As the gateway to the gorgeous Elan Valley, Rhayader is a magnet for walkers, cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts. But don’t rush off. Full of life and with a bucolic-meets-bohemian vibe that’s all its own, the town itself is just as worthy of exploration.
It’s difficult to pin down modern, multi-faceted Rhayader. It’s a thriving outdoor adventure hub that draws a steady stream of visitors decked out in brightly coloured Lycra and muddy walking boots, with an unusually large number of lively pubs and restaurants for a settlement of its size.
That’s just part of Rhayader’s raison d’être. It’s also a centre of the rural community and meeting place for residents of the remote farms and tiny hamlets that dot a sparsely populated hinterland of rolling hills and wild mountains.
Rhayader’s central streets perfectly illustrate this blend of trendy and traditional. Extending in either direction from the striking war memorial that serves as the town’s focal point (a prominent landmark well known to regular travellers on the main A470 trunk route through Wales), it’s a place where you can buy funky antiques, freshly baked bread, ornamental metalwork and locally made art, alongside farm equipment, tools and animal feed.
Possibly the best example of Rhayader’s something-for-everyone shopping scene is Hafod Hardware. A family-run fixture on the main street since 1930, it’s a timeless treasure-trove of a store where you can pick up everything from teapots and toasters to fishing tackle and camping supplies. You’ll be in good company as you browse its cornucopia of items – notable customers include Prince Charles, who popped in for a visit in 2021.
On your bike
While a lot of people use Rhayader as a jumping-off point for rides through the Elan Valley, you don’t have to leave town to enjoy stunning cycling. Just off the main road close to the banks of the River Wye you’ll find Pump Track Wales, an unmissable stop for any two-wheeled adventurer.
This new addition to Rhayader’s cycling scene is the UK’s first split sprint pump track, allowing two riders to go head-to-head on identical, mirror-image loops of jumps, berms and bumps. It’s an adrenaline rush equal to anything you’ll find in the surrounding hills – so don’t forget to pack your helmet.
Away with the birds
You can’t say you’ve visited Mid Wales unless you’ve had an encounter with a red kite, the iconic bird of prey we’ve adopted as our unofficial mascot. On the brink of extinction here a few decades ago, conservation efforts have led to a remarkable comeback. Nowadays, their distinctive fork-tailed silhouettes are a frequent sight across our skies.
Visitors to Rhayader can get a guaranteed – and unusually close – encounter with these entrancing feathered creatures at Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre on the eastern outskirts of town. The daily feeding sessions attract kites in staggering numbers, with hundreds swooping down in search of a free meal.
The open-air buffet also attracts crows, buzzards and ravens, who compete with the kites for scraps in a noisy and action-packed natural spectacle. You can watch and snap pictures from the safety of a hide, before grabbing some quick refreshment in the farm’s cosy coffee shop. Feeding takes place at 2pm in winter (Greenwich Mean Time) and 3pm in summer (British Summer Time). Although the kites don’t know the clocks have changed they’re always bang on time.
Rhayader’s cultural scene is as rich as its birdlife. CARAD (short for Community and Arts Rhayader and District) is a small museum and gallery space with a big heart, showcasing the best work from local makers. You can browse and buy artworks, ceramics and textiles, and take part in regular classes and workshops. Favourite events are the regular Nature Talk and Draw sessions – a talk from a local natural history expert, followed by a guided art class where you can work on your wildlife drawing skills.
There’s more art at The Lost Arc, a venue and gallery space housed in a former leather mill on Rhayader’s western side. You’ll find regular exhibitions from local artists, plus a busy programme of live music featuring performers from Wales and beyond. The café is worth a visit too, serving up great breakfasts made with fresh produce sourced from the surrounding area’s farmers and suppliers.
A river runs through it
Cutting through town on its western side before curling around to the south is the majestic River Wye. It’s the fourth-longest river in the UK, stretching all the way from its source in the Mid Wales mountain of Pumlumon to the Severn Estuary in the south.
We think it’s particularly pretty here in Rhayader, flowing over small cascades of water-smoothed rock and through peaceful, glassy pools as it passes by. A gentle riverside path provides some of the best views – plus places to paddle if you need to cool off.
