Elenydd: quiet beauty at the heart of Wales

by frankbeswick

Elenydd is known as the Green Desert of Wales, and is well worth visiting.

Wales is a mountainous land, and right at the heart of it are the Cambrian Mountains,not the highest range in Wales, that honour goes to Snowdonia, but a range challenging to walk because of its large expanses of solitude and sometimes difficult terrain. At the heart of the Cambrians lies Elenydd, pronounced Elenyth, an area defined more by feeling than by definite boundaries. Elenydd is a name that occurs in early Welsh writings, so it is an epithet with great weight of history behind it.

The image above is a public domain image. It shows a grouse


Elenydd is sometimes known as the Green Desert of Wales,a description that came from the eighteenth century  traveller George Borrow, who was commenting upon the sparsity of habitation in the area. However, the word desert is misleading,for the land is green and much of it is fertile,being used for sheep rearing, forestry and more recently for tourism. It is a land of small villages and isolated farmsteads, spread across a range of mountains that is not Wales' highest, but whose distinction is that it is a range central to Welsh geography. The Cambrian Mountains,of which Elenydd is a part,  are the watershed of Wales, with important rivers flowing east and westwards from their rainy heart. Britain's longest river,the Severn flows eastards down from this heartland, as  do the scenic Wye, the Irfon and in a westerly direction the Rheidol and the Teifi, one of the few rivers on which you can still see coracles, traditional Welsh boats, and the Elan, from which Elenydd might draw it name. 

I would say that while in Permaculture terms zone 5 is wilderness, much of the land in the Elan Valley is zone 3-4, which is sheep range and small woodlands. While Elenydd is quiet, it is not a wilderness like parts of Scotland are, at least not in this part.

The river Elan surges westwards down to the Irish Sea. Never a long river, its waters have the vivacity of youth, and the word Elan is apt, for it is the Welsh word for deer, and the river's  spritely coursing at places reminds us of a deer's leaping. The land takes its name from the river, the land of the deer, and we are reminded of the ancient deer goddess, Elen of the Ways, the horned lady of the deer and mistress of the intricate paths of the underworld, a deity all but forgotten in our age, except for a few pagans, who have revived her worship. 

The Elan Valley is popular with tourists, though it is well damned and partly flooded nowadays resulting in  the drowning of several villages. The process sounds harsh, but the giant English city of Birmingham and other cities in South Wales needed water, and this need was urgent. Walkers now enjoy the quiet, even silence of the valley. Some farms survive on the higher slopes of the valley, and there are places to stay,such as guest houses and hostels for walkers, sometimes known as wilderness hostels.  The presence of so much water exerts a calming influence upon the mind, making this a good place to walk.The Elan Valley is a great place for quiet walking. 

The Elan estate is seventy square miles and contains eighty miles of tracks for walkers and cyclists. Off the tracks the  land is tussocky to walk on, especially as you go up hill, and walkers should be aware that some walks are tough. There is, however, a disused railway line converted into a walking and cycle path, and this is popular with visitors. 

Elan Valley

Pen y Garreg Damn
Pen y Garreg Damn



Pumlimmon, more commonly misknown by its other name Plynlimmon,  is the high heart of Elenydd.Pum is the Welsh for five, the name indicating that it is a massif with five peaks, strange for there are six though one is a mere top undeserving of being classed as a peak in its own right. The substition of plyn for pum might be because the word plyn means lead, from the Latin plumbum, and lead was once mined there, as it was in other areas of Wales. Though at about 2752 feet it is not high by world standards, it is considered one of the three most significant mountains of Wales, along with Snowdon and Cadair Idris.

From the boggy slopes of the  Pumlimmon massif the Severn springs on its 210 mile eastwaed surge to the sea, and it is the power of the water pouring off Pumlimmon that gives this river its powerful flow . Also the Wye flows south eastwards from Pumlimmon to join the Severn. There is a two hundred and ten mile footpath running from the point where the Severn meets the sea to its elevated boggy source on Pumlimmon. 

