This cycle ride starts and finishes in Rhayader, a historic market town of old Radnorshire in the upper Wye valley. The route takes in most of the reservoirs of the Elan Valley so there is no shortage of dramatic landscape and scenery whilst you pedal along merrily. To loop around to Rhayader this journey climbs over Penrhiw-wen but for a more gentle ride back to town you can simply turn around at Craig-Goch Reservoir and enjoy what is largely a downhill roll to Rhayader. Mind you, by climbing up to Penrhiw-wen you are rewarded with a fantastic descent into town, one of the safest but fastest roads in mid-Wales. Whatever route you choose you wind up and unwind at the Cornhill Inn, a pub with a reputation for good beer.
If you are arriving with your bicycles on car a good place to park is adjacent to the old drill hall, a building restored for arts and music events along with a café. Dating from around 1830, the building was originally a leather works but an upper floor was taken over by a local military unit. A disastrous fire ruined the upper floors in the late 19th century which resulted in a reduction in size during restoration. The old Drill Hall was subsequently used as a cinema for many years before a change in use to a factory and, later, a supermarket.
An added bonus of parking here is that it is only a short walk to the site of Rhayader's castle and Saint Clement's Church. And if you want to stretch your legs before riding this is the starting point of the short Waun Capel Wildlife Walk. Forty species of birds have been recorded around the site of the castle and river, a small area enriched by over 100 species of plant. It is little wonder therefore that you can experience a colourful display of butterflies. Incidentally, the castle was destroyed by Llywelyn the Great during the 13th century but the remains are a scheduled ancient monument.
Saving Rhayader until the return journey, you head over the bridge into Cwmdeuddwr, separated from Rhayader by the river. This tiny hamlet was once home to several pubs including the Bell Inn, the Fox and Hounds and the Hill Gate Inn, the latter also serving as a toll house. Only one pub has survived and how we were frustrated to find the Triangle Inn closed on both legs of our journey. This looks like a little jewel of mid-Wales and is signposted from the main road as a 16th century inn. The building is sited within a triangular plot though the house did once sell Bass ales, providing an additional twist to the tavern's inn sign.
Bass was certainly sold at the Triangle Inn during the early 1970's when the pub was run by John Knell. The Triangle Inn was a favourite of drovers who called in here for refreshment - no doubt using the money they had saved from paying the toll when using a ford to cross the River Wye. Quarry workers would also patronise the house in former times. The pub's toilets are across the other side of the tiny lane and housed in a former stable. Oh, how we would have liked to spend some time in this quaint-looking little pub.
The Triangle is only a few yards from the former Bell Inn, a tavern named after the nearby St. Bride's Church [formerly dedicated to Saint Winifred] and last resting place of Emmeline Lewis Lloyd, the renowned Victorian climber of the Alps and Pyrenees. She had spent her formative years at Nantgwyllt, a manor house once visited by Shelley but later flooded when Caban Coch reservoir was created. She often travelled with her friend Bessie Straton and, together, they became the first women to climb Monte Viso. She was also one of the early women to climb Mont Blanc.
The Bell Inn was once an outpost of the Lichfield Brewery. The company leased the property from George Morgan and the house was run by Samuel Conway, a publican frequently in hot water with the local magistrates. The bench finally had enough of him and refused to renew the licence in 1914. Between the Bell Inn and the churchyard gates there was a pound next to a small smithy. Consequently, the pub was also known as the Pound Ale House.
Just after the road into a small housing estate you pick up the Elan Valley Trail which follows the route of the old Birmingham Corporation Water Works Railway. Construction of the railway was started in 1893 and completed three years later. The locomotives that travelled along the line were named after rivers and streams within the Elan Estate. The steam locomotives pulled workers and materials along the line until the mid-Edwardian period when construction of the dams was completed. The were subsequently sold off and the line was closed by 1916.
