Lying 700 feet above sea level, Rhayader is sheltered by the Cambrian Mountains and cuppedby hills rising to more than 1,500 feet. It’s the very first town on the banks of the boul-der-strewn River Wye, which rises in the Plynlimon range to the north.
Who wouldn’t want to live here? You might well think these surroundings couldn’t possibly beimproved. But then you’re not a Victorian engineer.
The decision in the 1890s to dam the rivers Claerwen and Elan and flood their valleys wasn’t taken on the grounds of beauty. The idea was to provide clean drinking water for the city ofBirmingham.
But the result is one of the most spectacular landscapes in Britain: the Elan Valley Estate. Seventy square miles of rivers, dams and reservoirs, species-rich meadows, moorland and ancient forest they call the Lakeland of Wales.
Man and nature (not to mention Welsh Water) are working in harmony to create what TV wild-life presenter Iolo Williams calls “some of the best views in the whole world”. And they’re righton Rhayader’s doorstep.
This epic scheme, opened in 1904 by King Edward VII, changed the face of the town for ever. Hovels were replaced by many of the three-storied buildings you can still see in East Street today – and shops were rebuilt to cope with growing hordes of tourists.
But then Rhayader has always been at the centre of things. For centuries it was an important stopping point for monks, drovers and mail coaches.
It got so busy in the 19th century that tollgates were erected on every road in and out of the town. Big mistake. Poor farmers couldn’t afford to get to market – and they didn’t take it lying down.
Oddly enough they dressed up as women and, in an orgy of violence known as the Rebecca Riots, demolished the hated gates. (Rebecca, by the way, was an early advocate of direct action from the Book of Genesis.)
Rhayader Museum and Gallery, run by CARAD, is the place to hear these and many other stories. Their displays of more than 1,500 objects are brought vividly to life by films and oral histories which show how the community has changed over the years.
You may even get to hear why the inhabitants of a town named after a waterfall, Rhaeadr Gwy, are actually nicknamed Bwgyites. It’s all down to the River Bwgy that used to provide the town with drinking water, plus a tall tale or two.
An old Welsh verse roughly translates as: “The finest children Wales can have are those that drink bright Bwgy’s wave.” And it was reputed that anyone who dipped their feet in the Bwgy would always return to Rhayader. Sadly it’s been a bit difficult to test this theory since the riv-er was piped underground in 1877.
But you really don’t need to go paddling to get attached to Rhayader. A stroll around the town should suffice.
Try one of the circular riverside walks that pass through lovely Gro or Waun Capel parks – and catch a glimpse of the waterfall that was once “a miniature Niagara Falls” until the stone bridge built in 1780 stole its thunder. Or spend an hour walking the town trail that includes atollhouse left standing by Rebecca and her daughters.
Sooner or later though, you’ll want to spread your wings. The surrounding scenery is just too tempting. You could take the Wye Valley Walk north to the river’s mountain source or south all the way to Chepstow. You could follow Gwastedyn Church Trail, a 36-mile pilgrimage route linking seven historic churches.
But if you want to explore a Victorian fantasy landscape of stone dams and giant man-made lakes, as 400,000 people do every year, take the eight-mile Elan Valley Trail. It’s perfect for walkers, cyclists and horse riders – and specially designed for wheelchairs and pushchairs.
The Elan Valley is so stupendous, everyone should be able to enjoy it. That’s why its visitor centre offers more than just an exhibition, audio-visual show and a café serving “proper cof-fee” and home-made cakes. They also do All Ability bike hire with electric bikes, a hand cycleand a side-by-side tricycle.
Clive Powell’s mountain bike centre in Rhayader delivers everything from half-day hires to fully guided Dirty Weekends – which are every bit as much fun as they sound. Because this is some of the best mountain biking terrain in Britain.
In fact the Elan Valley is one vast outdoor playground where you can kayak, fish for wild brown trout and even go swinging through the trees on a high ropes course. Since it has some of the country’s darkest skies, it’s brilliant for star-gazing too.
But it’s probably best known for its teeming wildlife – as you’d expect from a place with no fewer than 12 different Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
See if you can spot Elan’s Big Five: the common lizard, the Welsh clearwing moth, the otter, the brown hare and the red kite. And if you draw a blank on the last one, just pop along to Gigrin Farm on the outskirts of Rhayader.
At the Red Kite Feeding Centre you’re guaranteed an unforgettable sighting of the iconic bird of Mid Wales. Every day they perform breathtaking feats of aerial piracy as they compete with buzzards and ravens for food.
It all starts at 2pm in winter and 3pm in summer. Because the birds just can’t remember when to put their clocks forward