The Valley in the Days Before the Lake

A very active vicar was appointed to the parish of Llanwddyn in 1870, who busied himself collecting a mass of information about his parish and the village at the centre of it. In 1873 the Reverend Thomas H. Evans published his findings in Volume VI of the Montgomeryshire Collections, part of a great store-house of the local history regularly produced from 1868 up to the present day.

Apart from the obvious absence of the lake, the main difference that an eye accustomed to the view of the area in modern times would notice would be the freedom of the hills from the great belts of conifers which now cover so many of them. Given the heavy annual rainfall in the area it is not surprising that there was everywhere an abundance of water. Evans reported that ‘one third of the vale remained under water in the winter’, and was useless for agriculture. The only crops this bog produced were rushes, interspersed with occasional alder and willow groves.

The village of Llanwddyn, which lay roughly half-way up the valley at the foot of the Afon Cedig, or Cedig river, took its name from an early Saint named Wddyn (pronounced ‘Oothin’) who was reported to have lived as a recluse in a nearby cave in the sixth century. Although the parish was also designated Llanwddyn, its church was named after St John of Jerusalem. The reason for this was that in the thirteenth century the manor of Llanwddyn had come into the hands of the Knights Hospitallers of St John, who had built a stone church in the village and dedicated it to their patron saint. There were also three denominations of non-conformists with chapels in the village as well as the Church of St John.

At the time of the national census in 1871 the population of the parish was recorded as 433. 40 years earlier in 1831 this figure had been 668, or roughly one third greater. The lure of higher wages in the expanding industries of north-west England and the Midlands had drawn many people away from their isolated homes in the valley. To accommodate the population there were 37 houses in the village, and ten farmsteads in the surrounding countryside.

Farming was the main occupation of the inhabitants of the valley. For fuel the inhabitants relied largely on peat, which was cut on the moors, and carted, or pulled on sledges, down to the houses in the valley. This simple self sufficiency was reflected in the diet of the majority of the people, which consisted of mutton broth, porridge, gruel, and milk. That such an apparently harsh way of life could be a remarkably healthy one can be demonstrated by the longevity of many of the inhabitants in days when the average expectation of life in the rest of Britain was far below what it is to-day. Evans reported 21 persons in the parish of over 75 years of age in 1870, of whom one was 102. Cases of others reaching 100 were recounted to him from previous years.

Meanwhile, the City Council of Liverpool were looking for a site for a new reservoir to provide more water for the ever expanding population of the great, sprawling urban area they controlled along the banks of the Mersey. Various sites were under consideration in northern England and Wales, but in most cases some snag prevented them from being suitable. In the summer of 1877 Mr Deacon, the city engineer of  Liverpool, arrived in Llanwddyn to investigate the possibility of damming the river Vyrnwy at a point somewhere below the village to create a large, artificial lake capable of holding many millions of gallons of water. During his surveying of the area a rock bar was discovered lying across the bed of the valley, at the point where it began to narrow two miles south of the village. The potential of this rock bar as a base on which to construct a dam convinced Deacon that he had at last discovered a good site for the creation of a reservoir.

The Creation of the Lake

Deacon worked swiftly and presented his report to the Liverpool Corporation on 27 November that year, 1877. It was accepted in principle, and in September 1878 trial shafts were sunk at the chosen site to see if the rock bed would provide a secure enough foundation on which to build a dam destined to hold back a head of water of ten thousand million gallons.

In 1880 the Liverpool Corporation Waterworks Act was passed by Parliament, and received the Royal Assent on 6 August. Preparations were at once put in hand to gather the work-force and equipment necessary for the construction of what was to become the first large masonry dam in Britain and the largest artificial reservoir in Europe at the time. Work on the site began in July 1881, commemorated by a stone laid at the northern end of the dam on 14 July by the Earl of Powis. This can be seen to-day, along with two others commemorating later stages of the work.

The stone for the masonry was obtained from the quarry specially opened up in the valley on the eastern side of what is now the lake, the road to which branches right at the bottom of the hotel drive. All other materials were brought by horse and cart from the railway station at Llanfyllin, ten miles away. Stabling for up to 100 horses was built in Llanfyllin, where parts of the walls can still be seen, and at Llanwddyn. The road between the two places had to be improved, and at one point realigned to ease the gradient. The labour force topped 1,000 men at the busiest stage of the work on the dam. Many of them were stone masons working in the quarry, dressing the stone which was not easy to handle.

In a remarkably short time, work on the dam was completed. The old village of Llanwddyn, and all buildings in the valley that were due to be covered by the water of the lake, were demolished. A new church, dedicated to St Wddyn, had been built on a rocky spur of the hill on the north side of the new works. On 27 November 1888 this new church was consecrated, and the next day the valves at the base of the dam were closed. To general surprise the new lake filled more rapidly than anticipated, and just under a year later, on 22 November 1889, the water flowed over the lip of the dam.

