Coed Gwernafon

A culture is no better than its woods.

—W. H. Auden

It’s mid afternoon and I’m sat in one of my favourite seats, looking west over the valley of Nant Cwmcidyn, the view towards Plynlimon framed with sessile oaks. The heather is in full flower and the bilberries hang heavy, covered in grey bloom and oozing their wine-coloured juices. Despite the recent cold nights, there is little sign of autumn here, other than the occasional brightly coloured russula poking through the moss. The woods, clothed in foliage and wrapped in the sleepy lull of late summer, are bird-less; near silent except for the drone of hoverflies in the canopy.

The seat has seen better days. Exposed to the elements and riddled with brown rot, it is near the end of its useful life. Wasps are everywhere, and a sign at the entrance to the wood warns of a nest close to one of the paths, its location painstakingly marked on an OS map. A light breeze ruffles the oak leaves. A hunting spider, egg sac on its back, darts through the leaf litter.

Somewhere above the woods of Coed Pen-y-banc, a small gap in the cloud opens, exposing towers of white cumulus behind. A weather system blowing steadily in from the south; the threat of more rain on the air. The tail-end of the morning’s downpour trickles to the valley floor through steep gullies lined with ferns and golden saxifrage, eventually joining the Trannon to the east of here, its waters peaty brown and foaming. To the side of the path is a fly agaric—the only one I have ever seen in these woods—its cap faded, the distinctive white flecks washed off by the rain.

The sessile oak woodland that once covered much of this area exists today only in small pockets, generally on the steeper slopes and ravines, and here at Coed Gwernafon, which is owned and managed by the Woodland Trust. More than a hundred ancient woods have been lost in Britain over the past decade alone, despite being some of our most ecologically important habitats and an irreplaceable part of our landscape and cultural history.

I have been a member of the Woodland Trust for a few years now, and I try to make the effort to visit this, my local wood, at least 3 times a year. Later in the autumn, it’s possible to find the beautiful Amanita citrina, the false death cap, under the oaks. But today I like this place simply because it is quiet. There is something meditative about being here, surrounded with the earthy smell of woodland after the rain.

Hafren Forest

“You haven’t seen someone who looks like they could have fallen off a horse?”, a concerned looking guy asks me. The horse had turned up at the car park just before I arrived, its saddle and bridle still attached but with no sign of a rider. I tell him I haven’t. With the police on their way, I promise to keep a look out.

In Coming Down The Wye, Robert Gibbings remarks of Plynlimon that it’s hard to have an accident. A friendly hill, difficult to break one’s neck without effort. As if to prove him wrong, the Severn manages this in poetic fashion a short distance downstream of here, but, for the most part, Plynlimon is a friendly hill. However, its remoteness demands a certain amount of respect and it’s easy to walk all day without meeting another human being. There are places here where you’re unlikely to be found if you do get into trouble.

Once, while exploring a hillside above the Elan Valley, I stood on an old piece of fencing wire buried in the moor grass. The end had eroded over the years into a long rusty spike that went through my shoe and into my foot. As well as the blood, I remember the suffocating silence and a sudden feeling of panic. There can be an almost unnerving emptiness to the area; an indifference to human plight. As I limped back to the roadside, shivering on that hot summer’s day, I realised I had been lucky. The infection set in later that night, requiring a second trip to casualty and an emergency course of antibiotics.

I sometimes think that, over the years, despite their imposition on the landscape and ecological impact, the manmade forests of mid Wales have slowly become a kind of wilderness. Away from the roads there are parts that must rarely, if ever, see a human visitor; simply left for decades to quietly exist. A couple of years back, I made an image of a small stream in the Hafren forest, the banks covered in deep moss and strewn with fallen trees. The area has now been felled, torn up by heavy machinery, and I no longer recognise the spot where I stood. Ironically, this feels like a desecration.

In October 1980, at the height of the big cat scare, armed police staked out a barn near Llangurig after a spate of sheep killings in the area. The “Llangurig beast” was never caught, and, if it ever really existed, its body was never found. Maybe it eventually slunk into the forest to die, and its bones lie somewhere long forgotten, buried in moss and waiting for forestry operations to uncover them.

The days are short at this time of year and the light is starting to fail. I wonder what it was that could cause someone to fall from their horse. Could the animal have bolted after it was startled by something? I put such thoughts to the back of my mind, but my human eyes are struggling in the gloom, and I have no wish to spend more time out here tonight. Winter is coming, and I am planning a night in front of the fire.

Aberedw Hill

The morning of what I would later consider the first real day of summer starts with a clap of thunder, not quite close enough for the fizz and crackle of the lightning but loud enough to rattle the windows. Within seconds, the house comes alive with the sound of rain.

By mid-afternoon, the weather is still making a nuisance of itself as I sit impatiently in the car, waiting for another heavy shower to pass.

A little while back, I stumbled across a Fay Godwin image from The Drovers Roads of Wales: an expansive view across the Wye valley from the bracken-clad slopes of Aberedw Hill. This morning, the map practically falls open there and so I find myself sat in the car a few miles outside of Builth Wells, wondering if I’ve wasted my time and whether the rain is set in for the afternoon. Eventually I decide it’s time to chance it.

The sun makes a reappearance as I pick my way up a green lane running in rivulets. The air is stifling and the trickling runnels flow between stones that still radiate the heat of hours in the sun, a hearthstone warmth despite the downpour. Further up, a track makes its way on to the open hillside, and with it comes a welcome breeze, driving rainstorms across the landscape, pools of light and shadow under the convecting cumulus.

The view starts to open out, a dramatic sweep of the Wye valley. To the south lies Pen y Fan and to the west I can make out the distinctive summit cairns of Drygarn Fawr, which I last visited on Boxing Day last year, in foul weather.