The cycle route to Caban Coch reservoir and the Elan Valley Visitor Centre is on tarmac and, apart from a short climb at the start, is really easy-going and a joy to ride. The climb is up-and-over the old Rhayader Tunnel, a Radnorshire Wildlife Trust Reserve and home to a number of bat species. The tunnel acts as a bat hibernaculum where the brown long-eared, whiskered, Daubenton's and lesser horseshoe species can hibernate safely. Once over the climb you can enjoy views such as above, looking out for Red Kite and Willow Warbler.
The trail [Cycle Route 81] returns alongside and runs parallel to the B4518 and continues for a short distance to Elan Village. As you cycle along you will see the Elan Valley Hotel to your right, an establishment with some cycling facilities should you choose to stay overnight in the area. Erected near the site of Capel Madog, the hotel was opened in the late 19th century but, under the stewardship of John and Alice Williams, was soon in financial difficulties. The publican had taken over the running of the hotel in 1899 from his father and uncle, the latter having died. His father had apparently taken a loan from Buckley's Brewery of Llanelli in order to construct the hotel. They were one of two major creditors when everything went pear-shaped for John Williams who, from October 1901, had also taken over the tenancy of the Royal Oak Hotel in Rhayader. The latter was operated by the Lichfield Brewery Co. Ltd. However, it was another Lichfield brewery that would take over the Elan Valley Hotel and install managers to run the place. The City Brewery of Lichfield were the other major creditor owed money by the Williams family. The financial ruin of John Williams was the death of him. He had become gravely ill when the court proceedings against him were taking place. The City Brewery installed Mr. C. C. Daft as manager in 1910. He had previously run the Goat's Head in Lichfield and, following a four-year term at the Elan Valley Hotel, returned to Lichfield to manage the Swan Hotel, all three houses being part of the City Brewery's portfolio.
You turn down the lane towards the Elan Valley Visitor Centre and soon arrive at the old Suspension Bridge that once took traffic down to the newly-created settlement for construction workers employed to build the dams. Deemed unsafe to carry traffic, this has since been superseded by a functional Bailey Bridge of much less aesthetic appeal. Both bridges appeared on screen in the BBC crime drama 'Hinterland' or 'Y Gwyll' when fugitive Llew Morris walked across the river with his young son Bryn. You can use the bailey bridge to head down for a meander around the village. When the dam was being constructed a guard was posted on the bridge in order to inspect travellers and examine goods hauled by waggons making deliveries to the village. This was to prevent infectious diseases spreading to the village. Incoming labourers would not be allowed into the village and had to spend around a week in a Doss House where they were medically examined before being forced to take a bath whilst their clothing and possessions were disinfected. During the construction of the four major dams some 50,000 people were employed by the Birmingham Water Corporation. It is thought that some 100 people lost their lives during the vast undertaking. More information is available at the visitor centre where there is a café and gift shop, along with other facilities. This is a good opportunity to fill up water bottles and munch on a snack before heading up the valley.
Picking up the cycle path from the visitor centre you start to head up the hill towards the massive wall of the Caban Coch dam. This is spectacular when the dam is overflowing as the water simply cascades over the top to form a magnificent waterfall. If you are lucky to visit when this is occurring - though you are probably cycling in the wet season - the narrow bridge you see at the base of the dam is a great place to experience the cascading water. This bridge connects two identical stone buildings that house electricity generating turbines and valves and sluices to adjust the amount of compensation water released downstream.
Progress on your cycle ride will no doubt be slow as you will be taking plenty of photographs. We were certainly snap-happy at the sight of the water held back by the Caban Coch dam. The cycle route follows the north-eastern edge of the reservoir until the Garreg Ddu dam, a submerged dam which helps to maintain a constant supply of water to Birmingham. Caban Coch is too low to facilitate a gravity-fed pipeline to Birmingham. The dam also supports a road that you ride across to explore the Claerwen valley on two wheels.