On the same hill as the church a monument was erected in memory of ten men who were killed during the course of the building works, presumably due to accidents on the site, and a further 34 who died from other causes while construction was in progress. Given the average expectation of life for a manual labourer in those days this is not a surprising figure for a seven year period.

The building of the dam was not the only engineering feat necessary for the provision of a water supply: equally vital was the creation of a suitable means of bringing it to Liverpool. The water’s 68 mile journey to taps in the city started at the straining tower, designed to both strain it through huge, wire-gauge filters, and to regulate the level of draw-off. From the tower, which is so often compared to a castle on the Rhine, and is such a well known feature of the Vyrnwy scene, it passed to the start of a tunnel driven two and a quarter miles up through the hillside in a north-easterly direction. Into the tunnel was placed a 42-inch pipe. Along the route to Liverpool of this massive pipe, capable of carrying thirteen millions of gallons a day, balancing reservoirs and filtration works were set up. On 14 July 1892 the first water flowed into the city.

Over the following years further steps were taken to increase the amount of water that could be drawn off the lake. By 1905 a second line of 42-inch pipe had been laid. A third was added in the 1920s and 30s. To augment the flow of water into the lake itself, diversion dams were constructed in the beds of two streams which flow into the river Vyrnwy below the dam: the Marchnant on the north side, and the Cownwy on the south. From the small lakes created by these dams, tunnels were driven down to carry extra water into the lake. The Cownwy tunnel comes out on the southern shore opposite the hotel, and at times of heavy rain can be seen pouring out a huge, foaming torrent into the lake. The completion of these works in 1910 was marked by an official opening by the then Prince of Wales, later King George V, and the planting of a tree which can be seen on the right of the road just beyond Pont Cynon, better known to visitors as the ‘boat-house bridge’, lying at the bottom of the hotel drive.

A further building task was called for in the re-housing of the people whose homes had disappeared under the waters of the lake. In keeping with the quality of the dam, fine, solid, stone houses were erected on either side of the valley immediately below it, and these can still be seen and admired a century later. Although there were at the time, and have been since, many people who have criticised the decision to flood the valley, the lake’s creation in fact brought prosperity and stability to the area. During its long period of guardianship up to 1973, when the estate was passed into the hands of the Severn Trent Water Authority, the Liverpool Corporation proved to be a model landlord and employer. A clue to the benefits of this good care of the community can be demonstrated by the fact that the census of 1961 showed a population fall of only ten percent from the 1871 figure, while the average drop in seven similar parishes in the surrounding area was 50%.

In order to avoid disrupting the flow of the river Vyrnwy below the dam, arrangements had to be made to allow water to pass through valves at its base into the bed of the river. As well as the regular daily discharge, on four days a month, for eight months of the year, a big head of what was termed ‘compensation water’ was released into the river. The thrust of both these types of discharge passing though relatively narrow valves was so great that a decision was made to employ it to make electricity. A generating plant was installed in 1902, which continued to supply Llanwwddyn village, the Corporation offices, and the hotel with electricity until 1960, when Manweb brought a mains supply to the valley.

The enterprise of providing Liverpool with water embraced another whole range of responsibilities beyond the physical creation of the reservoir and the pipe lines leading from it. This was the purchase and management of land: both the land that was to be flooded, and also the extensive area forming the watershed which would drain into the new lake. To have full control of the watershed was especially vital in view of the intention that Vyrnwy should be a clean water reservoir, from which the water would flow untreated, except for normal filtration, directly into taps in Liverpool. Between the late 19th century and 1930, an estate of 26,000 acres was purchased with the main sellers being the major local landowners such as the Earl of Powis and Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn.

Extensive coniferous forests were planted around the lake, partly in conjunction with the Forestry Commission. What was left of the 900 acres of the Corporation’s own plantations was sold in 1946 to the joint scheme with the Forestry Commission, and so became included with the 4,000 acres under that shared control. The money raised was used to build the community centre, school, and village known as Abertridwr, the extensive and well designed buildings of which are seen on the right of the road, soon after coming into the valley, on rounding the hairpin bend on the road from Llanfyllin.

Following the Water Act of 1974, Lake Vyrnwy and the estate passed from the control of Liverpool Corporation into that of the Severn Trent Water Authority. So that the water could continue to be used by Liverpool, an abstraction licence was granted to the North West Water Authority (part of United Utilities since 1995), which now looks after the city’s interests, enabling it to draw off from the lake. The management of the estate gradually changed under Severn Trent Water Authority with considerable alterations to the old, paternal Liverpool Corporation style of operation. The workforce on the estate was greatly reduced with much forestry work being done by contractors, as opposed to the home based forestry gang. Another major change in practice came in the mid-1980s, with the start of a policy of allowing the sale of houses and buildings to private purchasers: something always resisted fiercely by the Corporation.