Chop and Burn – How the Normans conquered Wales through deforestation

Caerphilly Castle

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.

Among the spirits of Newport’s industrial past – A walk along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal

The 14 Locks Walk

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?

Dewi Sant’s ground raising miracle

Dewi Sant, or St. David as he is known in the English language, is the patron Saint of Wales.

More importantly for my Liminal Forest adventure he’s also one of a long line of Celtic Saints who have deep connections to nature and, possibly, to the ancient Celtic philosophy of the Druids who revered the power of the natural world.

In this video snippet I visit the village of Llanddewi Brefi where Dewi was said to have performed the miracle that made him famous throughout Wales and beyond and established both his saintly and his mystical credentials.

Matthew Yeomans explores the legend of Dewi Sant’s miracle at Llanddewi Brefi

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At King Arthur’s Court – a walk from Caerleon to Newport

The Romans Amphitheatre at Caerleon

This morning’s walk was going to be a leisurely stroll from the old Roman town of Caerleon following the river Usk to Newport. Heading into Wales’ third largest city might sound like a counterintuitive route for a national forest route but part of my challenge was to imagine a walking route that might inspire people throughout Wales to reconnect with nature, and to understand that we can make that connection even when walking in urban environments.

I’d been inspired in part by a new grassroots walking initiative called Slow Ways. It hoped, through crowdsourced mapping, to create a network of accessible walking routes that would connect all of the UK’s towns and cities. I thought perhaps some of my routes might help add to the Slow Ways map.

I was walking with an old school friend called Andy. His family hail from Newport and he was keen to explore his roots. We started by the Hanbury Arms pub in Caerleon and walked past the grass covered ruins of the old Roman amphitheatre. A group of young kids were playing hide and seek amid the impressive stone remains while their parents chatted and drank coffee.

Today, Caerleon is best known for its Roman heritage – many thousands of tourists come to visit each year. A thousand years ago though, the town became famous because of its association with another historical figure, King Arthur, who reportedly made the town his own seat of power sometime in the so-called Dark Ages after the Romans departed.

The notion that Arthur gathered his knights of the round table here in Caerleon was first documented by a 12th century travel writer named Geoffrey on Monmouth in his Historia regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain). It, along with another of his books, Prophetie Merlini (the Prophecies of Merlin), introduced what we now know as the Arthurian legends to people all over Medieval Europe. Geoffrey used the books to argue Arthur’s true claim to the title King of Britain and he described how the magician Merlin received the gift of prophecy after retreating to live with the animals of the forest.

Geoffrey’s tales captured the imagination of the age but not all of his contemporaries were convinced. One rival clerical scholar, William of Newburgh, concluded; “it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors… was made up, partly by himself and partly by others.”

Having left the town we now followed a new walking and cycling path it hugged the river Usk. It was high tide and the river looked picture postcard pretty as the sun broke through the clouds in streaks and reflected off the surface. A black cormorant was doing aerial reconnaissance for its lunch above us.

We’d entered a sliver of countryside that separated Caerleon’s expanding suburban sprawl from Newport’s old industrial edges. Even so, it was a surprise to come across a sow and her litter of piglets sleeping on the dry mud at the side of the cycle path.

Behind the pigs was a magnificent, old tree perched precariously on a steep hillside, its thick branches raised upwards as if to help it maintain balance.

“So what type of tree is that?” asked Andy with a hint of mischief.

“I’ve not quite reached that level of expertise,” I replied a little defensively. “However, I did download this handy Woodland Trust app with its guide to British trees. It should give us the answer.”

Just then an elderly couple walked around the corner. They introduced themselves – they were locals out for their daily constitutional up and down the river path.

“We’re trying to work out what type of tree this is,” I said. “Can you help?”

The couple looked at me as if I was a complete idiot. “It’s an oak tree. Obviously,” said the woman before quickly moving on.

“Probably best not to tell too many people you’re writing a book about trees just yet,” said Andy.

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The Romans are Coming – A walk from Wentwood to Caerleon

The view from Caer Licyn

I left Curley Oak, the wise tree of Wentwood Forest, and continue west across forestry tracks until I came across a fork in the road. One path headed down a steep ravine while the other carried on straight by the side of the woods. There was a Danger Sign warning that forestry workers were felling trees. However, there was no sound of saws or signs of activity so I kept going straight on the route I’d mapped.