Riding across the Garreg Ddu dam you will see Nantgwyllt on the slope ahead of you. This was erected by the Birmingham Corporation to replace a smaller, older church lost with the creation of Caban Coch reservoir. Most records mention how the old chapel, once visited by Shelley, was submerged under water. To be honest I imagined it to be in the middle of Caban Coch and beneath deep waters. However, on examining an old map of the area, I notice that the old church was possibly lost to the Elan Valley Railway when the track was laid around the proposed site of the reservoir. The church stood at the foot of Craig Y Foel close to a corn mill which also doubled as a saw mill. A school also stood a short distance away to the south-west. Nantgwyllt House, a large residence was certainly submerged deep under water as it stood on lower ground in the Claerwen valley. The mansion, once coveted by Shelley and his wife Harriet, was the inspiration behind Francis Brett Young's 1932 novel 'The House Beneath the Water.' Any romantic notions that the house still stood at the bottom of the lake were scotched in 1937, 1947 and 2005 when drought conditions ascertained the property was demolished before the flooding of the valley. There was a also quite a kerfuffle when the engineers decided to cement over the churchyard of the old Chapel of Ease. The local community objected to their forebears being sealed into the ground in such a manner and made an appeal to the local squire.
There is a short ramp up to the entrance of the 'new' chapel of ease so I pedalled up to the front door. Conflicting articles provide different dates for this building but I believe construction started in 1898 and the building opened in April 1900 by the Bishop of St. David's. Some relics of the older church were removed to this building. There are some fascinating photographs detailing the construction of the dams. It is a bit of a stretch to describe these as an exhibition but the photocopied images pinned to the wall provide an interesting insight into the transformation of the valley and community. Designed by the civil engineer and architect Stephen W. Williams, the church itself is a plain building with a nave and apsidal chancel, both lit by lancet windows. The rather battered-looking organ was once played by John Pickering, for whom there is a memorial tablet on the nave's wall.
From the church we set off along the shoreline of Caban Coch on a quiet road leading up to Claerwen dam and reservoir. Apart from one notable undulation, the gradient starts off nice and gentle, almost flat. Very slowly, the road starts to increase in height so it really is easy cycling. As we set off I could hear a group of cyclists behind us and I was impressed that, considering they looked like a ragbag bunch on hired bikes, they were going along at a decent rate. However, as the ramp started to lift up through the trees their conversation was either exchanged for huffing and puffing or it simply faded into the distance. By the time we had reached the unfinished dam at Dol-y-Mynach they had disappeared altogether. The route then follows the river, winding beneath the crags at Craig-y-Bwch and Craig Cwm-Clyd. The scenery is so lovely that you don't even consider that you are cycling uphill.
Depending on how the weather has been prior to your visit will determine how much water you will see cascading over the rocky riverbed at Ciloerwynt. There was a steady flow during our visit but not as spectacular as it might have been had it rained for a few days before our trip. At a fork in the road you keep to the right and cycle up a steeper slope to Claerwen dam and reservoir. This was the last of the dams to be constructed, the requirement for increased water storage was recognised during drought conditions in 1937. Work commenced after World War 2 and the project took six years to complete. Advances in engineering design and construction resulted in a storage capacity almost equal to that of the three older dams in the Elan Valley. The labour was much less intensive and the workforce required to complete the dam was less than 500. In one of the first official engagements of her reign, Queen Elizabeth officially opened the Claerwen dam in October 1952.
We spent a while here looking across Claerwen reservoir and down the valley. And then it was time to backtrack to Garreg Ddu dam close to Nantgwyllt church. The beauty of this reversal out of the Claerwen valley is pretty much all downhill. And, as we rolled halfway down the steep ramp from the dam we saw the aforementioned ragbag bunch pushing their bikes up the hill. I bade them good afternoon but the poor souls were bailing sweat and too out of puff to respond.