So let us take a walk  up Pumlimmon Fawr [Big Pumlimmon, the highest peak of the range] It is high summer and so the boggy slopes are quite dry and easily walkable. We have taken the route up from Nantymoch reservoir , an easy way to the summit. There are holiday makers strolling by the six hundred and eighty acre lake, and we silently pass  the anglers seeking trout, so as not to disturb the fish. Striking uphill we come to open ground. There is a good path that passes through unimproved acidic grassland, which is swaying gently in the slight wind that is whispering in from the West, the prevailing direction in Britain. It is a moist wind that has come over the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, kissing Ireland in the process. The breeze makes the white tufted cotton grass dance and sway back and forth. But the heather, now turning purple seems unaffected. The wind makes natural music that calms the soul. Nearby a grouse churrs in the  covering heather, and the circling buzzard continues its hungry patrol.

On reaching the summit we take in the view. Mountains roll away in the distance. To the West we look over to the borders with England, and we espy the heathery Long Mynd and the bulk of Caer Caradoc among the Shropshire Hills, the  last redoubt, so it is said, of the British king Caractacus in his valiant, but doomed resistance to the advancing legions of Rome. That's Britain, a land where history is never far away for those who know it. To the north we see the bulk of Snowdon and the Arenigs. Southward we look over the more southerly ranges of Wales. For a few moments you enjoy the panorama, but you need to turn round, for the weather is changing and you must return to your hotel where a hot meal awaits you. A satisfying and enjoyable day

The Dark Skies Project

Night sky
Night sky

Dark Skies

Britain is so heavily populated that it suffers light pollution, so there have been moves to nominate some areas as dark skies parks.Parts of Elenydd have been thus designated. In these areas there is such a small population that artificial light is naturally kept to a mimimum and there are controls on excessive man-made lighting.

So imagine it. You are in the Elan Valley,the evening is cloudless, the moon has not yet risen so you  take the opportunity to see a genuinely dark night sky. Torches are switched off, and you are free to enjoy the myriad of stars revealed when the blinding curtain of artificial light is drawn back. The slow gyration of the astral spectacle about the Pole Star goes on with your barely noticing it, so bewitchng is the beauty.

The night time silence is broken by what to inexperienced ears is the reving of an engine, which seems to go on for five minutes before ceasing. It is a nightjar, an endangered species of nocturnal bird found mainly in wild places. In the starlight you sense flitting bats, and a small  dark shadow glides silently past you: a short eared owl, a silent hunter rare in urban spaces but found in wilder ones, such as Elenydd. The moon then rises, silvering the landscape and you return indoors, but the owl carries on hunting. 


The light touch of humans has created a space for wildlife to thrive. In the woodlands sessile oak now rare in Britain still lives on. This oak [Queruc petraea]  has acorns that do not grow on a peduncle, but straight from the outer twigs. Some ancient alder trees thrive in the wet conditions. there is the occasional elm, a species that has nearly died out during my lifetime  due to Dutch Elm Disease. Being isolated seems to have saved it. The woods are a redoubt for  the beleaguered red squirrel, a native breed that has been driven to near extinction by the imported American grey squirrel. But dwelling in the woods we might also find the pine marten, a relation of the stoat, which eagerly makes a meal of grey squirrels! Pine martens have been undergoing a resurgence in Britan recently, and grey squirrels have been struggling. 

Bird life is abundant. In this remote area the once persecuted predator the red kite clung on to existence, and recently there has been a project dedicated to increasing their numbers, led  by a farmer who loves the species. You might now see a red kite soaring in the skies, whereas once  you would have been fortunate to see one once in a lifetime. But the kite is only one of many species that draw bird watchers [birders] to Elenydd, for there is abundant avian fauna of wood and moorland: wheatears,whinchats, ring ouzels, yellowhammers and goldfinches, among others can be seen. 

In Elenydd in Maytime some times you see whole fields  turn blue from bluebells, and these are the native British variety, which is in in danger of being hybridized with the more vigorous incoming Spanish bluebell in may areas, so Elenydd is a genetic reservoir for this endangered species. These fields are probably the remains of felled woods, whose  trees are gone, but in whose soil the woodland bulbs have remained. There is a wide range of bog flora in the extensive boglands near the summits, including carnivorous plants such as sundew. You can also find the ale and mead flavourant meadowsweet growing in the wet land. 

