LAKE VYRNWY
Over 200,000 visitors flock to the Lake Vyrnwy reservoir in the Berwyn Mountains each year. This series of articles charts the development of the lake and its dam, and describes what visitors can expect to find in the area today. Two short walks are also included in this series of features.

Lake Vyrnwy and its history

Wales has always had a strong association with the magical, the mystical and the divine. Since the Celts occupied this land several millennia ago, a myth, legend or fairytale has more often than not become allied with much of its breathtaking landscape and terrain.

As many of the great and the good like to believe: the Good Lord first created Wales with all her exceptional scenery and beauty. And with what was left of his imagination and creativity, he then set about fashioning the rest of the world.

However, a fair share of giants, gnomes, trolls - you name it - have also reportedly had a hand in shaping the principality’s features - either by rearranging the landscape during a bitter fight or squabble, or by becoming the deserved focus for vengeance by a legendary prince or king. Thereafter, their infamous name has often been used to brand a famous Welsh landmark, such as Snowdon or Cader Idris for posterity.

In Snowdon’s case, the menacing giant, Rhita Gawr, gave rise to its name during the Dark Ages (post-Roman Britain around 500-800AD). A troublesome beast, he was, so the story goes, slain by ancient king, Arthur on this great mountain’s very slopes; and the cairn, where he was entombed, became known as Gwyddfa Rhita. Over the years this metamorphosed into Yr Wyddfa in Welsh, as Snowdon is now known.

And the mythical associations do not stop there: Llyn Lydaw also on Snowdon is supposedly where Arthur’s formidable sword Excalibur was thrown after he was brutally crushed at his last Battle of Camlann. Among the many places vying for the title of the authentic battlefield is a meadow near Dinas Mawddy, about 25 miles from Glyn-yr-Aur.

The Lady of the Lake, a benevolent spirit immersed in Lydaw’s depths, bequeathed the sword to Arthur so, as legend says, he could easily vanquish all enemies and invaders that tried to steal his throne.

Indeed, when many lakes in the principality have seen their water levels plummet, there has often been an abundance of ancient swords found on the cracked and drying water beds.

However, during more modern times, lakes of an entirely different kind have been taking over Wales at an astonishing rate.

Reservoirs, as they are best known, have become outstanding landmarks and attractions in their own right, even if many of them have only been around for a little over a 100 years.

Please view the  Lake Vyrnwy slideshow.

Development of Lake Vyrnwy

Among these mighty new man-made fabrications is one Lake Vyrnwy, that came about at the end of the 19th century to keep Liverpool supplied with a steady stream of fresh water.

Although land-scaped and painstakingly pre-planned, the lake and its surrounding 23,000 acres have become a haven for wildlife since 1892 - and would equal, if not outshine, many of its more natural cousins.

Containing up to 13 billion gallons of water when at full capacity, the lake when it was first completed was said to be unlike no other in Britain or indeed all of Europe.

Victorian engineers with their enthusiasm for mega-structures and leviathan public works, were eager to break back the bounds of what had previously been thought possible.

No reservoir on the scale of Vyrnwy had ever been attempted before, and certainly not one with such an ambitious lake or stone dam.

Previously, any reservoirs were constructed by excavating earth and building an embankment-type dam with this compacted material.

But with Liverpool’s population expanding at break-neck speed, it was felt drastic action was needed.

Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 18th century, people had been flocking to towns and cities in search of work.

Ramshackle and unsanitary housing had shot up to house this burgeoning workforce, however disease and poverty had also multiplied as rapidly as the new buildings.

Clean and pure water was seen as the solution to cure Liverpool and similar cities of their seemingly all-consuming ills.

Moreover, any such project, it was felt, should be future-proof, to provide a supply of fresh water for many generations to come. And this has undoubtedly been achieved, as upto 54 million gallons of water are still supplied to Liverpool this very day.

What perhaps makes this impressive feat of civil engineering all the more amazing was that it was the forerunner to many modern-day public works, built on a truly immense scale.