Returning to Garreg Ddu dam we cycled back across the water and turned northwards up the Elan Valley. There are choices here for cyclists. There is a track that clings to the water's edge but it is one of loose chippings. So, depending on your tyres and how lucky you feel, you may want to stick to the road if you are on slim tyres. We tried out the latter to see what the view was like and it was pretty good. There is a slight hill to negotiate but this affords a fine view across the reservoir. Crossing the water beneath Pen-y-Garreg dam, there is a lovely switchback section for the climb uphill. We were disappointed to find Penbont House closed for business [June 2017] as this was a key location in the BBC crime drama 'Hinterland' or 'Y Gwyll', where Llew Morris and his son escaped capture from Detective Chief Inspector Tom Mathias. We were also looking forward to cream teas here. I believe that the tenant, after four years of running the business, had moved on and the Elan Valley Trust were looking to re-open this establishment later in the year. Oh well, a good reason for a return trip!
The Elan Valley Trust occasionally have open days whereby visitors can climb up inside the dam at Pen-y-Garreg, the so-called 'middle dam' that was completed in 1903 using 69,000 cubic metres of stone. Just imagine such a project in this day-and-age? These dams were built when labour was relatively cheap and yet the original budget doubled from the estimated £3m to around £6m. There was also the incalcuble cost of the many labourers who lost their lives during construction of the dams.
One of the mind-blowing facts about the Pen-y-Garreg reservoir is that Birmingham could empty the vast expanse of water in a fortnight. The reservoir can hold 1,330 million gallons of water - that's one heck of water use! There is a hydro-electric turbine near the bottom of the dam and this generates 810 kilowatts of electricity.
From Pen-y-Garreg dam there is a lovely road up-and-around the famed horseshoe bend with lovely views of the reservoir to the right. The climb is fairly gentle up to Craig Goch, or the top dam, widely regarded as the most attractive structure in the valley. Collectively, the dams are dubbed Birmingham Baroque and Craig Goch is the most flamboyant example of this popular late-Victorian and early-Edwardian architectural style. We spent another period here, riding across the road bridge to view the dam and reservoir from different angles. And then we headed out onto what must be a bleak wilderness during the cold winter months. The road, in remarkably good condition, meanders around Craig Goch and across Pont ar Elan. As lovely as it is out here on a warm sunny day, you cannot help notice the impending climb up to Penrhiw-wen. If you are not feeling up to heaving your bike uphill you can simply turn around and head back the same way you came. But that climb just looks so inviting - and then there's the descent into Rhayader. Go on, you know you want to!
Wow! What a road. Unlike some really steep descents, this road down to Rhayader is safer than most and is simply a lovely experience. First of all, however, you have to haul yourself through the hairpins after crossing Pont ar Elan. To be honest, I was a little surprised when the road ramped up quite violently after crossing the river. Luckily, I had already dropped onto the inner chainring and, in anticipation of a sudden climb, had shifted up the cassette. I was able to maintain momentum and made decent progress up the hill. The climb is quite long so you might consider finding a rhythm and start chugging. The summit is further than you imagine but it is an enjoyable climb.
The road back down to Cwmdeuddwr and Rhayader follows the path of Nant Gwynllyn down the hill and looks like a tremendous hill climb going back the other way. This is the old mountain road to Devil's Bridge and Aberystwyth. The mill pool is visible down the bottom of the valley as you roll down. There was once a large fish pond on the other side of the road near Dderw Bridge. The road was once dubbed Trumpeg Y Mynydd or 'The Turnpike on the Mountain' and you will cycle past the site of the old Hill Gate Inn, a small tavern that doubled as the toll house. In the 19th century the toll gate was operated by Thomas and Anne Hughes, a couple who, in 1843, were subjected to an attack by Rebecca rioters, a band of farmers and agricultural workers who challenged the taxes and tolls imposed upon them, particularly along turnpike roads.
Arriving back in Cwmdeuddwr, we turned up Bridge Street and undertook a mini-tour of Rhayader before returning to the Cornhill Inn for a beer. Most of the historic market town is centred on the four streets that converge at the war memorial clock tower. Designed in a free classical style by Benjamin Lloyd, this was unveiled in September 1924 before a large gathering of people from the local area and beyond. There was once an old market hall on the site and given that the crossroads is normally a traffic jam, it would be chaos today if the streets were as narrow as they once were.
