The Elan Valley

A week into her role as Writer in Residence at the Elan Valley, Ruth Raymer reflects on the “simpler, slower” life she has found in mid-Wales.

Elan Valley 1

I’m sitting in a cottage on the side of a mountain in mid-Wales as I write this. Behind me, the log burner is crackling away whilst outside the rain is beating down on the corrugated iron sheets of the porch, playing its own tune. There is something primal and comforting about sitting in front of a log fire on a rainy day. I’ve been here in the Elan Valley for seven days now and this is the first serious rain there’s been. There has been thick fog – it hangs midway between the water of the reservoir below me and the top of the mountain behind me. There has also been unrelenting sun and heat.

I’ve walked to the top of the mountain in the early morning, watching the fog coming down, then panicked about getting back down the mountain before the fog reached me. (I made it.) I’ve walked beside three of the five reservoirs so far, recording plant and animal life as I walk:

Grey squirrel
Brown trout
Blue damsel fly
Yellow wagtail
Red Kite
Pied Wagtail
Colour at every turn.

Song Thrush
Garden Warbler
Marsh Tit
From the largest to the tiniest.

Man has been controlling the flow of water through this valley via dams and reservoirs for well over a century, yet at every turn I also see the power and strength of the natural world, in a valley first created by glaciers. Massive boulders worn away by the power of the water rushing over and around them sit beside man-made dams. In a sawn-off oak stump, a rowan sapling is growing from a seed either blown by the wind from one of the other rowans twenty feet away, or more likely deposited by a bird.

Elan Valley 3

There is a delicate balance here between man and nature. The custodians of the 73 square miles of the Elan Estate, Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, are working hard to make sure that nature is given every chance. They are curating the ancient woodlands that were not destroyed in the construction of the dams and these are flourishing under their care. There are several species of mosses and lichens in the area that are unique and protected; birds of prey have a safe haven to nest and bring on their young. The River Elan originally fed into the River Wye and this flow is now carefully monitored and regulated to maintain the balance there.

All this has to be done whilst allowing the public to roam, ride and drive to enjoy some of the most spectacular feats of Victorian engineering in the UK and the flora and fauna which co-exist here. In a world of engineered landscapes, this one allows us to see the very best of both sides of that coin.

I am spending another three weeks here, in the stillness and silence that is punctuated only by passing motorcycles from time to time and the constant chatter of the abundant bird life. Life is not interrupted by the internet or mobile phones – they don’t work here. I have no TV, no mains electricity and no close neighbours. Cooking is done on a coal fired range that also heats the water and the radiators in the bedrooms. Life here is simpler, slower. It’s also harder when the weather is bad, or your generator breaks down or if, like me, you don’t drive. Somehow the landscape and the life it supports make those no more than tolerable nuisances. After all – who could fail to be inspired in such a place?

Elan Valley 2

Ruth Raymer is an MA Creative Writing student at the University of Essex who has taken MA Wild Writing modules as part of the course. She is currently Writer in Residence at the Elan Valley as part of the APTElan (Artists, Place, Time, Elan) Artists Residencies, supported by the Arts Council for Wales and Dwr Cymru Welsh Water. She tweets @WalesWriting.

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2 Responses to The Elan Valley

  1. jcanto2012 says:

    The sense of that ‘stillness and silence’ Ruth writes of is somehow so tangible here both in her depiction of the basic functionality of her dwelling space and in the wilder, wider space beyond. Thoreau’s ‘intimacy with nature’ that ‘compels … to solitude’ is so apparent in Ruth’s words and new-found world.

  2. sorcha03 says:

    Hi Ruth
    I think if talking about conservation… in the 1980s the Elan Valley Trust was set up to take on the conservation work, open access and education. DCWW see itself as a provider of clean water – though obviously there is overlap. The dams are 100 years old and the wildlife has been managed to a greater degree by the people on the land for 100s of years in a harmonious way which can only be done on land like this to survive in the elements (breed type of sheep and systems in place). DCWW are responsible for the woodlands and reservoirs. Very quickly this beauty is handed to the main landowner which received the Elan Valley through the act of compulsory purchase. No reference is made to the people and wildlife which suffered under the construction of the dams. Most of the designation is on trust/tenanted land. Today upland hill farming finds it hard to survive against other farming methods, we through grants are managing the landscape for its wildlife. It is the crux of upland life (which you have lived) how do you add value to what the people on the land are doing, because of those to gain the most are not the people undertaking the management, which could change quickly with changes in government or funding. As we chatted on the phone, it is such a wide deep topic the Elan Valley, the more you know it the more you are pulled in directions….. but overall it is the peace and solitude Shelley and William Lyles Bowles wrote about which is hanging on today, but to see it you need to become one with it. I hope this helps in someway… it was a personal reflection from living in the Elan Valley through all elements and being very involved in the history, farming and wildlife…. and knowing the true impacts which are affecting our hills. I wish Ruth all the best with her work….. will be a loss when the little light across the reservoir goes out for a little while.

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