In these latest videos I continued my walk through Gwenffrwd Dinas nature reserve until I met the legendary Welsh highwayman, Twm Sion Cati (endearingly brought back to life by another local Cambrian Mountains legend, Dafydd Wyn Morgan).
In the videos Dafydd explains the importance of Twm Sion Cati and how he evaded the authorities by hiding in a cave in the heart of this Celtic Rainforest.
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At the top of Ton Pentre village, halfway up the Rhondda Fawr valley, a single track walking path climbed steeply up towards the Bwlch mountain. I was walking today with three friends, Andy, Jeff and Tim. We had started five hours before just outside the town of Pontypridd and we were a little weary at this point. We plodded past the ruins of an Iron Age fort. To our left, the imposing Llwynypia Forest towered above us.
“I bloody well hope we’re not climbing up through there,” said Jeff, both knees heavily strapped in a vain attempt to make up for the lack of functioning anterior ligaments. Halfway up we stopped to catch our breath and to marvel that someone had installed a park bench high up on one side of the ridge. Later, when I checked Google maps someone had tagged the location as “Percy’s tiny bench”.
As we rested on the brow we could just make out a figure waving at us from far across the valley just below the forest tree line. It was man, in his 30s or early 40s perhaps. He had his arms spread wide and was singing, no bellowing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers) – the Welsh National Anthem – just as if he’d been among 70,000 other supports at Cardiff’s Principality stadium cheering on the Welsh rugby team. Except he was on his own and literally rocking the valley with his passion.
If this reads like a cliché – Welshman sings national anthem halfway up a valley – well it happened. And the story gets stranger still. The anthem had been composed just a few miles away in Pontypridd back in 1856, originally as a hymn titled Glan Rhondda. Over the years it gained great popularity at music and other cultural festivals throughout Wales. However, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau wouldn’t be adopted as Wales’ national anthem until 1905 when it was sung at the very first international rugby match between Wales and the New Zealand All Blacks (the so-called Game of the Century as both teams were considered the strongest in the world).
The back story was uncanny given where we were standing right now – looking back down the Rhondda Fawr towards Llwynypia and the town of Tonypandy. According to The Official History of Welsh Rugby Union, the idea to sing the song came from Tom Williams, a former Welsh international player who, in 1905, was one of the selectors of the national team. He had been born into a farming family around Llwynypia and still worked as a solicitor in the town.
The All Blacks were famous even back them for the Maori-inspired war dance known as the Haka that they performed before kick-off. Williams suggested to the Welsh team that they sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau as a response to the Haka and the idea was embraced by Wales’ biggest newspaper, The Western Mail. In the build-up to the match, the paper encouraged fans also to sing the anthem at the match. As the story goes, once the All Blacks finished performing the Haka, the Welsh players, led by the captain, Teddy Morgan, broke into song. More than 40,000 Welsh fans joined in and a tradition was born. From that day on Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was adopted as the Welsh national anthem even though the official one was God Bless the Prince of Wales.
So it seemed fitting that today, as the stranger across the valley belted out the first verse, Tim decided to join in, bursting at the top of his lungs into the famous chorus, “Gwlad, GWLAD, pleidiol wyf I’m gwlad (Country! COUNTRY! O but my heart is with you!).
It was a comic but oddly touching moment – two strangers singing the Welsh national anthem at each other from across the valley – but it seemed to capture a spirit of solidarity I felt for fellow walkers wherever I travelled through Wales.
It was only later, when I’d done more research about the area, that I shared the story of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and the All Blacks with my friends.
“Thank God Tim didn’t try to perform the Haka. That’s all I can say,” said Jeff.
Just above the town of Caerphilly and the Norman deer park in the Aber Valley lies one of Wales’s oldest pilgrimage routes – an ancient walking trail connecting the Cistercian abbey at Llantarnam Abbey to the holy shrine at Penrhys some 20 miles to the west. The Cistercians – a strict religious order hailing originally from the town of Citeaux near Dijon in France – had been founded in 1098 as a breakaway from the Benedictine Order that the Cistercian founders considered to have strayed from the strict doctrine of its patron St. Benedict. Dressed all in white, as opposed to the black garb of the Benedictines, the Cistercians pledged themselves to a life of severe austerity and a commitment to agriculture and manual labour.
