Brecon Beacons to the Elan Valley

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Covid 19 just about decimated our travel plans in 2020. Our intentions to visit sacred sites up and down the UK were put on hold and instead we were limited to just two main road trips, both taking us back to Wales – our ancestral homeland.

After four enjoyable days in Crickhowell in the beautiful Brecon Beacons – one of our favourite places – 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.

Little did we know it would have the same effect on us!

This page tells the story of our two visits to the Elan Valley in 2020 – the first in our motorhome and the second by car. The reasons for this will soon become apparent!

man and woman (The Motorhome Hobos!) at top of Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons, Wales

Magic at Pen Y Fan

Let’s rewind a little bit, to the days before we knew anything about the Elan Valley (and coronavirus!)…

Back in 2018 we’d spent a few days exploring the Brecon Beacons and on our last day we’d decided to make the long slog up Pen Y Fan – Southern Wales’ highest peak. The mountain was shrouded in thick cloud all the way up and at the summit the mist still prevailed. We sat down to eat our sandwiches, hungry after the ninety minute climb.

Then something quite magical happened; the clouds parted, like curtains opening at the theatre and the green views, some thousand feet below, revealed their splendour.

Like the lifting of a veil that reveals some hidden truth, we entered a different reality and everyone started hurriedly taking pictures, including us…

view from Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons National Park
View from the top of Pen Y Fan – when the clouds parted!

After twenty minutes the ‘curtains’ closed once more – 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.

It’s a sound we’ll never forget, not least because it occurred half-way up a mountain. In that moment we stood mesmerised by the soundwaves drifting through the mist.

We imagine now that it sounded something like this…

The sounds faded but the memory lingers on…

But on this particular visit to Pen Y Fan, in 2020, there was no such magic. We had left Crickhowell and pulled over into the car park at the foot of the mountain – just to reminisce really – and once more the mountain was shrouded in cloud.

Even though there were a few hardy souls heading up in the wind and rain – foreign tourists, we assumed, who had just this one opportunity to get up there – we decided to leave it to memory and drive up the A470 towards Rhayader instead.

This is where this road trip really begins…

road trip - The Elan Valley - Wales

Toward the Elan Valley

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 here and it’s been described as, “one of the most picturesque routes not only in Wales but in the whole of the UK.”

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. We could have filled this page with pictures.

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…

See, on that first visit we were in our 2.7 tonne VW motorhome and the little guidebook we’d found had said nothing about narrow roads close to the edge of deep 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 are wide enough for two cars to pass – but these roads were not designed for motorhomes!

On this first visit (in August) we saw maybe only two or three other motorhomers who were brave (or stupid) enough to attempt it. And a little further on, we found out why…

craig-goch dam - Elan Valley road trip
Craig-goch dam in the Elan Valley – one of five dams to see in the area

A road too far…and too steep!

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, something Gav goes on about in our free ebook. 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 booked up to stay at Penbont House Bed and Breakfast, giving us more time to explore the area and complete the drive in a more manoeuvrable vehicle. It led to an interesting discussion about motorhomes vs cars, assessing the pros and cons of each. For us, it’s motorhome 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 and we had one glorious autumnal day visiting all five of the completed dams in the valley. (There is a sixth that never got finished, the one that was used in the famous Dambusters film that was shot here in the Elan Valley).

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

You can see why the poet Percy Shelley so loved this place. Though, of course, he was here well before the dams were built when the landscape would have looked much different. There is a poignant reminder of this at the Visitor Centre where 27 large stones stand erect, each representing one of the villages that were lost when the taps were turned on and the water filled these 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 lost under the water

Time travelling in the valley

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. Had we 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 Elan Valley? Did you fall in love with the place like we did?

Let us know by contacting us here. We’d love to hear your story!

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

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