The Elan Valley. Why had we never heard about this before?
When we mentioned to our Welsh friends that we were heading to mid Wales they immediately said ‘I bet I know where you’re going’. And they were right with their guess. We were heading to the Elan Valley.
This area in mid Wales had never come to our attention before and we felt a little ashamed that we had overlooked it. Our focus was always on the mountains and the coast; Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons (or Eryri and Bannau Brycheiniog as we’re slowly getting used to calling them), Pembrokeshire and the Lleyn Peninsular.
As part of my planning I investigated Mountain Bike destinations in Wales to test out my shiny new bike, and the Elan Valley had sounded just the ticket. It had great sounding cross country bike routes plus a couple of short downhill flow trails to try out before moving onto Bike Park Wales for some more serious downhill.
The Elan Valley area is centred around a set of dams and their associated reservoirs. Mostly created in the late 1800s, with one post WWII reservoir, they provide the back bone for a very Victorian valley with imposing industrial architecture, arts and crafts village and Victorian terraces in the surrounding towns to house the construction workers. All of this is nestled in valleys between hills and moorland. It may not be as high as the more famous upland areas in Wales, but it has just as much beauty and it’s own unspoilt charm.
Temporary Holiday Site at the Red Kite Sanctuary
Near the start of the Elan Valley is the small town of Rhayader and this was where we were going to stay. As it was half term we were able to take advantage of a Temporary Holiday Site (THS) at Gigrin Farm, a Red Kite feeding centre.
We’ve stayed at a few THS before. They are run by the Camping and Caravanning Club (other clubs have similar rally sites, but we haven’t tried them out) and are usually on a field somewhere with basic amenities; water and waste disposal. Most of the time you have to have your own facilities but there are some with access to toilets and shower blocks and even electricity.
The Out and About app gives all the details of THS and Rally sites for the Camping and Caravanning Club, so a few days in advance I looked up the details for the stewards and texted ahead to make sure that we didn’t need to book and could just turn up on spec.
We arrived at Rhayader on the Tuesday afternoon after a visit to Morrisons in Ebbw Vale to fill up with LPG and stock up the cupboards. We hadn’t realised that we would be arriving just before the kite feeding time so there were a few vehicles driving up the narrow lane. Luckily we were mostly going in the same direction but as we got to the entrance there was someone trying to leave which caused a bit of a hold up as we all jostled to make enough room to pass.
Eventually we got to the entrance and explained at the small ticket office that we were just going into the THS and they directed us to drive through the car park and into the site itself, a field behind the farm that was terraced with two levels.
We had come armed with cash to pay for the next three nights. Quite a few THS offer the ability to pay by card but it’s good to be prepared. We were given a sheet of rules, told about the social events (there is no pressure to join in at all), location of water taps and waste disposal, and were told to pick a spot. The only stipulation was to keep a reasonable distance from other units.
We drove up to the tap first, filling up so we wouldn’t have to move again, and then drove around the field to find a spot where we felt level and wouldn’t need to worry about the levelling blocks.
We were all set up and ready to go before the 3pm kite feeding time. We could watch this from the THS site without needing to go into the viewing area itself. This was more of a spectacle than we expected with several hundred birds wheeling above the site.
A Short Bike Ride over the old Golf Links
On our first full day at Rhayader we spent the morning chilling, relaxing in the sunshine. But by early afternoon we were getting a bit stir crazy and decided to take a short bike ride. We had found a ride on the Mountain BIke Wales site that looked ideal. An uphill on the road to the top of the old golf links followed by an offroad downhill section almost back to the start.
We had to add on a few km to get from the campsite to the start point, a quick bike ride through Rhayader and out towards the Elan valley. Just past the start of the Elan Valley cycle path was a right hand turn to a minor road which took us steadily uphill along a peaceful scenic valley until we found a track on the right hand side. Then we followed the track back downhill, past sheep and down rocky steps to farm buildings where we turned right to bring us back out onto the minor road.
This was an awesome short ride which anyone would love to have on their doorstep as a little post work refresher and I was on a high because my new bike had really given me the confidence to enjoy the downhills. We were almost tempted to do it twice, but not quite. Instead we cycled more slowly back through Rhayader to check out the shopping options. It was a really nice small town with small and slightly old fashioned feeling independent shops.
The Ceidwad Coch Route
The next day was a full on day on the bikes. We were following the Ceidwad Coch (Red Ranger) circular route around some of the dams of the Elan Valley.
We started by cycling through Rhayader as we had the day before, but this time we turned left onto the cycle path that runs parallel to the road into the valley. This follows some of the old railway line that was installed for the purpose of building the dams. If you stay on it you reach Elan Village but we were branching off to the left to take a small road that curved around southwards. This led us to the start of our off road biking, up and down some very nice tracks to the southern point of the Caban-coch reservoir.
We followed the Afon Claerwen to the dam at the head of the Claerwen reservoir. Along this section of the route we were cycling through or around large puddles in the track. It was one of these puddles that did Paul a nasty injury when he suddenly realised that it was a lot deeper than expected and toppled over onto the bank (I was following and so luckily had time to avoid it). For the next few days we were concerned that he had broken a rib but with the benefit of hindsight it was just some very nasty bruising.
He didn’t mention this at the time though and so we continued, taking the road on the other side of the Afon Claerwen and then turning left only to get off and push up a steep track onto the tussocky moorland. This track turned into a very pleasant grassy route heading to the Garreg Ddu reservoir. At a gate into woodland the track started to descend and we finally found ourselves on the Nantgwyyllt flow trails.
When the trail split into red or blue we picked up the red trail and had a fun but vey quick descent to the edge of the reservoir. After that little spike of adrenaline it was time to find a picnic spot so we settled by the reservoir for lunch with a view.
After this we were back on the main Elan Valley cycle path back to Elan village and then all the way to Rhayader. We stopped for a drink at the pub before picking up some groceries for our dinner.
This had definitely whetted our appetites for more mountain biking and for exploring more of mid Wales.