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.

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.