I’d learned about this route a few weeks before when I’d gone to visit Dr. Madeleine Grey, a local historian who’d caught my attention when I’d been reading about the early Welsh saints. It turned out that another of her historical passions was mapping and walking ancient pilgrimage routes. She was the co-creator of The Cistercian Way, a long-term mapping project to establish a series of walking trails retracing the footsteps of the monks who would travel across Wales from one abbey to another.
Maddy (as everyone called her) had agreed to go for a chat and walk with me in Forest Fawr woods near the 19th century Castell Coch (Red Castle) north of Cardiff. She’d brought along her neighbours’ dog, Nell, for the walk. It was a typically bonkers black spaniel and it raced back and forth into the woodland undergrowth and round our feet as we tried to walk.
Maddy had curly grey hair tied up in a loose bun, a peppy attitude and a walking pace that belied the fact that she had recently retired from full-time academia. She wore a mauve sweater, blue jeans and very well-lived in hiking boots. She talked as fast as she walked and, as someone used to lecturing, she’d come ready to talk.
“You might want to record our conversation as we walk,” she said as we started out up past the castle grounds and into the woods. “It’s okay, I take good notes,” I replied, my notebook and pen at the ready. She shot me a glance as if to say, “You really think you can listen, write and walk at my pace all at the same time!” I got the feeling Maddy had more faith in Nell the spaniel keeping up with what she was about to tell me. And the dog was plainly mad.
Within the first 10 minutes of walking Maddy had given me a breakneck history of Forest Fawr; how Sir Henry Sidney started an iron smelting operation in the woods and jumpstarted the iron industry in Wales; how he identified that this area was perfect for industry because of it abundant supplies of fresh water, mineral ores like iron and how he must have been an ace diplomat because he managed to endear himself to the courts of both Queen Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary Tudor. Not to mention how we were walking through one of the significant beech woods in all of Wales (and one of the only ones found this far west).
We’d only just reached the top of the hill and my head was spinning and heart was pumping due to the information I was trying to consume and the pace we were walking. “Tell me about the Cistercians. Why were they so important to the Norman Lords?” I asked as we walked.
Maddy had spent many years as an academic teaching medieval history to undergrads and had this knack of explaining in a way that was simple enough to stick in even the most scattered student brain. I suspected she was taking the same approach with me.
“The Cistercians were professionals,” explained Maddy. “In medieval times, if you wanted a bit of praying done you brought in the Cistercians. It was a bit like today if you have a problem with the electrics you bring in an electrician.”
They had arrived in Wales at the invitation of the Norman Lords and quickly established important and influential monasteries at sites like Margam (near Swansea), Strata Florida (in mid-Wales), Cymmer in North Wales, Tintern on the border with England at the River Wye and Llantarnam (just north of Newport). They brought with them an air of European sophistication – you might call it a Cistercian je ne sais quoi – to life in Wales as well as a devotion to a strict Christian doctrine that the Norman rulers were sorely lacking.
The Cistercians also had very strict land quality standards that had to be met before they agreed to establish a new monastery given the importance they placed on agriculture. So, as Maddy described, when a Marcher lord invited the Cistercians to establish an abbey they first sent an advance team to assess the viability of the land before committing.
This commitment to agriculture and hard labour on the land would have major ramifications for the woodlands that became part of the Cistercian estates. The monks felled large numbers of trees for assarting (clearing land for agriculture). According to one account by Gerald of Wales, the monks at one Abbey on the Welsh/English border “changed [one of the finest] oak wood[s] into a wheat field.” The monks also cut down forests on the order of local authorities to stem the spate of crimes such as robberies and murders.
The biggest long-term impact of the monks’ agricultural prowess came from their introduction of large-scale sheep farming. In 1291, the official Taxatio Ecclesiastica (a census of taxation on churches in England, Wales and Ireland) reported that six monasteries alone in Wales were responsible for more than 18,000 sheep. To maintain this number of sheep the monks either had to build extensive open pasture enclosures or let them graze the surrounding woodlands.
Over time the sheep population of Wales slowly started to roam thousands of hectares of hillside and became very much part of how we think of the Welsh landscape. But as the sheep steadily grazed their way through the uplands of Wales they became a dominant barrier to any chances that Wales’ ancient natural woodlands could reforest.
As I followed Maddy through the convoluted woodland paths above Castell Coch, stopping only to yell at Nell who’d disappeared down on old abandoned mine shaft, I asked her what got her interested in walking.
“Oh I don’t know,” she said. “It was probably that the only way I could get my students interested in the history I was teaching was by taking them out into the field and finding it for themselves. They always seemed to like a good walk!”