Yet while birds sing, Strata Florida [Flowery Valley] has been mute since the 1530s. This abbey is the burial place of many Welsh princes and of the famous mediaeval poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, whose grave is under a yew tree, a tree found often in graveyards. By the time that Henry the Eighth abolished the monasteries there were but six monks and an abbot left, and the once famous monastery was left to crumble into ruin with its stones looted as building material and its lands sold off to fund the king's extravagant lifestyle and his pointless wars. You walk thoughtfully among the ruins and you long to evoke echoes of monastic chant from the silent masonry. As a lover of Gregorian chant with some experience of singing it,  I feel pangs at what was lost. The birds still sing; the abbey stones are silent.  


Updated: 05/12/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/03/2019

Mayflies and other similar flies are found. The quintessential fish are trout, voles were known, but due to mink, either escaped from fur farms or freed by animal rights activists, are now rare.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/02/2019

Thank you, Frank.
Turloughs definitely call up seasonal, vernal pools over here, but without the obligate limestone setting, according to Wikipedia and other internet sources. Their vegetation entail many of the same-sounding populations, such as buttercups, knotgrasses, mints, mosses, orchids, pondweeds, rues, sedges and watercresses.
Chalk streams intrigue me since they are somewhat inaccessible and rare here. Fred Pearce, in his article The Threat to Chalk Streams, Our Unique Contribution to Global Economy for The Guardian July 24, 2014, mentions England as claiming 160 of 210 chalk streams worldwide. What would be the signature animals and plants?

frankbeswick on 11/27/2019

Thanks Derdriu.

On this side of the pond the nearest feature to a vernal pool is a turlough, a fluctuating pool in limestone country. Turloughs are found in the West of Ireland.

We have suffered occasional drying up of chalk streams, which are a rare form of habitat found in southern Britain. This is due to over-extraction from the aquifers that feed them.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/26/2019

Vernal pools are ephemeral pools that lack permanent fish populations and suffer periodic drying-up. They have signature animals and plants that vary geographically. Here, they interest American toads; bullfrogs, gray treefrogs, chorus, green, leopard, pickerel and wood frogs and spring peepers; caddisflies, fairy shrimp, fireflies, skimmer dragonflies and spreadwing damselflies; eastern painted turtles; five-lined skinks; and Jefferson, marbled and spotted salamanders.
In particular, I love such signature vegetation as poison ivy-fighting jewelweed and wild blackberries, mulberries, strawberries and wineberries.
So it all makes quite a light and sound show, what with barn owls, blue jays, bluebirds, chipping sparrows, mourning doves, nightjars, ovenbirds, robins and warblers.
Would that sound like anything on your side of the pond?

frankbeswick on 11/26/2019

The underworld was not seen negatively by people who revered caves as sacred, liminal spaces.

Plyn is an anglicization of pum, which means five. Limmon comes from the Welsh word for beacon and is found in the Scottish Ben Lomond, which means Beacon Mountain.

Nightjars are rare over here, and I have never seen one. You are fortunate.

What is the Vernal Pool. I know that Vernal means spring,.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/25/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the participation in the Green Desert perambulation, the practicalities and the products.
There are some interesting articles about Elen of the Ways online. They describe her positively. So is the underworld association not a negative?
Among my favorite parts of the tour is the avian chorus. Nightjars live around me; they make such a wonderful chorus, with chipping sparrows, frogs, toads and warblers. A couple of years ago, I was honored and privileged to be walking through the grasses around the vernal pool and wound up face-to-face with a proud nightjar parent and nest of eggs.
If plyn and pum respectively mean lead and five, what would limmon mean?

frankbeswick on 05/12/2018

All places have their perils,but camping out in the UK is relatively safe from human dangers, but rough country after dark is naturally perilous. These days I prefer to stay in a hotel, as it is the more comfortable option.

blackspanielgallery on 05/12/2018

Well done. I suppose as night fell you were near lodging or camped. It seems travel through such a place after dark has perils.

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