The Walks in Wales

The Physicians of Myddfai – Wales’ famous herbal healers

Nowadays, Big Pharma depends on nature’s resources to design and make some of the most important drugs and medical products our society depends on. Over a thousand years ago, three Welsh doctors, The Physicians of Myddfai built a reputation as being the finest herbal doctors in Europe.

Keep up to date with all The Liminal Forest adventures by signing up to our free newsletter

Return to My Trees Podcast – Walking with Daniel Raven-Ellison from Slow Ways

Daniel Raven-Ellison – founder of Slow Ways

In late September I took a train down to Exeter to record the latest in my walk and talk podcast series. I was meeting Daniel, Raven-Ellison, the highly accomplished and engaging “guerrilla geographer” and founder of the Slow Ways movement, which is capturing the imagination of the British public in the age of lockdown.

The goal of Slow Ways is to build network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities. So far over 7,000 walking routes have been mapped. Now the challenge is to walk, review and verify them all – checking over 100,000km of Slow Ways routes!

Dan and I walked a Slow Ways route up the River Exe from Topsham to Exeter and, along the way, we chatted about nature, walking for wellbeing, the future of cities and the importance of trees.

Come join us on our walk and take a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

Keep up to date with all The Liminal Forest adventures by signing up to our free newsletter

Staring down at stranded assets in the South Wales valleys

Looking down the valley from the Bwlch Mountain

Very little of the vast coal wealth that helped build Cardiff flowed back up the valleys to the mining towns we were looking down on now. The early morning mist at the top of the Bwlch Mountain had cleared and below us, in Ogmore Vale and along the Afon Afan, we could spot stranded ex-coal villages – mini-pockets of humanity jammed in among the steep sided valleys.

On our left was Nant-y-Moel – once home to the Wyndham/Western Colliery until it was closed down in 1983. To our right we could see the tips of Abergwynfi and Blaengwynfi (two sister mining communities on opposite banks of the Afan).

Perhaps the most sobering thing about the South Wales coal boom was how brief was its heyday. More than 57 million tonnes of coal were produced in 1913 by 232,000 men working in 620 mines in a thin corridor of hills and valleys no more than 10 miles wide. By 1920, the industry employed 271,000 men across South Wales but, in the years following the First World War, demand for Welsh coal began to wane. Top grade Welsh steam coal now faced new competition from mining operations in Germany and the United States and from an existential threat – an oil industry that was fast replacing the old steam age (and with devastating repercussions for coal-dependent communities like the ones we could see now that our oil-addicted society would do well to pay heed to today).

Nearly 250 mines closed across South Wales between 1921 and 1926. That year a Royal Commission concluded that the coal industry had to be reshaped and that miners needed to accept wage cuts. The private mine owners jumped at the opportunity and demanded large cuts. The miners’ union refused and on April 30th, workers who refused wage cuts were locked out and coalfields in South Wales and across the UK came to a halt.

For nine days the UK economy was paralysed as most of the workforce went on strike to support the miners. However, on May 12th, other unions returned to work after agreeing terms with the Government. The miners carried on until the end of the year when starvation forced them back to work.  

To stave off mass unemployment the UK government put some miners to work on large scale infrastructure projects – including the Bwlch mountain bypass (part of the larger Glamorgan Inter-Valley Road project) which was built in 1928 and which we were walking above right now. Before the road was built the mining communities had no way of accessing neighbouring valleys unless they undertook the type of hike we had embarked on, following ancient routes up and over the mountains.

The Bwlch bypass wasn’t just a public works project to ease the unemployed miners’ unrest – politicians also thought it could provide the communities with a way to access nature and escape the often dark and dank existence at the foot of the valleys. For this reason the road, with so many switchbacks it felt like navigating an Alpine pass, was constructed with room both for motor vehicles and pedestrians. Once completed it succeeded in attracting generation after generation of local sightseers to the top of the mountain. It became so popular that one enterprising Italian immigrant family set up a mobile ice cream van in the car park at the summit. They became so famous that the mountain became known as Ice Cream Slope by the many hang-gliders who headed up there.