Not only were 1000 labourers and a steam-driven tramway the mainstay of the whole of the operation, but steam-driven cranes also helped to take the project to heights that had only ever before been dreamed of.

But it was never ever going to be just a straightforward build. There were many other factors to consider, not least of which was the community of over 400 who already lived on the valley floor.

It had taken the Corporation of Liverpool, several years to locate a likely site for its proposed new reservoir, and what had impressed them about the Vyrnwy area (then in Montgomeryshire, now in Powys) was the purity of its waters.

Second, and equally importantly, the valley floor that was to eventually be flooded had all the right dimensions. Having been formed after the last Ice Age, it had a relatively flat floor and fairly steep sides. These factors it was felt, would all, make for a more than suitable repository for millions of gallons of water.

In spite of the village of Llanwddyn, being right in the centre of the proposed development area, this factor was not allowed to forestall or delay any of the ambitious plans.

Most of the acreage to be purchased was common land, and other parts of it belonged to landed gentry such as Earl of Powis, Sir E Buckley and Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn.

Any major objections were dampened down after it was agreed that a new village would be built a few miles away from the edge of the finished lake.

While all the day-to-day building works were being completed, the villagers still very much went about their lives, as the 60ft of topsoil, or half a million tonnes of earth, was first excavated and then removed.

This was so that the 400 million year old Ordovician bedrock could be reached which was to provide a sturdy foundation for the whole of the designated lake.

But being Wales, legend again intervened to add that typically mystical element to the whole of the proceedings.

Setting a goblin free

This time the spirit of a goblin was said to have been trapped under a massive stone in the middle of the excavations, known locally as the Ghost Stone or Careg yr Yspryd.

So the story goes, a local hero, Richard Spot, managed to trap the troublesome goblin known as Cynon’s Ghost or Yspryd Cynon in the quill of a pen.

To make sure it would never escape, the pen was then placed underneath the aforementioned huge rock.

The gigantic boulder, however, was not something that the Liverpool Corporation would countenance impairing their vision for the proposed lake. Much to the consternation of the locals, a huge toad emerged from the rock after it was blasted with dynamite. Was this a portent of doom and the spirit of the said goblin escaping? Or was it just a toad in the wrong place, at the wrong time?

In any event, Llanwddyn with three inns, a post office, 2 chapels and 37 farmhouses had been a thriving agricultural community since Medieval times.

Over the course of 8 years, as the dam started to go up, a new village was built, and the erstwhile community of sheep farmers started to be dismantled and come down.

Out of respect for the dead, all of the buried were reinterred at the newly constructed church over 2 miles away.

Moreover, as much as 500,000 tonnes of Welsh slate (in block form) and 27,000 tonnes of cement went in to constructing the dam which eventually stood at 84 ft high, 1172 ft in length and 120ft thick.

Supposedly, according to which statistics you read, it was built to contain approximately 10 - 13 billion gallons of water, and at nearly 4.5 miles long provided up to 54 million gallons of drinking water per day.

This was then all transferred to Liverpool along almost 75 miles of aqueduct and pipe work that were interspersed with several sub-reservoirs along the way at Oswestry, Malpas and so forth (in a bid to ease the water pressure).

The dam did and still does have some quite awe-inspiring proportions and dimensions. It measures at least 101ft from the lowest part of the river bed to the parapet of the road. It stretches to half a mile across at its widest point, and has a ring road that totals approximately 12 miles in circumference.

Sometimes in drought conditions when the water level takes a serious plunge, the foundations of houses and farm buildings eerily begin to rise from the depths.

The Straining Tower

Perhaps one of the lake’s most famous landmarks is the gothic-style Straining Tower. On almost any picture or drawing, it usually makes an appearance in the far right-hand corner.

Looking very much like a miniature Bavarian castle, that would perhaps be more at home on the Rhine or the Danube, its role is quite central to the reservoir’s operations. It marks the starting point of the water’s 75 mile long journey through mountains, fields and moors towards the extensive urban sprawl of Liverpool.