CURIOSITIES AND SURPRISES
Lost links. During the 2020 lockdown, Rhayader resident Chris Powell made an unusual discovery on a hill north-west of the town. Hidden away beneath the bracken was a forgotten nine-hole golf course. Originally designed in 1925 by Dr Alister Mackenzie (also responsible for the slightly grander greens at Augusta National Golf Club in the USA), Chris’s efforts with a scythe and lawnmower have revealed much of its layout – including some of the original metal hole cups.
Whose round is it? There are plenty of pubs in Rhayader. In 2008, it was even identified as the town with the most pubs per person in the UK, with 12 pubs serving its then 2,075 inhabitants. Those numbers have changed a little in the intervening years, by a quick glance along the streets shows that Rhayader still boasts an unusually large number of hostelries for a place of its size.
Dressed to impress. In the mid-19th century, civil unrest known as the Rebecca Riots gripped this part of Wales. Sparked by tolls placed on roads used by farmers and traders, it saw groups of men dressed in women’s clothes attacking and destroying the hated toll gates. With six gates placed on roads around Rhayader, the town was a hotbed for these unusual protests.
Water, water everywhere. The nearby Elan Valley provides drinking water for the English city of Birmingham. In a spectacular feat of engineering, six dams were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to create a series of reservoirs. With a surface area of almost 1,500 acres/600ha these reservoirs can contain almost one million cubic metres of water. They now form the centrepiece of the Elan Estate, a place of national importance for its wildlife – and inky, unpolluted Dark Skies, a stargazer’s portal into the cosmos.
Water power. The dams that contain the waters of the Elan Valley are also a source of power. Water flowing through the dams is used to generate a maximum output of 3.9 megawatts of electricity. This power makes its way to Rhayader through a massive 7½-mile/12km underground cable, where it joins National Grid.
Hollywood or bust. Thanks in part to the 1955 movie Dambusters, the daring 1943 mission to destroy German dams in the Ruhr Valley is one of the best-known stories of World War Two. In preparation for the attack, RAF boffins tested their methods at Nant-y-Gro dam just outside Rhayader. The test was a success, as demonstrated by the remains of the shattered dam which can still be seen today.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
There’s plenty to keep you busy on a day out in Rhayader. Here’s your guide to some things you won’t want to miss. While you don’t have to tackle them in the order below, we’ve laid them out in a way that should help you get the most from your visit. If you have less time to spend in town, just pick the places that spark your curiosity.
Take a stroll along the banks of the River Wye, the fourth-longest river in the UK. Rhayader’s Welsh name Rhaeadr Gwy translates as ‘The Waterfall on the Wye’, after the small falls that could once be seen at this spot. The waterfall was largely destroyed when the bridge over the river was built in 1780, though a few small cascades remain.
Pump Track Wales
Adrenaline junkies won’t want to miss the chance to test their cycling skills on the UK’s biggest pump track. This twisting network of bumps, berms and jumps is also the Britain’s first split pump track, giving riders the chance to go head-to-head on two mirror-image loops. It’s a fun and friendly part of the local community that’s suitable for both novices and expert riders. Best of all, it’s totally free to use.
Explore the streets
Rhayader’s main streets are home to a cornucopia of shops selling just about everything you could possibly imagine. You’ll find locally made arts and crafts at Quillies and Oriel Fach, bespoke metalwork at Artmetal, unique furniture at 3-Legged Duck Interiors and vintage items at West Street Antiques.
There’s also the legendary Hafod Hardware, a timeless treasure trove of a store stocking crockery, chocolate, fishing tackle, gardening supplies, electrical items, pockets knives and just about anything else you could conceivably need. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Red Kite Feeding Station
Head to Gigrin Farm on the eastern outskirts of Rhayader to see one of Wales’s most awe-inspiring natural spectacles. The daily feeding session (which takes place at 2pm November–March and 3pm April–October) attracts hundreds of fork-tailed red kites. These iconic birds of prey perform stunning displays of aerial acrobatics as they compete with each other (and the local crows, ravens and buzzards) in search of a free meal.
CARAD Museum and Gallery
Pay a visit to this community space to see (and buy) arts and crafts made by local artisans who draw inspiration from the landscapes around Rhayader. You’ll find ceramics, textiles and prints, plus a lively programme of events, talks and art classes that celebrate the natural environment of Mid Wales.
The Lost Arc
Finish your day with live music at The Lost Arc, a funky bar/café/venue housed in a former leatherworks on Rhayader’s western side. Depending on when you visit, you could see artists from Wales and beyond, or join in a jam session with local music enthusiasts.