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.
Today, at COP26, world leaders made a historic pledge to halt global deforestation by 2030. The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use could be transformative in restoring balance with nature but it requires action not just words. Maybe the new National Forest for Wales can provide an inspiration and roadmap for how to achieve the pledge. Here’s an essay from the Liminal Forest exploring the National Forest for Wales concept.
Coed Cwm Einion, one of a small collection of ancient Atlantic Rainforests that can be found on the western edges of Wales, has prospered for centuries because its intimidating terrain that hugs the craggy valley sides near the mouth of the Afon Einion made it damn near inaccessible. Technically speaking, I was walking in Tilio-Acerion woodland, predominantly comprising small-leaved lime trees that grow in the rocky sites of the ravine and where ash and wych elm also grow.
Coed Cwm Einion was considered one of the best examples of this very rare type of woodland. It also was home to sessile oak, rowan and downy birch – ancient semi-natural mixed broad-leaved woodland that provide a home to a rich mix of biodiversity. These included 177 species of lichen (including the very rare Parmotrema robustum which looks like a cross between kelp and some lettuce that you’ve left in the bottom of the fridge for too long) and more than 150 species of mosses and liverworts. Lichen is often referred to as the coral of the rainforest such is its importance in supporting biodiversity. After some digital detective work, I deduced that the spongey, vibrantly green forest floor also consisted of marsh hawk’s-beard, Tunbridge filmy-fern and hay-scented buckler fern.
Amid this tapestry of ancient trees and the plant life below them the Einion river rushed through, bubbling and breaking into white foam as it encountered the many rocks and boulders in its path. Some of the larger oaks had grown out to hang over the river and touch their neighbours on the other side – the trees providing the river with a surrealist guard of honour.
Coed Cwm Einion looked majestic and magical to my untrained eye but actually it was slowly being nursed back to health after many decades of neglect, overgrazing and suffering under the yoke of invasive species that bully natural ecology (Rhododendron ponticum being a major culprit). The woodland was part of a seven million-pound multi-year ancient forest conservation and restoration initiative. And it was a prime example of the type of woodland that the new National Forest for Wales aimed to nurture and protect.
The National Forest was a bold strategy to embed an appreciation of nature and biodiversity at the very heart of what it meant to be Welsh. The idea was to create a connected ecological network throughout the country that would provide people with easy access to woodlands and forests wherever they lived and to protect, restore and grow tree cover and biodiversity to help combat climate change and species extinction.
The multi-year plan involved planting new forests and restoring ancient woodlands with an emphasis on nurturing native deciduous trees, breathing new biodiversity life into the hedges and edgerows that line the countryside and working with the farming community to improve tree cover on their land. It also aimed to educate communities and schools about the importance of nature and create a network of walks, trails and paths that will connect people to the forests and woodlands of Wales – some huge expanses like Wentwood, Brechfa and Bwlch Nant yr Arian along with other small woods like here in Cwm Einion.
The National Forest plan couldn’t have come at a more important time for Wales. Just 20 percent of the Welsh landscape had any tree cover (compare that to nearly 30 percent on average in mainland Europe). Only 15 percent was actual woodland – the remainder a hodgepodge of agricultural landscapes, urban areas and transport corridors that, while still valuable, didn’t deliver nearly the same degree of environmental benefits as intertwined woodlands could.
Even as the government was pledging £15 million over the next five years to bring the National Forest idea to life its own State of Natural Resources annual report was sounding the alarm – warning that Wales was using up its natural resources, including rivers, forests and farmland, at a completely unsustainable rate. In fact, it wrote, if everyone on Earth used natural resources at the same rate as Wales, two and a half planets would be needed. A complete rethink of our food, transport and energy systems was required but also individuals needed to come to terms with the impact the way they lived was having on nature.
Education was going to be an important part of helping people, young and old, reconnect with nature but so was the experience of being outdoors. And that experience had to be enjoyable even if sometimes it also would be challenging. That had been my goal in setting off on this walk – to map one route for a National Forest that would be enjoyable and also an achievement. Now that I had made it this far – some 150 miles of connected woodland walking from the start point in Wentwood forest – I was more determined than ever to complete the plan, even though my legs ached, my ankle felt bruised and my back had all the flexibility of a slab of Welsh slate.