As the tower’s name suggests, it actually strains the water before it heads towards Merseyside. Any debris or waste material are filtered out through wire mesh. Gravity and a small hydraulic system then help to propel the water onwards and downwards.

At the base of the tower is the entrance to a 2 ¼ mile long tunnel, known as the Hirnant Tunnel. And together with two other tunnels, the Cynynion and the Llanforda, and aqueduct, the water is transported to a holding reservoir at Prescott (on the outskirts of Liverpool).

The water is essentially pulled along by gravity through the mass of lengthy pipeworks. There is a gradual drop of around 514 ft feet from Lake Vyrnwy to the final holding lake, and its whole construction is engineered to ensure mountain peaks and valley floors are avoided.

A fair proportion of the tower is actually hidden underneath the waters of the lake. Standing at around 160ft tall, at least 50ft of this are submerged. And the tower can actually be reached from a small, arched bridge from the lake shore. The dam itself is only a short distance away at approximately 1000m.

The Dam itself

In today’s money the whole of the Lake Vyrnwy project would cost in the region of £22 million from start to finish. At the time the £620,014 final project bill was also thought to be not an inconsiderable sum.

Apart from the excavations and relocation of Llanwddyn, a massive part of the costs was the construction and material costs for the dam.

Engineers of the time were eager to make this whole mammoth project as advanced as the technology of the day allowed, and they weren’t afraid to develop new systems that had never before been put in to operation.

And with this in mind, water was allowed to flow over the top of the dam for the first time ever in to a stilling basin below. It was felt this move would balance the energy either side of the mega-structure more successfully, and stop any erosion of its base.

The two towers at either end of the construction, were given the task of controlling the water flow in to the River Vyrnwy - which springs forth in earnest from the stilling basin.

Reportedly up to 10 million gallons of water a day are released in to the river so as to ensure it runs smoothly and continuously along its course.

From the myriad of rivers and tributaries that flow in to the lake, it took some two years, for it to become full to its brim.

In 1891, with water in place, the reservoir was stocked with over 400,000 Loch Leven Trout. Birds and game were also released in to the area, to make it become the first class nature reserve that it still is today.

The RSPB has taken on the responsibility for managing approximately 16,000 acres of the land surrounding Vyrnwy, which is now a protected nature reserve in its own right.

Rare birds in Britain can regularly be found here such as the Red and Black Grouse and the Great Crested Grebe. Hen Harriers, Crossbills and Goshawks are also among many of the other species that have made Lake Vyrnwy their home.

Regular bird-watching tours are organised throughout the peak season in addition to a series of guided walks. The onsite shop at Vyrnwy is the first port of call for more details.

In addition, Severn Trent Water and the Forestry Commission manage the remainder of the original land that was bought to conserve the lake’s environment.

Lake Vyrnwy Today: Picture-Postcard Perfect

The cobbled paving has long gone, replaced with more car-friendly tarmacadam on the stretch of road that circles present-day Lake Vyrnwy.

Horse drawn carts and carriages, have now become a Renault, a Honda or a Mazda, all with power-assisted steering and windows that open at the touch of a button.

The delicate and dainty steps of elegant gentlewomen in long stiff gowns, that would hover precariously above the ground, all but distant memories. Only sketches from the time indicate that they, or anyone like them, was ever here.

Their escorts in top hats and tails are also no more. Trainers, walking boots and outdoor gear are now all de rigeur.

Gentlemen in breeches and deer-stalkers no longer stride around the surrounding acres with rifle in hand, in search of some fine game.

Now day-trippers lean over the parapet of the dam to drink in the mesmerising view of the lake’s shimmering waters - or gather to gaze up in awe at its imposing and impressive form.

Pick-nickers typically munch on sandwiches by the lake shore, or on one of the specially designed tables that have been sculpted in to a replica of a massive oak leaf.