After half a mile I stumbled on an ancient fort. Nowadays all that remains is a raised mound surrounded by oak and ash trees but, according to the OS map, this was Caer Licyn (Caer means fort in Welsh). It was marked as a Motte and Bailey (a style of fortification introduced by the Normans around the 11th century) but there was also some debate that it might have been a Celtic iron age site. As I stood by the mound, with its view across all the countryside below leading down to the River Severn, I couldn’t help wondering if this might once have been one of the Silurian Celt defences against the Roman invasion?

The route from Wentwood to Caerleon

By the time the Romans came knocking, the Celts of Wales, Ireland and Scotland were the last holdouts against a military machine that had routed all of Europe and most of what we now know as England. In Wales the Celts – many being refugees from Gaul – settled in small agricultural hamlets amid a matrix of oak dominated forests just like Wentwood.

The Roman army probably arrived in Wales about five years after it undertook its concerted pacification of the British Isles. But if the Romans thought they could quickly control this part of Wales they were in for a shock. In a series of guerrilla attacks over a period of five or six years the Silures led by their charismatic leader Caradog (known to the Romans as Caractacus) terrified the Roman forces with a wild dervish-like ferocity.

Even when Caradog was defeated, captured and taken to Rome he so impressed the Emperor Claudius with his bravery (and apparently his gift of the gab) that he was pardoned and freed. Strangely, he chose to live out the rest of his days in Rome rather than returning to south Wales.

His fellow countrymen and women back home didn’t fare so well. The Roman army had been harassed and frustrated for decades by the Celts’ launching raids and ambushes before retreating to their woodland hideaways. In order to destroy the resistance, the Romans decided to cut down the forests and eradicate the Druids who, by now, had retreated to their spiritual stronghold on the island of Mona (what we now call Ynys Mon or Anglesey in English).

They did so by slaughtering everyone on the island and burning to the ground the Druids’ sacred oak groves. From that point on, the Druids disappeared from Welsh history and entered the otherworld of legend. For the next thousand years different generations of poets and antiquarians would seek to rekindle the legacy and lineage of the Druids as you’ll learn if you stick with me on this journey.

But back to this walk. It was time to leave Wentwood behind so I joined the Usk Valley Walk – one of a number of semi-official Long Distance Walking Paths that snake their way through the United Kingdom. Now out of the forest, I could see the River Usk below me taking broad turns to make its way downstream – like a skier making wide slaloms down a mountain.

The view across the Usk.

In the distance was the town of Caerleon. In Roman times it was known as Isca Silurium and was one of the most important strategic forts in all of the British Isles. That’s where I was headed next.

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On the trail of the Druids – A walk through Wentwood Forest

A conifer plantation in Wentwood Forest

Wentwood Forest lies a few miles east of Newport, between the historical Roman town of Caerleon and the former Norman stronghold of Chepstow. Today Wentwood is the biggest woodland in southeast Wales and an anchor point for the proposed National Forest of Wales.

So, it made sense to begin my walking adventure here – mapping an imaginary route for the new National Forest. In fact, Wentwood Forest is part of the largest area of ancient woodland anywhere in Wales with a recorded history spanning over 1000 years – though there have been woods covering the area for many thousands more.

Its current parameters constitute just one small part of a vast ancient forest that once covered the land between the rivers Usk and Wye – a forest that was home to some of Wales’ earliest citizens – the Silurian Celts and their fabled mystical leaders, the Druids.

We know very little about how the Silures and their Druid caste lived. One of the only remaining legacies are the many burial mounds, cairns and standing stones dating back to the period when the Druids would have held sway over the Celtic communities.

An easy walk through Wentwood Forest

Before setting off through the forest I decided to climb nearby Gray Hill. It might well have been one of the most important Druidic sites in Wales. On its southern slope is a jagged set of standing stones that, according to antiquarians could be older than Stonehenge.

Today the stone circle is in serious disrepair and most of the stones are no longer standing. However, one famous local writer/historian had no doubt about Gray Hill’s spiritual importance.

His name was Fred Hando. From the 1920s until his death in 1970 Hando wrote more than 800 articles and several books about the history and folklore of this corner of Wales. He was fascinated by the stone circles, positing”

That the two stones inside the circle aligned to the spring solstice and claimed (completely without evidence of course): “when the ancient observers saw their stones in line with these horizon sunrises and sunsets they were able to advise their agricultural tribesmen what the seasons were. Such knowledge was power!”

Who knows quite how important Gray Hill was to the Druids. What I can tell you is that, today, it offers amazing views of the Severn estuary and the coastline running down from the Severn Bridge all the way to Newport, including the full expanse of the Gwent Levels and even the iconic transporter bridge that towers above Newport docks.

