My middle daughter once brought a book home from school about the fight to save Capel Celyn in North Wales. I couldn’t read the words as it was written in Welsh but I recall being riveted by the haunting black and white photographs of the farms and homesteads that were lost forever.
Capel Celyn was a thriving Welsh-speaking community in the Tryweryn valley before it was submerged in 1965 to create Llyn Celyn and provide water for the citizens of Liverpool (the city formally apologised for its actions in 2005).
The campaign to stop the Tryweryn project lasted years and saw two men gaoled (and another put on probation) for their determined attempts to prevent the destruction of a community.
Not a single Welsh MP voted in favour of the bill (35 actively opposed it, one did not vote), but nevertheless it was passed by Parliament. In the end, the local school was closed and seventy residents were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods, condemned to the same fate at those who once lived in the flooded Vyrnwy and Elan Valleys.
Those images haunted me for a long time and, though I have never been to Llyn Celyn, I have often found myself staring into the depths of other reservoirs and wondering what lies beneath.
It’s a little creepy when you think that hundreds of feet below the shimmering surface, once vibrant farming communities lie silenced forever by thousands of gallons of water. Farmhouses, inns, homes, churches, barns, chapels and graveyards… so much destruction to make way for various schemes to supply water to large conurbations.
There’s an excellent website called Abandoned Communities which describes in some detail how small Welsh communities were sacrificed for English corporations’ (the forerunner of councils) insatiable demand for water. First victim was the old village of Llanwddyn, where a church, two chapels, three pubs, at least two shops and over 30 homes disappeared under water during 1889 in order to create Lake Vyrnwy, a reservoir providing water for rapidly growing Liverpool.
Others followed; consultation with local people was largely deemed unnecessary. When an English corporation spied a suitable Welsh valley for its needs, an Act of Parliament to compulsory purchase and then demolish the farms and properties that stood in the way generally followed.
And yet amazingly… three villages in the Ceiriog Valley near Chirk managed to escape a watery grave, in part thanks to opposition from Lloyd George.
In 1923, the Warrington Corporation, some 50 miles away, identified the potential of the steep-sided valley to resolve a problem it faced: more water was needed in the long-term for Warrington’s brewing industry. A proposal was put before parliament to flood 13,600 acres and create two reservoirs, in effect obliterating the villages of Tregeiriog, Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog and Pentre.
In total, one church, five chapels, two burial grounds, two public elementary schools, two post offices, two inns, six shops, and 82 other dwelling houses (of which 45 were farmhouses with farm buildings) were destined for demolition/flooding, with around 400 people affected. The valley’s fields were grazed by around 1,000 cattle and 17,000 sheep.
As the MP for Denbigh, John Davies, so eloquently put it in Parliament, ‘There is little doubt that the scheme must ultimately involve the denuding of the valley of practically every human habitation throughout at least five miles of its length. A happy, industrious and contented population of some 400 souls must ultimately either be evicted or driven away. In these days of shortage of houses and shortage of small holdings, the question must suggest itself to every fair-minded man, what is to become of these poor peasant farmers?’
His statistics were disputed by a Captain Reid, MP, who argued for the Warrington scheme and insisted ‘only one small village would be submerged, with only a few houses attached to it; and 12 farms‘.
‘Is it right,’ Captain Reid continued, ‘that a few isolated inhabitants, in an out-of-the-way village, should be considered before the vital needs of an enormous working-class community such as exists in Warrington and in the districts round—a matter of 300,000 people? That is a very grave consideration.’
Fortunately for the people of the Ceiriog Valley communities, former Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was having none of it, first pointing out that there was not one single Welsh MP who did not oppose the bill.
Lloyd George spoke about the lyricist poet John Ceiriog Hughes (like many Welsh poets, he took a bardic name, Ceiriog, from his place of birth) and reminded the House that Hughes had ‘written some of the most exquisite lyrics in many languages, full of music and of song. Hon. Members may smile, but I can assure them that his name produces a thrill among hundreds of thousands of Welshmen, not merely in Wales, but wherever there are Welshmen who speak our tongue in any part, of the globe. His home is to be submerged. I beg pardon.’
Describing the Ceiriog Valley as ‘a beautiful valley… a rich and fertile valley… a progressive valley,‘ he reminded his fellow MPs of other Welsh communities which had disappeared in the relentless demand for water. ‘The Elland Valley has gone, the Vyrnwy Valley has gone, the valley which has been taken by Birkenhead, and now comes this exquisite valley which is to be taken by Warrington. One after another all our valleys are disappearing‘.
Whether or not his intervention swayed the vote (there was a local campaign, as well as support from Wales’ national newspaper, The Western Mail), the Act of Parliament was never passed and happily the communities of the Ceiriog Valley have survived until today.