Walkers in T-shirts, clutching an obligatory walking stick, can be found ambling around the many trackways in search of a waterfall, an enchanting view, or a secluded spot for a picnic.

Lake Vyrnwy has changed in many ways, but has also perhaps fundamentally remained the same.

The dam and lake are still very much outstanding testaments to the skill of its Victorian founders, and remain almost as they were built, with little in the way of modern-day renovation.

Its creators did not just want Vyrnwy to become another reservoir, untrammelled by human foot or hand. Their vision was for it to become a haven for wildlife and those wishing to swap city life for the great outdoors.

Their objectives have undoubtedly been achieved and well over 200,000 visitors flock to this area each year.

  With a cafe, gift shop, boat and cycle hire and an RSPB information centre, there is much to interest the average tourist.

The Sculpture Park at Vyrnwy

And in the spirit of its erstwhile founders, Lake Vyrnwy can again lay claim to another first among its many attractions.

Since the early 90s when Andy Hall of the Forestry Commission met local artist Andy Hancock, sculpture has been created in some form or another at Lake Vyrnwy. The original sculpture trail was started as an enhancement to improvements that were being carried out to the parking areas and the first series of work contained, the Pecking order Pole, the Dolphins and the Pole lathe fence.

The award - winning International section to the sculpture park began in 1999 when funding for Andy’s work allowed an international element to be included. After working at a symposium in Llanfyllin hosted by Dr Tom Gilhespy, a new partnership was born which allowed artists from around the world to gather at the lake to conduct annual symposia and meetings.

Popular abroad, local artists invited their compatriots from countries such Russia, Latvia, Finland, Australia, Norway and, of course, Wales, to join them in creating intriguing works for the public to enjoy.

On every occasion, wood became the medium of choice, and for a few weeks each year, amazing sculptures were created in a display area at the foot of the dam.

 

Co-ordinator of the International visitors to the symposia, Tom Gilhespy explained that he had, over the course of his life, attended over 14 symposia in Eastern bloc countries’, and felt there was a strong need for Wales to host its own.

Behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, such meetings grew, he said, because artists wanted freedom to meet with others and express themselves creatively, in the face of their oppressive government regimes. With funding from the, Arts and Business Cymru, The Arts’ Council of Wales and Severn Trent Water, the first of the Welsh annual symposia began in the summer of 1999.

With funding from the, Arts and Business Cymru, The Arts’ Council of Wales and Severn Trent Water, the first of the Welsh annual symposia began in the summer of 1999.

Humble in its beginnings, Dima and Danya Kaminker from St Petersburg, were the first of the many to create wooden sculptures that would be displayed at the foot of the dam.

The artists were to draw on inspiration from Vyrnwy and its setting in addition to stimuli from their own cultures and homelands.

Among the many leading lights who came was Russian artist Galina Peserevan. Her influence on Andy Hancock was immense as they worked together – she not speaking English and Andy not speaking Russian! Andy said after working alongside Galina “ I learned so much about simple form and figurative folk carving from the way she drew with a piece of chalk, we didn’t need words” .

She had previously found fame producing statues out of bronze and marble. They typically depicted workers in heroic and triumphant poses.

Over the course of a fortnight each summer the artists would work with chainsaws and hand tools to create original pieces, the like of which no-one had ever previously seen.

Some were very avante garde and abstract in their form such as the Obelisk by Nils Haukeland of Norway, sculpted in 2004.


Lost and Found

Others were personal such as “Lost and Found” (Andy Hancock) which was about adoption and a journey to re-unite a family.

However, others are more traditional in nature such as the Kindly Shepherd by Dmitri Kaminiken of Russia, who fashioned an intricate carving of a shepherd, bearing a sheep on his back. It’s worth looking out for at the beginning of the trail. It’s labelled No 6 and was among the first to be created in 2000.

 
The Cupboard                                                                           The Shepherd

Among this writer’s favourites is the Cupboard by Welsh artist, Rosemary Terry. Created in 2003, Rosemary cleverly carved in one half of a massive wooden trunk, a kettle, a pestle and mortar, and on the other a bottle with cork top.

