In the latest Liminal Forest video I visited Llyn y Fan Fach, the glacial lake that sits in in the shadow of the Picws Du, the tallest of the Carmarthen Fans that make up the westerly edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
I trekked up to Llyn y Fan Fach to explore its most famous legend – that it was the home to the Lady of the Lake and how she was wooed by a humble farmer. Their offspring would become The Physicians of Myddfai.
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This year, wave upon wave of staycationers have travelled through Wales, experiencing all it has to offer in terms of nature, the outdoors, the beaches, history, folklore and, of course woodlands and forests.
One favourite destination is the Hafod Hotel situated right on the Devil’s Bridge falls in Pontarfynach. But did you know that over 150 years ago, Devil’s Bridge got its name because of another era of staycationers, the Victorians, flocked here..
I tell more of the story in this video clip.
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This is going to be contentious but I’m going to say it – Carreg Cennen is the best castle in Wales!
I know, that’s some statement given the sheer number of castles that were built across the land. Some of you may say Caerphilly is best, others Caernarfon or Harlech or Dinefwr. But for me, nothing beats the wildness and the imposing presence of Carreg Cennen, perched on the high cliff above the river Cennen and looking out over the Black Mountain to the east, the rolling Carmarthenshire countryside to the west, the coastline to the south and the Cambrian mountains to the north.
In this latest video clip I explore a bit of Carreg Cennen’s history and how it has inspired famous artists like JMW Turner. I also tell you a bit about the split personality of the forest that sits below the castle.
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On Thursday, September 9th, 2021 more than 60 trees located all across Bute Park in Cardiff were destroyed in what was either an act of vandalism or perhaps a pre-meditated attack on nature. Throughout the pandemic Bute Park became a haven for people wanting to walk and explore nature in the city. I thought now would be a good time to share this part of my journey of exploration where I discovered the charms of Bute Park.
My inspiration for starting The Liminal Forest walking project had been the public parks and woodlands in and around my hometown of Cardiff. Wandering these green and wooded spaces had been my escape from the stress and drudgery of the pandemic lockdown. As I walked through them each day I came to realise how disconnected I had become from the natural world and also how many other people, like me, were out exploring, soaking up nature and reconnecting.
Now that I was deep into my walk through Wales, and also my research into how our modern society became so disconnected from the natural world around it, I decided to retrace some of the urban park and woodland walks I had done during lockdown. Specifically, I wanted to explore how Cardiff’s coal wealth had shaped my hometown and particularly the parks so many of us considered a lifeline – having seen in the South Wales Valleys how that same coal industry had broken the connection local communities had with the land around them.
My starting point was to be Insole Court, a Victorian mansion and gardens that today sits surrounded by streets of semi-detached homes in the neighbourhood of Llandaff, a couple of miles walk away from the city centre
The Insoles had been one of the most important coal families in all of Wales. The patriarch, George Insole, had moved to Cardiff from England in the early 19th century and, over the next 30 years, he and his son, James, built a coal shipping dynasty that would help make Cardiff the coal capital of the world. Their signature coal venture was a mine called Cymmer, situated 20 miles north of Cardiff in the heart of the south Wales valleys.
George Insole died of heart failure on Christmas Day, 1850 and James, just 29 years old at the time, took over the full running of the business. Headstrong and no doubt eager to build on his father’s legacy, James rapidly increased production at Cymmer. The younger Insole doubled the workforce to 160 men and boys, and further expanded the underground reach of the mines but failed to increase the number of ventilation shafts needed to keep air flowing underground and minimise the build-up of flammable gases including methane known in the industry as firedamp.
On the morning of Tuesday 15th July 1856 disaster struck. At six in the morning, just as 160 men and boys descended the shaft to begin their shift, a huge explosion ripped through the mine – killing 114, some as young as 10 years old.
Just six months later, James Insole purchased an estate on the outskirts of Cardiff called Ely Court. Over time everyone came to know the grand mansion and gardens as Insole Court where I was standing now. I knew these grounds very well. My childhood home backed onto Insole Court’s gardens and, as a child, it had provided an almost fantasy-like playground for myself and the kids in the neighbourhood.
I wandered the nine acres of grounds reacquainting myself with old but familiar surroundings. On this sunny morning, the gardens were full of families escaping the monotony of months of being grounded at home. Toddlers straddled the old stone lion at the top of the great lawn. Slightly older kids chased each other through the ornate gardens – playing hide and seek in the nursery runs, bushes and grotto made from local quarried rocks in one corner of the grounds as I had at their age. A grand, expansive Cedar of Lebanon tree continued to stand watch over all the proceedings – its black branches and deep green leaves spread wide in repose as if getting ready to settle into a comfy chair.