From Gray Hill I wandered east through the forest trails towards Curley Oak. This tree is the oldest in Wentwood. It is estimated to be more than 1000 years old and sits in a part of the forest that feels truly ancient.

Today, much of what we associate with Druids is the stuff of Celtic legends. The main reason we know so little is the lack of a paper trail. The Druids didn’t write down any of their philosophy, teachings or culture – apparently not because they couldn’t write but because they believed that learning through an oral tradition would both create the highest standards of knowledge and also stop that knowledge falling into the hands of their enemies. Indeed, scholars have speculated that it took between 12 and 20 years of study to attain the highest level of Druidic learning – much the way shamans today in the Amazon learn the ways of the forest and continue to pass it down through generations.

Curley Oak

What is clear from the earliest descriptions of these important people is a very strong connection to nature, the forests and one species of tree in particular – the oak. Greek scholars in the 2nd century BC first mention them and, later, Roman writers including Strabo and Pliny the Elder believed the name Druid was derived from the Greek word for oak – drus. Later Celtic etymologists reasoned that the word Druid actually meant oak knowledge. (You can learn more in the Reading List.)

Today, the trees that would have known the Druids’ secrets are long gone but in this old oak section of Wentwood, at least, you sense that the spirit of the forest is still alive.

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Introducing Return To My Trees

Llandaff Fields in Cardiff

At the height of the Covid 19 pandemic, when we were all in lockdown, I, like so many people, found myself at a loss. My work as a writer had dried up and the only alternative to mooching around the house all day was to get out and walk.

Walking became my coping mechanism – it helped me relax and forget for a while about the situation we all found ourselves caught up in.

To begin with I explored the local parks in my home city of Cardiff. Soon though, I started to venture further afield into the woodlands on the fringes of the city. The more I walked the more I came to appreciate the amazing beauty and complexity of the natural world around me – particularly the trees which, to my shame, I’d never really paid that much attention to before.

Each day I grew more fascinated with the trees around me. I wondered how long they’d been standing, watching over us, and how had they got there in the first place. As I wandered through the woods I couldn’t help wondering: if the trees could think, what would they make of the mess we humans had made of the land we share?

Walking through Pentrebane woods to St. Fagans

The media was full of stories about how we needed to make a fresh start and reboot that relationship if we wanted to prevent further pandemics as well as devastating climate change. The question that no-one seemed to be able to answer was: How do we rebalance our relationship and make peace with nature?

It seemed like we were trapped at present in a liminal state – on the threshold of embracing a better, more sustainable way of living but not able to leave behind our old destructive ways. I felt like I was in a similar liminal state – what I needed was an adventure to shake me out of the fog I found myself.

That’s when I read about a plan to create the National Forest for Wales – an ambitious project that would fight climate change, protect biodiversity and help people get out and experience nature. That gave me an idea. What if I mapped out and walked a potential route for this new National Forest?

Then and there, I decided to embark on a nearly 300-mile walking trip through the forests, woodlands, hillsides and mountains of Wales.

Walking became my coping mechanism. It helped me relax and forget about the situation we all found ourselves in.

So, one Sunday morning, I sat down at my desk with a cup of coffee and started studying a map of Wales so that I could plot a series of walks connecting the forests and woodlands.

I soon found myself diving into the history of the woodlands in Wales and I quickly discovered how deep our relationship with nature once was and how, over the centuries, we had lost that connection.

I learned about the history and causes of deforestation and how centuries of industrialisation had destroyed our relationship to the forests.

I discovered how crucial a role the woodlands and nature played in our folklore and legends – the woodlands of Wales lie at the heart of the stories of King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake, the magical kingdoms of the Mabinogi and the mysterious powers of the Physicians of Myddfai.

And I also saw how the celebration of nature in art and culture by the likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge and JMW Turner helped create not just Victorian tourism but also the modern environmental movement.

Importantly, I also realised how walking through Wales could shine a light on the global issues we need to solve if we truly are to make peace with nature. Systemic issues like affording nature the same legal rights as humans; restructuring our global food system; planting trees in ways that help not hurt the planet; and building the economic value of nature into our financial and economic systems.

Finally, and importantly, I began to realise how important walking in nature is for all our physical and mental well-being and how this journey could help me repair my spirit and shape a new more positive future.

This is the story of my journey through Wales.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be telling you more about individual walks and experience through these posts and this newsletter.

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