The other major project that the UK government put Welsh miners to work on was planting vast forests of conifer trees. All across Wales the Forestry Commission set up camps for miners – primarily to “rehabilitate” and “recondition” the men so that they were ready for tough manual labour (notably on road projects like the Bwlch). Here in the Ogmore and abutting Afan valleys major new forest projects were launched. As we wandered now through a sprawling windfarm on our way to Maesteg we could see the results to the north of us – a wide carpet of connected conifer forest starting at Coed Bwlch and running across the horizon to Rheola forest (where some 13,000 acres was planted over a 20 year period) near the town of Neath. This monocultured expanse would become known as Coed Morgannwg (Glamorgan Wood) and nowadays, Afan Forest Park.  That’s where we were headed next.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to our free newsletter

How Victorian staycationers gave Devil’s Bridge its name

Hafod Hotel, Devil’s Bridge, Pontarfynach

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.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to the newsletter

Wrapped up in books – The system change inspiration for restoring balance with nature

The first two parts of The Liminal Forest walking project are very much concerned with how deforestation and industrialisation broke our connection to trees and nature and how we’ve sought to rebuild and restore that connection over the centuries through art, culture, travel, walking and activism.

The final part of the walking journey, which takes place through Snowdonia National Park and along the Dee river valley towards Offa’s Dyke and the English border, is all about our current systems and how they must change if we really stand a chance of restoring balance and making peace with nature.

A number of important books continue to shape and inspire my thinking and writing.

Jane Davidson’s FutureGen – Lessons from a Small Country – was a crucial in understanding the philosophy and policy decisions that led to Wales creating its landmark Future Generations Act.

David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth offered both mindboggling detail and also important perspective of the scale of the climate catastrophe humanity faces.

James Thornton and Martin Goodman’s Client Earth opened my eyes to the role our legal systems must play in reshaping our relationship with nature.

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics was a breath of fresh air when considering how our economic, financial and political systems need to radically evolve (immediately) to meet the challenges – and how it is possible for them to do so now.

Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor showed me how we all must take a leadership role in making sure the legacy we leave for our children and their children is one we would want for ourselves.

Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry, meanwhile, demonstrated the art of the possible when we learn from, and embrace the teachings of nature in order to build better and create truly sustainable infrastructure and systems.

Finally, a special mention not for a book but for a podcast. Through the past 12 months or so Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts’ How to Survive the Future amused, scared, intrigued, informed and inspired me.

All the books that I’ve drawn on in creating The Liminal Forest are in the reading list on the site. I’ll keep adding more as I come across them and digest their wisdom.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to the newsletter

Exploring Carreg Cennen – Wales’ best castle!

Carreg Cennen

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.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to the newsletter

The green, green parks of home – A walk through the legacy of Cardiff’s coal wealth

Cedar of Lebanon at Insole Court, Cardiff

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.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to the newsletter

Cynghordy Viaduct – An engineering marvel and a hidden Welsh gem

Cynghordy Viaduct in Mid-Wales

In the latest video clip from The Liminal Forest journey through Wales I visit Cynghordy Viaduct, one of the most impressive feats of engineering in Wales.

The viaduct stands 30.5m high and is curved across the Bran Valley. It is built on on 18 semi-circular headed brick and sandstone arches with square rough-faced rubble piers. It was built 1868 for the Central Wales Railway.

Cynghordy Viaduct is located a few miles outside of Llandovery on a windy, single track road that climbs over the hills to the village of Rhandirmwyn.

You’d never find it unless you knew where to look – unless you’re taking the train through Mid-Wales that is!

Follow me on the rest of my journey by subscribing to the newsletter

Wrapped up in Books Part II – The history, legends and folklore of Wales

Reading into Welsh history, culture, legend and folklore

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.

Wrapped up in books: The inspiration and influences behind The Liminal Forest – Part 1

A few of the books that inspired The Liminal Forest

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.