The walking bug never left her. So much so that, more than 20 years after starting the Cistercian Way project, she is still fine-tuning the routes. “It is so very hard to map. There is a lot of educated guesswork – like much of Welsh history to be honest,” she said, adding:
“Still, solvitur ambulando” as I like to say. That’s latin for “work it out by walking!”
In this latest video update from my journey throughout Wales mapping the new National Forest for Wales I head to Gwenffrwd Dinas north of Llandovery in the heart of the Cambrian Mountains.
Gwenffrwd Dinas is one of the few remaining temperate rainforests – so called Celtic Rainforests – in Wales. It is riche and alive with biodiversity and is truly breathtaking in its beauty. It also is a RSPB nature reserve.
Any National Forest must surely find a way to link the Celtic Rainforests.
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Part of the fun and the challenge of creating this 300-mile walking path through Wales has been researching and mapping the routes I would take. A lot of the time I start by studying OS Maps – searching for established trails and walking routes. If there are tricky looking parts to the walks I’ll try and scout them in advance to make sure I don’t get too lost or run into obstacles/blocked routes along the way.
I plan each walk to follow a specific narrative route. And so, when I wanted to tell the story of Wales’ industrial deforestation during the height of the iron and coal boom, I knew I had to map a route that would lead me across the South Wales Valleys. The route I was contemplating ran from the outskirts of Aberdare (located at the top of the Cynon River valley) around the Rhigos Mountain (the highest in South Glamorgan) and through the dense conifer forests of the Afan Valley to the town of Neath some 35km to the west. Clearly that was too much walking for a one-day hike (for me at least) so I decided the best way to plan a manageable route was to undertake reconnaissance by mountain bike.
I had a group of friends who regularly rode the bike trails in the hills north of Cardiff. I ran my idea by a few of them and they seemed keen for the adventure – you might say a little too keen and that concerned me slightly. You see, I’m not a very experienced mountain biker. But I had been a bike courier in New York some 30 years before. That had to stand me in good stead, no?
One damp summer morning six of us set out on the journey. We met at Dare Valley Country Park, just outside of Aberdare, having first deposited two cars at our destination at Gnoll Country Park, a famous old estate on the outskirts of Neath. We’d ride for about four hours then drive back for the car we’d left at the start. I knew most of the riders from walking trips we’d done in the past but a couple I’d be meeting for the first time.
The night before we were due to ride I decided to review my OS map route. The plan was to climb through the nearby woodland up to National Cycle Path 47 then follow it as it weaved its way below the Rhigos Mountain through a wind farm and into Afan Forest Park. From there the trail would lead us gently down into Gnoll Country Park. The distance seemed very doable though I was slightly perturbed by the estimated 580m in ascent that we had in front of us.
Maybe there was a shortcut?
And so, over a glass of red wine (okay maybe two) I revisited the route I’d already mapped and started to tweak things a little. It struck me that, instead of starting at the east side of Dare Valley Park we could ride to its northwestern tip (where the old Bwllfa coal mine once sat) and follow the path up the hill. It would save us at least half an hour of riding uphill. Pleased with this last-minute adjustment I headed off to bed.
It wasn’t until we started cycling up my shortcut the next morning that I realised the magnitude of my mistake. Within 10 minutes of the ascent at least two of my companions had stopped talking to me.
“Are you sure this is a cycle trail?” said my friend Richard (who had invited me into the riding group and I sensed was already regretting it) as we pushed our mountain bikes up a thin, muddy, steep and very slippery track up the side of Mynnydd Cefn-y-Gyngon.
“No, it’s not. It’s very clearly marked as a footpath,” said Allen, another of the riders who was now studying his own OS map of the mountain. Allen was a high school teacher and highly experienced in leading mountain walking expeditions. He’d also gone on walks with me in the past and was clearly skeptical of my map-reading abilities.
The day didn’t get much better. Even when we’d made it onto the cycle route 47 I still managed to get us lost in the windfarms – at one point we raced down a dirt track only to reach a dead end and then had to climb all the way back up.
“Never, ever, surrender high ground when riding,” another one of the riders who I didn’t know so well muttered at one point.
“I think you’ve invented a new sport. Losteering” said Richard, trying to lighten the mood.
