Bike ride: Elan Valley Trail, Powys

Discover tranquillity amid the drama of Elan Valley, a landscape of shimmering reservoirs, gushing rivers and wooded slopes that ring with birdsong

Elan Valley, Powys, Wales
Published: March 2nd, 2020 at 2:58 pm
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In no way is my life unduly stressful – climate change and politics aside. Nevertheless, cycling the Elan Valley Trail is a tonic.


Perhaps it’s the cushion of silence. Perhaps it’s the remoteness as you very gently ascend the old railway track that transported stone for the dams. Perhaps it’s the therapeutic quality of the water – and there’s a lot of water.

I gratefully glugged a pint of it at Birmingham 02 Academy last year, but didn’t give a thought to where it had come
from; turns out it was here.

Elan Valley, Powys, Wales,
Cyclists enjoy a warm sunny day cycling around Elan Valley Reservoirs. Alamy

Water for all

Back in the industrial age when the urban population exploded, Birmingham was riddled with poverty and slums, cholera was rife, and the need for a better water supply was paramount. The clean water was found in the Cambrian Mountains, where twin tributaries of the Wye – the Claerwen and the Elan – are fed by 69 square miles of rain.

The Claerwen feeds the largest reservoir, while the Elan has many smaller dams, hewn by Victorian stonemasons and gracefully engineered. The reservoirs climb the valley like paddy fields. And the Elan Valley Trail, running directly from the visitor centre (from where you can hire bikes) climbs with them.

Lake with boats surrounded by countryside

Spring migrants

Peace reigns, but the trail is not without drama. Caban Coch Dam is an awesome enough sight in dry weather – even without the cascade after rain playing over it like cymbals and drums – with bubbles at the top the only sign of the plummet to come. The water-mirrors soak up the sky. But nearing Garreg Ddu Dam, the valley twists and its walls close in. Now, Atlantic sessile oakwoods climb the slopes, cloaked in mosses and bryophytes nourished by the humidity, to which spring migrants – redstarts, wood warblers and pied flycatchers – are returning.

Eventually, the trees dwindle and give way to open moorland, leading on to the Craig Goch Dam. Curlews call. Goosanders dabble. And all about – in the gleam of wet stone, the trickle through peat and the dew-bejewelled moss – here is Birmingham’s water.


A recent rock fall closed the trail between Garreg Ddu and Craig Goch dams, though you can continue by road. The rangers are working to clear it; check for progress before visiting.


Julie Brominicks is a landscape and travel writer who lives off-grid in a caravan in a mossy Welsh valley.


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