At the front of the house the long driveway flanked by rows of Horse Chestnut trees led up a gentle hill to the main gates. Close by, local residents had created a memorial garden to remind visitors of the Insoles’ debt to the mine workers at Cymmer. Standing in front of the memorial, it really hit home just how much of Cardiff owed its affluence and success to the sacrifices of those coal miners. And just how big a player the city once was in shaping the global fossil fuel (and ultimately climate change) legacy.
I left Insole Court, turned right onto Fairwater Road and walked into Llandaff village, passing by some other grand old houses one owned by local coal merchants. I took a shortcut through Llandaff village green, walking down Cathedral hill and through the cemetery. I walked past the ornate but weathered gravestone of Ivy Insole who died in 1888 and where husband James was laid to rest 12 years later. And then I joined the river path and walked to Bute Park – named after the third Marquess of Bute, perhaps the most influential figure in the growth of the Welsh coal industry.
The Marquess wasn’t that interested in coal mining itself. However, he happened to own thousands of acres of land north of Cardiff where the rich coal seams lay. Today, Bute Park is a great example of how public parks and open space can help a city breathe. It had formerly been the Bute’s private estate directly to the north of Cardiff Castle, which the third Marquess, working with the acclaimed architect William Burgess, had transformed into a Gothic Revival-style palace during the late 19th Century.
It was lunchtime as I walked through the park and it was full of people escaping the isolation of their homes and enjoying the day. Runners, cyclists and determined walkers jostled for position on the main tarmac path through the park. Couples walked holding hands while lone walkers, keen to escape the throng, explored a thin dirt sidetrack that hugged the old, disused, Dock Feeder Canal which once carried a constant supply of fresh water down to Cardiff Docks to help keep the entrance to the tidal Bristol Channel open. Groups of teenagers disappeared into the bushes and undergrowth by the side of the river – looking for a bit of pebble beach to hang out and smoke weed (judging from the aroma wafting through the park). The main lawn of Bute Park was packed with families having picnics while groups of students from neighbouring Cardiff University played football, threw frisbees or just kicked back with beers.
In its heyday, these private gardens were the jewel of the Bute family’s estate. The original Castle green was first designed by the famous landscape architect, Capability Brown, in the late 18th century under instructions from the 2nd Marquess. But it was his son who expanded the design of the estate, recruiting Andrew Pettigrew to create the elaborate ornamental gardens, plant all manner of exotic trees and shape intricate pathways that still make the park so appealing today and such a focal point of outdoor life in the city.
Just like with Insole Court, as I walked through Bute Park I couldn’t help but consider the irony of how such a beautiful and varied homage to trees and nature had been financed by the Bute’s coal wealth. Back then nobody gave this a second thought. Today, I suspect, it might be greeted with the same sense of greenwashing disdain that many people view tobacco and oil companies sponsoring museums and art galleries.
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Seeing as it’s #NationalReadABookDay it seems a good time to post the second instalment about the literature that inspired me and influenced my thinking around The Liminal Forest.
In the last post I talked about the nature books and writers that had inspired me. Restoring balance and reconnecting with nature through walking is one of the dominant themes of The Liminal Forest but so is my homeland of Wales. This is a project where I walked 300 miles through Wales mapping a route for the new National Forest for Wales, after all.
So, today I’m going to take you a quick literary tour of the Welsh history, culture, legend and folklore books that helped educate me and guide me on my journey.
First up are three essential Welsh history books, A History of Wales and The Making of Wales – both written by John Davies – along with When Was Wales? Gwyn A. Williams’ famous polemic on the idea of a united Wales. I’d first read the latter some 30 years before so it was refreshing to dive back into the arguments around Welsh history and identity once again.
The Place-Names of Wales helped me make sense of locations and showed how important the Welsh language is in describing places in relation to the land, forests, mountains, rivers and sea.
Wild Wales, George Borrow’s 19th century walking trip through the country provided a fascinating journey back in time while two books that discussed Wales’ ancient Celtic past – A Brief History of The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis and The Druids by Stuart Piggott – both helped shed light on some of our earliest connections to nature. The Celtic Saints by Nigel Pennick, meanwhile, showed me how those Druidic themes influenced early Christianity.
William Linnard’s Welsh Woods and Forests is pretty much the bible of trees in Wales and provided me with a detailed and complex woodland history that explains the extent of deforestation that continues to this day. The Heritage Trees of Wales by Archie Miles highlighted some of our nation’s greatest and quirkiest trees – many of which I visited while I walked.
A good part of this project considers the role of folklore and legend in retaining our connection to the forests. Welsh Folk Tales from the National Museum of Wales, The Mabinogi – Legend and Landscape of Wales and The Mabinogian all shed light on Wales’ ancient bardic forms of storytelling.
