.

If you’re planning on visiting Wales make sure you check out our other road trips which include Anglesey, the West Coast and the Llyn Peninsula, and the Horseshoe Pass to Llangollen.

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Notes:

(1) Read the story of Shelley’s time in the Elan Valley http://history.powys.org.uk/history/rhayader/shelley1.html

(2) The A470: voted Britain’s favourite road https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/a470-britains-favourite-road-yes-7228725

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