September 26th, 2018
Reservoirs are a common feature of our beautiful landscape, and today we celebrate some of the area’s finest.
Until the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, man-made reservoirs in the UK were a rare sight. Natural lakes, rivers and streams provided enough fresh water to satisfy needs of small rural communities, and in cities residents often depended on the dirty rivers that wound through urban landscapes. But, as the industrial age took hold of English cities there was a huge demand for more and more water; not only for factories and manufacturing processes but for their rapidly expanding population of workers. Clean water and proper sanitation was desperately needed to prevent the spread of infection and disease that flooded through the densely inhabited urban living quarters.
Engineers, wealthy businessmen and politicians began to look for alternative solutions and their eyes soon turned westward to the lush, rainy hills of Wales.
A Dam Solution
Liverpool was one such city that was in urgent need of clean water supplies, and during the 1870’s, a radical proposal was put forward. The Vyrnwy Valley (Cwm Efyrnwy) in the depths of the Welsh countryside was deemed as the perfect spot for an enormous reservoir that would satisfy the city’s demands. The little village of Llanwddyn on the valley floor was soon awash with engineers, surveyors and builders. It is probable that the residents of the village were not consulted about the plans, as the city of Liverpool began to buy up the great swathes of land necessary to build the reservoir. Some opposition was noted, but largely ignored, and the villagers soon turned their attention to ensuring they would be properly compensated.
In all, two chapels, ten farms, three pubs and almost forty houses were bought up and lost to the reservoir. Liverpool Corporation built a new village which now sits at the southern end of the reservoir, even moving graves from the chapels and re-instating them in the newly built St Wddyn’s Church. In 1881 work started on the enormous dam that would span the width of the valley.
At the time, it was the largest, and first, stone dam to be built in the UK – created using enormous stones from nearby quarries, almost 500,000 tonnes of it in fact. Construction was completed by 1889, and the valley was flooded soon after. Villagers waved goodbye to the foundations of their former homes as clean, fresh drinking water made its way safely along the aqueduct all the way to Liverpool.
Lake Vyrnwy has by now settled into the landscape and earned its own place among the beautiful countryside. The original dam with its striking arches of Victorian architecture and the gothic style straining tower that rises deftly from the water both stand as proudly today as they did over 100 years ago. The city of Liverpool was blessed with a ready supply of fresh water, thanks to an unassuming Welsh village which has been forever lost.
History was to repeat itself in the 1950’s, when plans were put forward by Liverpool City Council to flood another Welsh valley to supply water for its growing city and suburbs. This time fury erupted and there was national outcry across Wales.
Capel Celyn, not far from Bala in north Wales, was a fiercely traditional village with rural values and an entirely Welsh speaking community; no mean feat in an era when modernisation and Anglicisation were sweeping through much of the country. The bitter irony that the village would be lost to provide water for an English city severely damaged Anglo-Welsh relations and sparked a political revolution that saw Wales’ national party, Plaid Cymru gain much new support.
Despite countless protests in a desperate fight to save the village, and opposition from 35 of the 36 Welsh MPs, the plans were not stopped. In 1956 a private bill was passed allowing Liverpool Council to press ahead with their plans. By 1965 work was completed and the entire village was flooded. A chapel (including its cemetery), a school, a Quaker meeting hall, a post office and twelve farms and houses were drowned, and almost fifty people lost their homes.
In 2005 Liverpool City Council issued an apology to the people of Capel Celyn, but it was deemed as being rather late by many Welsh politicians and locals.
It seems that the depths of some of Wales’ most beautiful reservoirs hold the clues to a vital role this little country had in the shaping of some its neighbour’s greatest industrial cities. As you enjoy a peaceful walk around the reservoirs that nestle in some of Wales’ finest scenery, why not take a moment remember the communities and homes that have been forever lost, and the wild landscapes that were radically and indelibly altered, all in the name of technological progress.