To get back up to route 47 the regular riders knuckled down and steadily tackled the climb in low gear. By now I was walking and pushing my bike. Then, having found the proper path once more, we started the many descents into Neath over loose gravel forestry roads. The other riders would speed ahead while I hung onto my handlebars for dear life, gingerly using the front brake to delay what I was now convinced was an almost certain appointment with a broken collarbone.
“Try not to use your brakes on the descent,” said Richard after I finally made it, white knuckled, to the foot of one hill.
“You just have to learn to trust the bike to ride the gravel and choose the easiest approach to the corners. You’re more likely to come off if you brake.”
I looked at him incredulously but tried to put his advice into practice. The only time I braked for the rest of the descents was when a herd of deer – three adults and two foals – shot out of the conifer forest and leapt across our path into the woods on the other side of the track.
Finally, after a few hours of being shown up as a very mediocre mountain biker and an even worse mountain bike trail planner, we made it to Gnoll Country park and the sanctuary of my car, safely sitting in the car park. As I breathed a huge sigh of relief at having survived the day I suddenly realised I didn’t have my car keys. They must have fallen out of my backpack when I was getting ready to start the ride. Or worse, I’d lost them in the forest!
My riding companions looked at me in disbelief – who was this idiot they’d agreed to follow through the Valleys?
In 1066, (as every school kid in the UK used to know), William the Conqueror invaded the British Isles from Normandy and defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.
William’s French knights, lords and barons moved swiftly through England claiming land and titles wherever they went. However, as anyone who has put themselves at the mercy of the M4 motorway or the Great Western Railway will attest, getting to Wales from England can prove a much tougher proposition. In 1081 a large Norman army invaded Wales but they didn’t much like what they found.
Today, I was walking through the hills and woods of South Glamorgan – from Bassaleg to Caerphilly – retracing what I thought might have been one of the routes chosen by the Norman lords as they marched on the Welsh kingdom of Morgannwyg & Glywysing.
My friend Jeff had tagged along for today’s walk which wandered through the woodlands around Draethen and Machen before climbing up onto the ridgeway that separates Cardiff from the historic castle town of Caerphilly (where I was born).
In the Welsh, the Normans encountered a populace who been used to living in the fluidity of constant domestic regime change, and who could even put up with the odd Anglo-Saxon incursion. The Normans, however, displayed a “gratuitous cruelty” (in the words of historian John Davies) that the Welsh refused to tolerate and so they started a 20 year campaign of woodland-based guerrilla warfare.
As the early Norman travel writer Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) recounted on a trip through Wales nearly a century later in 1188, the local people “neither inhabit towns, villages nor castles, but lead a solitary life in the woods on the borders of which they…content themselves with small huts made of the boughs of trees twisted together, constructed with little labour or expense, and sufficient to endure throughout the year.”
It was from these positions of strength and local knowledge that the Welsh launched a series of attacks and ambushes upon Norman armies in the decades following the first invasion – defeating a much stronger and better organised fighting force before melting back into the shelter of the forests.
These attacks cemented in the minds of the Normans the threat posed to their rule by Wales’ woodlands. Their attempts to fully pacific and control Wales took nearly 200 years to complete and for much of that time the Normans embraced a military strategy not seen in Wales since Roman times – they systematically felled forests to eliminate the threat of ambush.
In 1277, during one particularly brutal act, the Norman (and now English) King Edward I advanced into North Wales from his border stronghold of Chester with a dual army – one made up of soldiers and another of woodsmen (including sawyers, wood-cutters, carpenters and charcoal-burners) – who cut an invasion roadway some 250 yards wide, with another 200 foot of clearance on either side, through the dense forests for over 30 miles until they reached the town of Conwy. Another thrust of military deforestation took place not far from where we were walking now. In 1287, a force of woodmen 600 strong was employed to cut a path from Glamorgan to Brecknock via the Taff valley.
The threat posed by roads to the forests and the communities that depend on them continues to this day though today’s raiders are often economic not military. Huge areas of tropical rainforest in Africa, Asia and South America have been opened up to agribusiness and oil and mining companies through the construction of exploration roads. Once built, outsiders flood into the forest regions in search of land or work, clearing more of the forest and bringing with them diseases that local indigenous people can’t fight while transporting back to the cities new viruses like Covid 19.
Welsh resistance came to an end in 1283 when Edward defeated the Llewellyn the Last, King of Gwynedd. The Normans shored up their victory by building imposing, almost impenetrable castles to protect themselves from wave after wave of Welsh rebellions throughout the country – many feeding on the grievances of local people whose lands were being seized and woods chopped down. One of the biggest and most intimidating of all was Caerphilly Castle and that’s what we were looking down on now from the top of the ridgeway.