Rhayader still has a fair number of pubs but many more have been lost. Indeed, at one time the town was noted for having one of the highest concentration of pubs per capita. Some of the former establishments are easy to spot, others need a little more detective work. In the above photograph dating from the 1960's the Castle Hotel was an outlet for Worthington's. Located on the corner of East Street and North Street, the building was formerly known as the Lion and Castle and in the coaching period was a port-of-call for the Tally Ho! on its journey to Aberystwyth.
Diagonally opposite the Castle Hotel is the Old Swan Tea Rooms and Cake Shop. Documented in the 17th century, this was one of the early inns of Rhayader but it closed in the mid-19th century and the former pub and outbuildings have seen a wide variety of uses over the years. In the 1880's Evan Hughes used the yard and stables whilst acting as an agent for Proctor and Ryland's Prepared Bone Manures and Superphosphate of Lime. Between the wars there was a slaughterhouse here. You can have fun hunting for former taverns in Rhayader. Still standing but no longer licensed premises are pubs such as the Boar's Head, Unicorn Inn, Welsh Harp and many others.
We headed for the Cornhill Inn to enjoy a beer or two. Actually, at the Cornhill Inn you don't have to look too far to find another of Rhayader's lost pubs. The adjacent building occupied by Clive Powell Bikes was once the Cwmdeuddwr Arms. In recent times this old tavern was home to pet foxes kept by Bill and Hilda Powell, a couple who once also operated the Cornhill Inn. Before our visit I looked up the opening times for the Cornhill Inn and the search engine seemed to suggest that the business was For Sale at a knockdown price of £195,000 which, if accurate, reflects perhaps the current climate of the licensed trade in Rhayader. Thankfully, the pub was doing reasonable business when we called in - the front rooms were fairly full of middle-aged and elderly drinkers. This demographic confers the place with a Belgian character. The beer was excellent and most refreshing after our exertions around the hills and lakes. We could have stayed for a session as we really liked the Cornhill Inn.
View and Download Map
The route map starts at the car park close to the site of the castle and loops to the start point. I continued on to have a mooch around Rhayader and, of course, called into the Cornhill Inn for refreshment.
The route profile for this day of cycling shows that there are only a couple of climbs. Most of the route is easy-going. There is a bit of a climb up to the Claerwen Reservoir and a steep rise after Pont ar Elan. However, as you can see, there is a lovely descent back into Rhayader.
Have Your Say
If you would like to share any further information on this route - perhaps you drank in different pubs? Or maybe you spotted something I missed en-route? Whatever the reason it would be great to hear of your stories or route guidance for others. Simply send a message and I'll post it here.
You can ride this route on a road bike with skinny tyres as the off-road sections are on tarmac. Remember to bring a lock for security outside the Elan Visitor Centre and also whilst you are enjoying the pub.
More Images from This Route
Two young women are enjoying jumping into the River Wye just below the bridge, the divide between Rhayader and Cwmdeuddwr.
The former Bell Inn is only a few yards from the Triangle Inn at Cwmdeuddwr. The building was named after the nearby St. Bride's Church. Between the Bell Inn and the churchyard gates there was a pound next to a small smithy. Consequently, the pub was also known as the Pound Ale House.
Designed by the civil engineer and architect Stephen W. Williams, the Chapel of Ease at Nantgwyllt is a plain building with a nave and apsidal chancel, both lit by lancet windows.
Cycling up the Claerwen Valley is particularly enjoyable, though the weather does dictate how much water cascades over the rocky riverbed at Ciloerwynt
The short ramp up to Claerwen Dam is the only climb around the reservoirs on which you have to give it a little oomph or perhaps stand on the pedals for a bit.
Due to it being a little more remote than the other reservoirs there is an air of tranquillity to be enjoyed at Claerwen Dam - that is, until a group of motorcycles roar up the hill to spoil it for everyone else.
