The Elan Valley – Dam Busters Walk

On Sunday 28th December, Jessie journeyed up to the Elan Valley to join a guided walk led by one of the Elan Valley Rangers. Some of you may know that the Elan Valley and more specifically the Nant-y-Gro dam (previously on a small tributary of the river Elan) played a role in one of the most famous and secretive missions of the Second World War – The Dambusters Raid. So to separate fact from local legend, Jessie set off with walking boots, wooly hat and her trusty camera to find out more.

Elan Valley sign

After varying weather reports spoke of sleet, snow and miserable cold rain, there was welcome news that Sunday looked set to be fine and clear. The crisp frosty morning and bright sunshine I woke up to was totally jawdropping. What a day for a walk, especially up at one of our favourite spots – The Elan Valley.

I made my way up to the visitors centre for 10 am and was greeted by an enthusiastic group of people, both local and visitors from further afield, all togged up ready for the walk ahead. We were joined by Fiona, one of the Elan Valley Rangers, who made us all feel welcome and warned us of the amount of steps we had to tackle and the ascent up past the Nant-y-Gro dam. Both tricky sections were actually fairly manageable (with a fair amount of puffing!) and Fiona made sure to keep the pack together and that we were aware it was not a race.

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The water was pouring over the Caban Coch dam as we set off across the bridge and made our way up the steps on the left hand side. When at the top, Fiona gave us a quick potted history of the Elan Valley project, the reasons behind it, the planning and logistics, as well as this she was able to field our questions. The dams were built by the former Birmingham Corporation during the later part of the 19th century and were a huge undertaking.  They are widely recognised as being amongst the finest examples of constructional engineering of the day. The Elan Valley Visitor’s Centre based below the towering Caban Coch dam is well worth a visit if you head over to the area, with a host of very intersting facts, figures and some brilliant photographs and displays.

Caban Coch dam

We then traced the side of the Caban Coch reservoir, there was no wind and bright sunshine, making the large reservoir appear remarkably still.

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Fiona gathered us around as we approached what is left of the Nant-y-Gro dam, it is on a small tributary of the River Elan and now feeds into the Caban Coch reservoir.  She explained how, in 1942, Barnes Wallace was carrying out secret experimental work to the test the theory that the dams of the Ruhr Valley, such as the Mohne and Eder dams, could be breached using explosives.

Dam charge test Nant Y Gro reservoir

The comparitively small masonry dam, which was built across the Nant-y-Gro stream during the early stages of the Elan Valley dam construction to supply to village below, was no longer needed as the Caban Coch dam had filled by 1942. The remote location was also a huge draw for Barnes Wallace and his team, enabling them to carry out testing whilst keeping the lid firmly on what they were doing. Until very recently the dam was concealed behind trees, but scheduled felling has revealed the dam and made its history just that little bit more accessible.

In May 1942, the first set of tests were carried out but they were unable to breach the dam with explosives. They returned in July the same year with another prototype explosive which was placed on the central portion of the dam and below the water, this had the desired effect and the dam was breached.

Nant y Gro

A portion of the dam wall, due to planned felling the remains of the Nant y Gro dam are now easily visable

After that point we started to climb up Craig Cnwch and were treated to fantastic views out towards the Garreg Ddu viaduct, Nantgwyllt church and as we reached the top we could see the twin cairns of Drygarn Fawr, the highest point in the area.

View from the top

Over the crest of the hill we descended into the valley with drystone walls tracing the boundaries of the fields. There we met a local farmer, out working his five sheepdogs. He stood with us for a while, talking about how he trains the dogs and showing us his different commands for each. While he spoke to us, the dogs behind just kept the sheep gently in line without any instruction.

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Through the gate

We continued down a small lane, bordered on one side by an old oakwood, then dropped down through the bracken to Elan Village below.  The village was originally a purpose built community, designed to house workers on the dams and was a series of wooden shelters. It was later that the charming stone houses were built.

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Then it was a short walk back to the visitors centre, where we said our thanks and goodbyes, amongst much agreement that the walk had been a fantastic way to spend a morning.

The Elan Valley Rangers will be running some more walks in 2015 and it is well worth keeping an eye on the events page, we will also shout about anything we hear!

Take a look at other activites and special places near the caravan and camping site on our activities pages. Fforest Fields campsite officially closes from the 4th of January and, while the facilities will still be open, we will simply keep it ticking along rather than having everything open! We open again in March 2015 and have our fingers tightly crossed for a beautiful spring and sun-filled summer. Don’t forget we also have two great holiday cottages on the farm, Ffynonnau and easy-access Y Ffos.  Both perfect for wintery getaways to mid Wales!

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