A few years ago, on an afternoon of Constable skies, I filled a watering can from the water butt. As I picked it up, the sloshing weight caught me by surprise and a sky that had seemed so weightless and ethereal took on a new reality. Expanding for miles above me—an impossible mass of water, suspended in air. And I felt small.

My daydream is interrupted by a distant rumble of thunder. The Drygarn cairns are no longer visible, obscured by a dark veil of rain that is now starting to cover the valley. The first big raindrops arrive as I get back to the car, and as the valley descends into gloom, I’m pleased to have got back without a soaking.

Oak Apple Day

Old folk customs have a surprising tenacity in post-industrial Britain. It sometimes seems that rural traditions, like nature itself, have a latent irrepressibility, springing up incongruously through the fabric of modern society.

A few years back I read an account of a largely forgotten custom in which children wore a sprig of oak to school on the 29th of May. Known as Oak Apple Day, anyone who turned up in the playground that day without an oak twig would run the risk of being thrashed with nettles by the other children. The festival has its origins in the Restoration of the monarchy, after Charles II escaped the Roundheads by hiding in an oak tree, but like many folk customs it is also infused with pre-Christian symbolism. In Roger Deakin’s book Wildwood he describes the annual Oak Apple Day celebrations in the village of Great Wishford, where every year the villagers walk the six miles to Salisbury Cathedral to claim their rights to gather ‘deade snappinge woode boughs and stickes’ from Grovely Wood. In a ritual with clear links to paganism, the local houses and parish church are decorated with green oak boughs as part of the celebrations.

I was interested to see that Oak Apple Day has been chosen by the Woodland Trust as a date for everyone to visit, record and vote for their favourite ancient trees.

This is mine—a Common Oak which I like for its photographic potential. Partially straddling an old stone wall, it is a pollarded hedgerow oak and lies at the edge of a wood pasture on the Carngafallt RSPB reserve. Pollarding was widely abandoned over 200 years ago and, as can happen with neglected pollards, the tree is starting to split under its own weight.

The ancient natural forests that once covered Britain had long disappeared by the time of the Domesday Book, but these woods and the nearby Cnwch woods have existed far beyond historical records. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to suppose that they may been wooded since the ice retreated in around 12,000 BC.

In the Western cultural imagination, woods have long been associated with wilderness. For centuries they existed as a forbidding boundary beyond the towns and villages—a place of magic and mischief. The Merrie Greenwood of medieval mythology, with its links to Robin Hood, Jack-in-the-Green and the Green Man carvings in churches and cathedrals reflects this uneasiness: a culture that feared the woods yet depended on them for its survival. The Anglo Saxon word weald or wold means a ‘wooded place’ and it is easy to see the common etymology with ‘wild’.

There is no wildwood left in Britain but it is encouraging to see a place where wildness still lives on in some form. The oak tree is a survivor, for the Cambrian Mountains can be a harsh environment. The recent winter was too much for the eucalyptus in my parents’ garden, which now stands as a stark reminder of nature re-asserting itself; a climate induced natural order of things.

At the edge of the wood, not far from my tree, I found the mysterious oak apple: the large round gall produced by the larva of the gall wasp.

Source of the Severn (part 2)

The view from the kitchen window this morning was quite inspiring, with a light dusting of snow on the hilltops. A trip up to the source of the Severn seemed as good a cure as any for the cabin fever that’s been kicking in over Christmas and New Year.

The route is part of the Severn Way and is accessed from the car park at Rhyd-y-benwch, where it runs along a boardwalk and on to a well-defined path following the river upwards through the forest.

The Severn and its tributaries pass through a number of gauging flumes installed in the late 1960s as part of the Institute of Hydrology’s Plynlimon catchment experiment—set up to study the effect of plantation forestry on water yields. Along with another guy from school, I spent some time doing work experience at the Institute’s field station on the edge of the Hafren Forest. We had a good laugh, but everything was fun in those days. On the first of the month we had to check and read all the raingauges in the upper Severn and Wye catchments, some of which were pretty inaccessible even with a Land Rover. I seem to remember it rained a lot.

The Hafren Forest was a very different place in the eighties. Today, large areas have been clear-felled and there are good views from the Severn Way, but back then it was a maze of forest roads and firebreaks. School trips to the nearby Staylittle Outdoor Centre would always involve orienteering exercises where, corralled in between acres of Norway and Sitka spruce, we used to get absolutely lost. It was great.

Originally planted in the 1940s, the forestry proved to be something of an ecological disaster for the rivers. Conifers were planted to the edges of the riverbanks, which, combined with extensive networks of drainage ditches caused acidification of the water and the widespread loss of aquatic invertebrates and fish. Steps are now being taken to correct this and the Forestry Commission are in the process of clearing conifers from the banks of the upper Severn.

Sadly, the forestry is only part of the story. Acid rain—these days a largely forgotten environmental issue—continues to affect the uplands of Mid Wales. Although the technology exists to remove the harmful sulphur and nitrogen compounds from power station flue gases, this has the effect of increasing carbon emissions. For this reason, we’re stuck with acid rain. pH levels in some cases as low as 4 mean that many of the upland rivers remain almost completely lifeless.

The path to the source
The path starts to level out and the sound of the river that has accompanied me all the way up is replaced with an eerie silence as the Severn oozes soundlessly amongst the blanket bogs. I linger here for a while but for the first time today there is a real chill in the air and I soon decide it’s time to head back.

Back at home I lie in the bath, submerged in water, some of which must have come down the river Severn on its journey through the Hafren Forest. I wonder if maybe it fell as snow, high on Plynlimon. It is dark outside and I think of the river out there in the forest, splashing down rock faces, swirling through mossy ravines and churning over and over in the dark pools.