A large open fireplace, tiled floor and some rustic furniture are part of the appeal of the Cornhill Inn, a pub thought to date from the 16th century.
"I came out for exercise, gentle exercise, and to notice the scenery and to botanise. And no sooner do I get on that accursed machine than
off I go hammer and tongs; I never look to right or left, never notice a flower, never see a view - get hot, juicy, red - like a grilled chop. Get me on that machine and
I have to go. I go scorching along the road, and cursing aloud at myself for doing it."
H. G. Wells
"Nicholas Davies, labourer, Rhayader, was brought up in custody charged with stealing one bicycle lamp, value 4/6., the property of
Jonathan Evans, Prospect House, Merthyr Vale, who was on tour through Rhayader on June 7th. Evans stated that he left his bicycle outside the Cwmdauddwr Arms Inn at
3 o'clock that day [Wednesday]. He had not been in the inn for more than five minutes when he was informed that his lamp had been taken. He went out in search
of the prisoner but failing to find him, gave information to the police. P.C. Bufton, from inquiries made found the prisoner lying down in a field under the hedge outside
the town, with the lamp in his possession. He charged him with stealing it. Prisoner replied "all right." He conveyed him to the police station, and on searching
him there found a new pair of boots tied up in a paper parcel in his pocket of the value of 5/11. He asked him where he got them from. He replied that he got them in a
lane outside the town. Upon inquiries being made at the different shoe shops in the town, it was discovered that the boots had been taken off a hook from outside the shop
of Mr. Thomas Lloyd, shoemaker, West Street, Rhayader. Lloyd identified the boots and stated that they were put outside the shop that morning and no-one belonging to
the establishment had sold them. The prisoner denied stealing them but elected to be tried summarily. The Magistrates returned to consider the verdict and upon entering
the court told Davies they found him guilty of two clear robberies, but being his first offence he would be dealt with leniently. He would be sentenced to 21 days'
imprisonment with hard labour."
Montgomeryshire Echo : June 10th 1899 Page 5.
"About three o'clock on Saturday afternoon, a man named Thomas Price, native of Tutchell, Chirbury, Salop, was found dead outside the
Bell Inn, Cwmdauddwr. The deceased, it appears, called at the inn, and was refused drink by the landlord. As he was going away he fell with his head against a wall, and
was subsequently picked up dead. Deceased had been employed at the Elan Valley waterworks for several years. He was respectably connected, and had always been of temperate
habits. A watch and chain and 11s. 10d. were found in his possession. Deceased's relatives arrived at Rhayader by the early morning train on Monday. The inquest on
Monday was adjourned for week."
"Man Drops Dead"
Montgomeryshire Echo : August 13th 1904 Page 5.
"It is understood that arrangements are being made to holding another cyclists carnival. Previous carnivals have been very successful, and
it is expected the local wheelers will make every endeavour to get another attractive and amusing display."
Montgomeryshire Echo : May 28th 1898 Page 8.
"On Monday night it was discovered that some evil-doer had forced an entrance into Cwmdauddwr Parish Church. Mrs. Conway, of the Bell Inn,
who happened to take a walk round the churchyard on Monday afternoon, was the first to discover the outrage, and she at once sent information to the Vicar [the Rev. W.
Gabe], who summoned P.C. Evans, of Rhayader, to investigate the matter. It appeared that the first attempt to effect an entrance was made by the vestry window but on
account of the window being small, and crossed with iron bars at a certain distance the robbers failed in their efforts. An attempt was evidently next made to force the
door of the main entrance with an iron bar, which greatly damaged the stone frame and door, but the attempt again proved futile. They were however, determined to carry out
their plans, and, applying the same bar to the vestry door forced an entrance. They succeeded in securing the alms box from the Church, which they afterwards threw over the
hedge into an adjoining field. Nothing so far has been found missing, and it is expected that the miscreant will be brought to justice very shortly."
"Sacrilege at Cwmdauddwr"
Montgomeryshire Echo : June 4th 1904 Page 4.