Rain, Reservoirs and a Red Dragon Reborn

The Flooding of Capel Celyn

Welsh Flag, Photo by Author

I frequently travel over the border from England to Wales to walk in the spectacular, beautiful and often remote landscape that the country offers. I always take wet weather gear as I have noticed that it rains a lot in the hills of Wales. There wouldn’t be the green, green grass of the Welsh valleys if there wasn’t so much precipitation. Most of the British weather comes in over the Atlantic, already damp winds collecting even more moisture as they travel from the West, and they then deposit that moisture over the first high ground encountered. Water, so essential for life, is a valuable resource but with regard to the relationship of Wales and England, also a contentious one.

Over the course of the last 100 years to satisfy the constantly growing demands of urban populations for water, many rivers have been dammed and small rural communities evacuated and relocated as rising waters have consigned churches, farms and homes to the deep. In 1929, the village of Mardale Green in Cumbria disappeared under the newly formed Haweswater Reservoir, providing the life giving liquid to the inhabitants of Manchester. It took two years in the 1940s for a Derbyshire valley to morph into Ladybower Reservoir, slowly filling with water and erasing the villages of Ashopton and Derwent from the next ordnance survey map.

There were protests, of course. Nobody wants to lose their home no matter how seductive the offers of compensation. It’s hard to think of generations in a churchyard having to be exhumed and then re-interred somewhere else and of farms which had been passed down from father to son no longer being ploughed and harvested. Without a real physical presence, history becomes consigned to mere memories which over the time fade away and are lost. Someone usually has to pay for the unstoppable march of progress, and it is nearly always those who have the least voice. There are also times when the decisions to create a new body of water and guarantee supplies to the metropolitan majority can take on an extra political and cultural dimension.

Llyn Celyn Reservoir, Photo by Author

In the early 1950s, the city of Liverpool in the North West of England was still emerging from the devastating bombing suffered during World War Two. Rapid rebuilding and the increasing population meant that the metropolis was developing an insatiable thirst. Local politicians decided that damming a river, miles away in North Wales and creating a new reservoir, would help satisfy the constantly growing need. To avoid what would have most likely been an unsuccessful planning application in Wales, Liverpool City Council sponsored a private bill in the British parliament to gain the consent to flood the Tryweryn Valley and create the new reservoir of Llyn Celyn. In 1957, parliament passed the bill. There were however major differences between this and many other decisions that were made to ensure the taps of Britain would always keep running. Thirty-five of the thirty-six Welsh Members of Parliament voted against the bill, and the fact that their voices were not heard emphasised that there was no real Welsh political power. The village of Capel Celyn, which would be lost to the water was one of very few remaining completely Welsh speaking communities and its loss could have been perceived as the uncaring actions of a more powerful colonial oppressor sating their needs at the expense of a minority indigenous population. The immediate post-war years were a time of tremendous change in terms of Great Britain’s position in the world. Ideas of empire and colonial superiority were constantly being challenged and contested. The same scrutiny with which overseas policies were subjected, were also being considered as relevant to the positions of the four distinct nations that make up the United Kingdom.

Public Domain Image via Snappygoat.com

For the Welsh inhabitants of Capel Celyn there were eight years of protests, including the occasion when the villagers marched through the streets of Liverpool carrying banners bearing slogans such as “Do Not Drown Our Homes”. There was even direct action by more militant nationalists who planted an explosive device and considerably slowed down the building work, before ultimately the battle was lost. Like many communities before it, the village of a Capel Celyn went under the water and all that remained was the new lake of Llyn Celyn. It could be argued that the sense of unfairness and of political powerlessness about what happened when the village was lost in 1965, was a trigger that has given rise to a greater sense of Welsh National identity and the formation of the political structures that facilitate it. The labour government of Harold Wilson created the new position of Secretary of State for Wales and gave birth to the government department of the Welsh Office in the 1960s. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, won their first Westminster parliamentary seat in 1965 and in 1999 there was the eventual formation of the Welsh National Assembly. Whether the Assembly is an institution of any real political power and therefor able to make major changes is a question which is still open too much debate but the ongoing changes in the deep underlying notions of national identity which the Welsh Assembly represents, are real. There is a tangible national pride in culture, history, language and literature. And although it is a pride which has always been part of what it means to be Welsh, the perceived injustice of the demise of a small Welsh village was perhaps a catalyst which helped to push those notions of national identity from the margins to the forefront.

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Dave Eldergill MA

Dave Eldergill MA

Dave Eldergill travels the long distance paths of the UK. He writes about art, music, history and the encounters he finds interesting on his journeys.

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