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What to do in the Elan Valley, Wales

By day or by night, this dramatic swathe of rural Wales offers plenty of ways to embrace the great outdoors.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 1 Dec 2020, 08:00 GMT, Updated 2 Dec 2020, 13:36 GMT
In the Elan Valley, it isn’t the stargazing alone that draws the travellers. When dawn breaks, ...

In the Elan Valley, it isn’t the stargazing alone that draws the travellers. When dawn breaks, there’s a new world to explore.

Photograph by Getty Images

The glacier-cut landscape cradled within Wales’ Cambrian Mountains is captivating by day, but for many, it’s all about the night. An International Dark Sky Park, it's one of just 10 designations in the UK, each recognised for their phenomenal night skies. Here, stars twinkle in their thousands, bound to constellations and the two galaxies we can see with the naked eye from Earth. Spot Orion’s Belt, Leo and the Great Square of Pegasus; the glow of our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda; and the luminous arc of our own, the Milky Way.

But it isn’t the stargazing alone that draws more than 200,000 people to the valley every year. When dawn breaks, there’s a new world of hiking trails, architectural heritage and pristine landscapes to discover — whether explored solo, or on one of the privately-owned estate’s organised events.

What to do

The six dams of the Elan Valley are formidable. Icons of their landscape, these towering feats of Victorian architecture were spearheaded by engineer James Mansergh — built to allow the flow of fresh, clean water 73 miles east to Birmingham, at a time when rapid industrialisation was fast depleting the city’s resources.

All six dams are connected by a smooth, 16-mile hiking and cycling track — with a trail suitable for every level — formerly the railway that transported dambuilders and cargo from nearby cities. At the northern end is Craig Goch — the most-photographed dam of the River Elan — with an immense arcaded granite wall and copper-roofed tower that showcases Victorian craftsmanship at its best. Last on the route is Claerwen (‘bright light’ in Welsh) — a name that belies its black, fortress-like appearance.

Experience a dam from within on one of the Elan Valley’s dam open days. You’ll descend into the dark stone passages of Pen-y-Garreg to the sound of the river colliding with its retaining wall. Emerge by the dam’s crowning valve tower for a bird’s-eye view of the reservoir, and acres upon acres of tangled woodland.

We like

Discovering the wildlife. The enchanting valley is a region of Celtic rainforest, home to unusual insect and fungi species and more than 180 bird species, including African migrants and birds of prey. As you follow the marked trail through the landscape, you’ll pass twisted thickets of sessile oak, lucid patchworks of lichen, waterfalls tumbling over boulders, and wood, moor and bogland landscapes thrumming with wildlife. Join a ranger-led walk to spot some of the Valley’s critters, including birds, bats and glow worms. 

Where to stay

In the nearby village of Builth Wells, follow a tree-lined private road to the Grade II-listed Caer Beris Manor Hotel, a stately Tudor-revival country house flanked by hills and looped by the River Irfon. An open fire roars in the oak-panelled foyer, with a lounge and bar area decked out in art nouveau wallpaper and furnished with snug wingback armchairs. A full Welsh breakfast using local Brecon ingredients is included. From £140. 

Don't miss

Chris Powell, owner of Gigrin Farm in Rhayader, feeds Wales’ red kites daily. He’s been doing so since 1993, in what was a concerted conservation effort to bring the raptors back from the brink of UK extinction, and since then their numbers have flourished. Sit and wait in one of five hides and watch as one-by-one the kites glide in, circling above the fields in anticipation of fresh meat. As a tractor scatters scraps, watch their split-second acrobatics as they take spiralling nosedives, talons poised to grasp meat which they’ll then fling into their mouths in midair.

Where to eat

Get knockout portions of traditional fare at The Old Swan Tea Rooms, a cosy roost set at the market town crossroads in Rhayader. Try the Welsh afternoon tea with bara brith, bursting with currants. Further afield but worth the journey is The Felin Fach Griffin, a pub in the Brecon region renowned for its seasonal menu that champions simple ingredients, including fresh produce from its own kitchen garden. Come for dishes such as lamb breast with white bean mash and sweetbreads or locally smoked haddock fishcakes.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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