All of the works undoubtedly bear testimony to the skill and talent of the individual artists. The Killer Flower by Solveiga Vasilijeva of Latvia is another of the most striking. It was crafted in 2005 and is marked No 49. With a wild array of planks that represent a panoply of jagged petals, it is certainly one of the most exciting of the sculptures currently on display.

And last and by no means least is the Feather by David Lloyd of Wales, produced in 2002. Branded No 19, the author has artfully created a humanised figure of a feather, in a bashful and timid pose.

 

You can see more of these sculptures in the sculpture slideshow

Organiser Tom Gilhespy added: “Over the years an International Sculpture Park of around 50 works has been created.

“It is the largest and most comprehensive collection of International contemporary sculpture in the landscape in Wales.

“It contains examples of sculpture by artists from Australia, England, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the Ukraine as well as Wales.

“The park has become a major tourist attraction, and an excellent example of how art can be used to increase tourism and aid regeneration in the countryside.”

Andy Hancock – Sculptor in and around Mid Wales

As well as working at Lake Vyrnwy, you might spot the work of Andy Hancock as you travel around Mid Wales.

Currently working between Wales and the USA, Andy’s work focuses on re-using whatever nature gives him. Recently featured on BBC’s Countryfile programme his Green Man outside Oswestry showed the scale and life he is able to bring to a dead tree stump!!

Andy believes that there is a green man in every tree but waits until they are dead or damaged before releasing them! This storm damaged horse chestnut tree wad in the ideal spot for Andy to introduce his art to many thousands of passing motorists and potential customers! – his work is by commission only.

Andy has a few pieces of work dotted around Oswestry as well as his work on Park Hall Farm, which boasts the country’s only organic playground.

Powysland Museum in Welshpool is also worth a visit as it has one of the smallest and most eclectic outdoor art displays in Powys with work by three artists who all have very different styles. Look for the largest handbag in the country which was a tribute to the Queen for her Golden Jubilee It also has work and artifacts from all over the county on display and is always a focal point with its fine temporary exhibitions. The museum hosts thousands of school children every year for Victorian days and other curriculum based activities including art days which Andy has been involved with. You can get a great coffee at the Royal Oak Hotel up the street as well!

For more information about any and his work please visit him online at www.andyhancock.com. Enjoy your stay!

Lakeside Walk:

Picture the scene: water slowly ripples as a gentle breeze glides across it. Pine trees adorn the lakeside. Some almost touch the water, while others are huddled at the shore and provide a glorious shade around a 12 mile circular road.

Pick-nickers munch on sandwiches in lay-bys. Some never venturing further than their cars, as they look out contentedly over the calming waters.

Cyclists languorously peddle along the relatively flat highway, while runners pass them at a pace, on this perhaps most picturesque of trackways.

Boats gently bob in the water in front of the gothic-style Straining Tower and a few canoeists paddle out to the very centre of the lake.

Ironing railings, slightly rusting, hold back the burgeoning foliage. And an almost signal track road, with several passing places is colonised by thick rows of deciduous and evergreen trees.

Vyrnwy and its waters can only just be made out in between the branches and leaves as you start to stroll around it. But there are gaps every so often with mini shingle inlets where you can sit a while and ponder life in general.

As you ramble along the roadside, the above is just what you can expect to find on a typical day at Vyrnwy.

However, if you are perhaps want to lose the crowds and strike out on your own, then this next walk is an agreeable alternative: (It lasts about 1 hr 15 minutes and is suitable for most abilities).

In your car, travel to the far end of the lake, furthest away from the dam. And take a left turn in to a road that leads to either Bala or Dinas Mawddwy.

Park before the cattle grid at a small lay-by and then the walk can begin in earnest.

A narrowish country line should unfurl before you, lined either side with a untidy array of oak, beech, birch and sycamore.