Searching for a trail next to Newport’s noisy, congested Brynglas road tunnel might not be everyone’s idea of a good nature walk but I had a good reason to be here.
My friend Andy and I were continuing our path from Caerleon. We’d climbed through the terraced hilly streets of the Crindau neighbourhood and now we’d stumbled on what felt like one of those liminal entrances to the Annwn – the fabled otherworld or underworld of Welsh mythology. In traditional folklore these entrances often were found by lakes or rivers and protected by the Tylwyth Teg – the fairies. Our entry point was a gap in the concrete wall next to the main road into Newport. The only guardians were the morning drinkers outside the pub across the street who stared at us with a mix of astonishment and a hint of menace. Asking them about their connection to the fair folk was out of the question.
We disappeared through the gap and our world was transformed. The cacophony of heavy traffic was muted and all was tranquil. We were at an old transportation crossroads – where the Pontnewynydd and Crumlin arms of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal came together and connected to Newport docks. Back in the early 19th century canal barges carried iron and coal – part of the great logistical machine that exported Welsh raw materials all around the world. This nexus of the canal industry would have been noisy, filthy and full of early urban life. Today, only the ghosts of Newport’s industrial might remain.
Above us was Allt-yr-yn (Slope of the Ash Tree) Nature Reserve – a 32 acre expanse of mixed deciduous woodland. It provides a natural buffer of biodiversity between the nearby M4 motorway and the residential neighbourhood of the same name that sits on the hill above. Alongside the eponymous ash trees the nature reserve is home to birch, cherry and oak as well as hazel and hawthorn growing beneath the canopies.
Allt-yr-yn is exactly the type of woodland that could be part of an interlinked National Forest for Wales. It’s within easy reach of most of Newport offering a connection to nature and an escape from some of the city’s grittier features.
We were tempted to take a detour and explore the woodland in more depth but today we had another walking adventure to pursue – following the 14 Locks trail northwest towards Rogerstone and then on to Bassaleg.
The trail was named in honour of the Cefn Flight – an intricate engineering feat employed by the canal builders that allowed barges to navigate a particularly tricky part of the descent between Crumlin and Crindau, dropping 50 meters in just 700 meters. The Cefn Flight remains the steepest canal descent in the whole of the United Kingdom.
The mastermind behind the Cefn Flight was a young engineer from the English Midlands called Thomas Dadford Jr. He had followed in his father’s footsteps – playing leading roles in constructing the Glamorganshire canal and the Stourbridge canal in England. Dadford Jr. was said to be a prodigious worker – his time occupied by multiple projects. However, he was far less successful when it came to building tunnels. His Southnet Tunnel on the Leominster Canal collapsed in 1795 and another, the Ashford tunnel on the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal collapsed during construction. His reputation never recovered.
So it seemed a cruel irony that to reach Dadford Jr.’s masterwork we had walk through a tunnel under the M4 – the cars roaring over our head just a few feet away. Once out of the tunnel, the engineering marvel was clear to see. The 14 locks were staggered at points high above us as we climbed the hill. It was incredible to even contemplate how Dadford Jr. went about such a feat of engineering.
It’s been many, many years since the locks were in active use and nowadays their thick square stone pillars are covered in moss and other foliage as nature does what it does best – reclaiming what humans have neglected and creating new a habitat for other creatures. Who knows, maybe even a home for the Tylwyth Teg?
Rob is also the co-founder of an exciting and important new reforestation charity called Stump Up Trees. Its aim is to plant one million native trees across the Brecon Beacons to boost biodiversity and help fight deforestation. A key part of the project involves working with upland farmers and other local landowners to include more trees on their land – so creating biodiversity corridors and helping boost natural flood management.
It’s a bold project and completely in keeping with The Liminal Forest’s quest to explore how we restore balance with nature. So it made perfect sense to go and chat with Rob about Stump Up for Trees and learn more about what inspires him about nature and woodlands in particular.
This is also the first in a series of audio interviews that we’ll be publishing as a podcast. You can listen to the walking conversation with Rob here.
In this episode I take a walk through the ancient Celtic Rainforest of Ty Canol with Jane Davidson, former minister for environment and sustainability in the Welsh government and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act.
We talk about the importance of restoring balance with nature and how walking can open our eyes to the possibilities of a better, sustainable future.