Great drive in Wales: exploring the Elan Valley’s winding roads

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Crossing the dam in the Elan Valley

Follow our route in the new Nissan Navara to one of Britain's best roads, along with a hike to a deserted bothy

The incredible, 72-square-mile Elan Valley in Powys is the perfect playground for a rugged pickup, a trip that members voted among the top 10 greatest drives in Britain.

When we were tasked with reviewing the new Nissan Navara, we thought it best to find a location where we could test its rugged credentials, as well as how stylish it looked on a postcard view. So naturally, we picked Wales.

Our destination: the Elan Valley, famous for its Victorian dams and reservoirs created to supply water to the people of Birmingham, carrying it roughly 73 miles east to Frankley Reservoir. It’s perfect for a wild weekend of walking, cycling, camping, fishing or just exploring all the roads, tracks and trails.

Our plan, eventually, was to leave the car and walk to our overnight digs: a bothy tucked in a little valley on the banks of the Craig Goch reservoir. First, though, we’re going for a drive, along a road that not only takes us into the area but which – last year – Boundless members voted among the top 10 greatest drives in Britain. And rightly so.

Like a length of ribbon tied to the market town of Rhayader at one end, and to Aberystwyth’s seafront at the other, the B4574 (and later the A4120) begins in the east with a climb over copper-tinted moorland, before swooping downhill and flowing alongside one rushing river after another. It’s so distracting, we sail past the turn-off to Elan’s dams and follow it for another 10 miles or so. In places it’s barely wider than the Navara, but there are no hedgerows and plenty of passing places. Hours of fun, even in a truck.

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An impressive drive around Welsh dams

After a while we head back and follow the brown signs to the dams. There are six in total, built between 1893 and 1952 – the last and largest of which, the 56-metre-high Claerwen, was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in one of her first official engagements as monarch. Three have roadways across the tops of their blackened stone facades.

Taking the Nissan Nivara on a trip through the Elan Valley

Putting the Navara into four-wheel drive, we follow a rocky, winding track alongside the Claerwen reservoir. After a few slow-going miles we stop in the middle of nowhere, flip down the tailgate and use it as a shelf on which to boil the kettle. Overhead, five red kites soar on the breeze, their calls sounding for all the world like someone whistling for their dog. In the far distance, a lone hiker approaches along the water’s edge, the only person we see for hours. Bet he didn’t expect to get a mug of PG Tips so far from civilisation.

That’s the thing about pickups – somehow they make you (or at least, me) feel far more useful than usual. Here’s a workhorse that weathers whatever you throw at it, drives over almost anything, carries a tonne, and barely breaks a sweat.

Heading off road to a Welsh bothy

For now though, it’s time to leave the Navara behind and lace up our boots for the walk to the bothy. Like their better-known Scottish counterparts, Welsh bothies are remote shelters of varying size and structural impressiveness. They’re free to use, provided you respect the rules: no big groups, leave everything as you found it – or better – and replace any coal or firewood you use. For details and locations visit the Mountain Bothies Association.

Following the eastern shore of Craig Goch we find ourselves squelching over watery peat – told you it was boggy – before the path eventually rises onto dry ground. About 20 minutes further on, and after pushing through some jungle-like ferns, we glimpse what we’ve come for: Lluest Cwm Bach. Once home to a 19th-century farming family, the pretty stone cottage was recently refurbished by the Elan Estate (the materials were helicoptered in) and is now open to ramblers in need of four walls and a roof for the night.

And it looks like we won’t be alone. Against the bothy wall lean three bicycles, belonging to friends Emma, Michelle and Yvonne, who are only too pleased for us to join them. Just in time for a cup of tea, too (didn’t expect to get one of those so far from civilisation). As the sun sets, the wooden door swings open and a young couple enter, doing their best to hide their disappointment at finding the place full after a long day’s walking.

Feeling bad, and knowing that our Navara isn’t too far away, we decide to leave them in peace. So in the pitch dark, helped by a single headtorch (battery level: critical), we head back to the truck, thanking our lucky stars that we brought a tent. Just in case.

Following the Elan Valley route

The Elan Valley combines epic scenery with winding roads

1. Claerwen Dam

The youngest and tallest of Elan’s six dams. There’s a great view from the top, 56 metres up.

2. Elan Village

An Arts and Crafts style ‘model village’, constructed for dam workers in the late 19th century.

3. Rhayader

Friendly market town with plenty of accommodation and eateries. A great base.

4. Cwmystwyth

A tiny village about halfway along the Rhayader–Aberystwyth mountain road.

5. Craig Goch Dam

Arguably the prettiest of the six dams, with a road/walkway along the top.

6. Lluest Cwmbach Bothy

Stone shelter set on the shores of Craig Goch, with an outside toilet and a multi-fuel stove.

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