A small stream gurgles to the left hand side of the roadway, at the foot of a gently sloping escarpment.

Moss and ferns carpet the undergrowth at the roadside which eventually leads to a forest trackway.

After approximately half a mile of walking, a sign post marked the Eunant Viewpoint, should come in to view.

If you turn around, you can just glimpse Lake Vyrnwy in between the abundance of foliage and trees.

However, to gain perhaps one of the best and most private views of the lakeside, the Eunant Viewpoint must be sought out assiduously.

First pass a white, metal barrier and gently climb the steepening gradient up the hillside.

Trees have recently been felled in this area and masses of isolated stumps and debris are scattered across the ground.

However, it’s not long before you enter a far more luscious section of forest which contain a vast array of fir and Scots’ pines.

Water trickles down the steepening hillside and a few stray sheep play hide and seek in the undergrowth.

The trackway twists and turns a while until you come to a wooden gate and the very foot of Vyrnwy.

From here some of the most glorious views of the whole of the lake can be had as a narrow, rough pathway leads high above it and up to a secluded picnic area.

Heather adorns the rocky outcrops and Foxglove and a myriad of wild grasses and ferns sway gently in the breeze.

There is almost a sheer drop to the lake below. But the Eunant Viewpoint is perhaps one of the most tranquil and picturesque settings to savour the whole of the Lake Vyrnwy.

Its huge expanse can perhaps truly be appreciated from this vantage point, and the Straining Tower is all but a minute speck in the distance.

You perhaps almost feel like you’re in a different dimension as you can view the tops of clouds at this higher level. And you might perhaps feel lucky to have happened upon this secluded haven, rarely sought out by the masses.

After a short break, or a series of photos calls, people can then just retrace their footsteps back to the starting point.

Pictures of this walk can be seen in the  Lakeside Walk slideshow.

Walk to a waterfall:

Not many people seem to venture far from the main focal points of Lake Vyrnwy, and that would be its dam, Straining Tower, cafe and shop.

However, for those with a more adventurous streak, there is much to seek out and enjoy in the whole of the expansive 23,000 acres.

There’s many a woodland trail or lakeside track that can give the area a wholly different perspective, and also offer an escape into a quieter and more peaceful setting.

Among the less well trodden walkways is one at the far end of Vyrnwy, at the second to last turning before the road to Bala.

The wardens have been nothing if not generous in providing lots of picnic areas for tourists to use.

At this particular spot, a few parking bays have been created alongside a lawn with a table for a picnic.

Lake Vyrnwy can just be made out in between the rows of trees.

However, after a short rest, people can take a leisurely stroll through woodland and moorland to arrive at one of the many waterfalls that flow freely across this terrain.

A white metal barrier first has to be passed, and then you're onto a rough forest trackway that is lined with an abundance of fir, spruce and pine.

A tributary in to the lake courses at the bottom of the hillside and on the opposing flank, thick carpets of spruce can also be found.

The pathway gently winds its way up a slow incline until a metal gate is reached.

After this point there is open moorland with a plethora of wild grasses, bracken and ferns.

Sheep dot the landscape and amble quietly along, sometimes inquisitive, but largely indifferent. Nothing ruffles their fleeces for long.

Again, a gentle gradient needs to be climbed and a derelict country cottage comes into view and some farm buildings.

These also need to be passed and a left turn taken until you come to a rather rickety wooden bridge.

Here two rivers converge, and in the distance a series of small waterfalls can be seen.

The rivers run quite rapidly and tumble down stream at a brisk and sprightly pace.

Once over the footbridge, a rough pathway takes you along the riverside, up over a small knoll, until you come to a wire fence.

Two stepping stones have been placed either side and provide closer access to the river.

Then, you can see a fairly wide series of waterfalls break down the hillside. Often obscured by trees and foliage, it makes for an enchanting mid-point to this whole of this short jaunt.

Retracing your footsteps will make the walk last around one hour in total.

You can see pictures from this walk in the  Waterfalls Walk slideshow