As did the Physicians of Myddfai, Terry Breverton’s deep dive into the famous natural healers of the Middle Ages. Mysterious Wales and Hando’s Gwent (written and edited respectively, by Chris Barber) both captured the magic of Welsh folklore.
Much of the credit for bringing the bardic and Arthurian tales to the attention of the wider world must go to the complicated character of Iolo Morganwg – even if his reputation suffered greatly as a result of his own creative embellishments. A Rattleskull Genius, edited by Geraint H. Jenkins became essential reading to understand Iolo and the role he played in the Romantic Movement.
Gruff Rhys’ highly enjoyable American Interior also offered insight on Iolo and the Madoc legend that he was so tied to.
The role of industry in dislocating people’s connection to nature and the woodlands is another central theme for this project. Rhondda Coal, Cardiff Gold: Insoles of Llandaff, Coal Owners and Shippers by Richard C. Watson was essential reading to understand how my hometown, Cardiff, developed. Matthew Williams’ Lost House of Cardiff showed me what coal fortunes built.
In the final post about the books that influenced this project I’ll look at the major issues Wales and the whole world needs to address if we truly are to reconnect with nature and save our future on this planet.
In planning and researching The Liminal Forest project I’ve found myself exploring a wealth of literature spanning many hundreds of years and covering a very wide range of topics including Welsh history and folklore, nature and travel writing, the economics of climate change and biodiversity and the inner-workings of nature to name just a few.
The more I share parts of the Liminal Forest the more people ask me about the inspiration for the project and what and who influenced my thinking as I walked and wrote about my journey.
So I thought it would be good to share my thoughts on some of those influences and the books that have informed my work.
Let’s start at the very beginning. I first started thinking about our relationship to trees and nature – and just how broken it had become – when I stumbled upon a TED Talk delivered by Dr Suzanne Simard and titled “How Trees Talk to Each Other”. Her premise about the intelligence of nature and how little we really understand about nature works fascinated me and made me contemplate just how detached our modern world had become from the natural one that we all depend on. Her recent book, The Mother Tree, builds on her decades of research and is a must read because of the tough questions it poses about how little we know of the world we live in.
Of course, having discovered Simard’s work I soon became acquainted with Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. His decades of experience as a professional forester allowed him to study trees in ways few other people have the time or understanding to do. His interpretation of the personalities of the forests and how trees work together and sometime against each other made me look at woodlands in a completely new way – and, as with Simard, made me contemplate just how little we really understood about those inhabitants of the natural world that we absolutely cannot survive without.
Delving deeper into the world of trees and nature I read Max Adams’ The Wisdom of Trees, Jonathan Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees and John Lewis Stempel’s The Glorious Life of the Oak. All three books opened my eyes to the complicated workings of this ingenious ecosystem but also to how richly intertwined with trees our own human history and experience has been.
Robert Penn’s The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees, meanwhile, fascinated and enchanted me in the way that it explained our relationship to trees and nature in an engaging, entertaining and highly practical matter.
Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways opened my eyes and ears to a truly magical form of nature and travel writing. At first, I listened to The Old Ways as an audiobook while I walked the hills of Wales in lockdown. MacFarlane’s lyrical, poetic language danced around my head as I walked. It inspired me to return to the travel writing I had made a career out of 20 years before but, in all honesty, it also somewhat intimidated me because I couldn’t hope to emulate MacFarlane’s descriptive and narrative skills.
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods showed me how it was possible to create an engaging and humorous walking narrative while still dealing with important topics – even though his easy style of writing belied the huge amount of craftmanship that goes into his work. By reading both The Old Ways and A Walk in the Woods I grew convinced that I had my own compelling story to tell but I needed to find my own voice.
Stephen King’s On Writing provided its own inspiration; not just for the practical tips it offered about writing in general and about oneself but also for the engaging way he recounted his childhood and early struggles with getting published.
This writing project is about nature, naturally, but it is also about the importance of walking – which led to me Shane O’Mara’s In Praise of Walking, a book packed full with smart thinking and data about the importance of putting one foot in front of the other for our physical and mental health. I also started exploring the politics of walking and where we wander.
That introduced me to Nick Hayes’ The Book of Trespass and the realisation of just how our society has manufactured our dislocation from the natural world around us and how vested interests continue to deprive communities from reconnecting with nature.
Simon Winchester’s Land reinforced how that process began many centuries ago.
Once I had settled on my plan to map a potential walking through connecting the newly proposed National Forest for Wales I started digging into Welsh history and Wales’ connection to trees and woodlands.
I’ll share more of the influences for my Wales walking adventure in another post.
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!”