The next part of the journey was going to be tricky.
When I first started planning a walking route connecting the woodlands and forest of Wales one issue kept leaping out at me from the map. How was I going to get across the Elenydd, the sparse and barely populated upland region that lay between the two market towns of Llandovery and Tregaron?
Most of it sat above 400 meters and was sliced by a series of steep valleys that helped the upland tributaries feed into the river Tywi. On the OS map, the part of the Elenydd I needed to cross was an intimidating squash of orange lines signifying a very significant hike. This was Twm Sion Cati’s stomping ground. The famed local outlaw would have walked or ridden by horse across the Elenydd as he travelled from his home in Tregaron to his hiding place cave in what is now Gwenffrwd/Dinas Nature Reserve as he evaded his arch-nemesis the Sherriff of Carmarthen.
At a loss to come up with a satisfactory route myself I started researching long distance walking paths across what looked like an impressive yet inhospitable part of the Cambrian mountains. That’s how I stumbled upon the Cambrian Way, an ambitious and very challenging 288-mile hike across the major mountains of Wales running from Cardiff in the south to Conwy in the North. It was the creation of Tony Drake, a former department store owner who ultimately sold the family business so that he could pursue it true calling – walking. In 1968 Drake convinced both the Ramblers Association and the Youth Hostel Association to back the creation of The Cambrian Way so that it would be clearly marked on OS maps and have official markers positioned along the trail to guide the type of walker adventurous and hardy enough to undertake it.
It just so happened that one section of the route connected the village of Rhandirmwyn with the ancient Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida near the village of Pontrhydfendigaid. By consulting the Cambrian Way guidebook and cross referencing against the OS Map I could see that, if I started near Rhandirmwyn, I could follow the Cambrian Way up the Doethie Valley until I reached a remote hostel called Ty’n y Cornel.
I’d visited Ty’n y Cornel the day before as part of my reconnaissance for the Doethie valley walk – driving up the very steep, single track mountain road that led east out of Llanddewi Brefi (named after the St. David, the patron saint of Wales). Outside the hostel’s front door there was a plaque dedicated to Tony Drake. On it was an inscription which read: “He worked tirelessly in Wales and England for the RA (Rambler’s Association) for 60 years but his greatest love was always the wild beauty of his creation, The Cambrian Way.”
The next morning, late summer morning I set out on this remote stretch of The Cambrian Way just north of Twm Sion Cati’s cave. I knew that it was highly unlikely I’d meet many other walkers in the Doethie valley – it was that far off the beaten track. Suddenly I was overcome with a feeling both of exhilaration and trepidation at being out here alone.
I was also very wet. It was a dry, sunny morning so I’d worn light, breathable trousers for the walk. Normally I’d have been in shorts but the reputation of the Cambrian Way suggested I’d be picking my way through brambles and God only know what else along the way. Now, 30 minutes up the trail, the mist had lifted above the valley but I was soaked – my distinctly un-waterproof trousers being in constant contact with the dew-laden bracken that reached up to my waist.
But what a sight lay before me. Ahead lay miles of meandering river valley walled in by steep Fridd-dominated hillsides – a patchwork blanket of red, brown and green flora – and it was topped off by the bare, exposed ridge on either side. In the distance I could see the tall Sitka spruce trees of the Tywi Forest plantation standing to attention like a military guard….
In this latest video I head to Cors Caron, a nature reserve of extraordinary ecological value located on the banks of the River Teifi between Tregaron and Pontrhydfendigaid in Ceredigion, Wales.
A thousand years ago the monks from the Cistercian abbey at Strata Florida would come and work the land here at Cors Caron. That’s because it is one of the most important raised peat bogs in all of Wales and it provided them with fuel.
Today, the aim is to protect the peat, not dig it up, because raised bogs like Cors Caron are incredibly efficient at trapping carbon dioxide and so combat the climate crisis.
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Today marks the 55th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales – where over 100 children died when a landslide from an unstable coal tip engulfed their school. I remembered Aberfan as I walked through the Rhondda Valley on my journey and contemplated the continued risk to Welsh coal-mining villages.Here is part of the essay.
Even as the coal mines closed their environmental legacy remained. What was noticeable everywhere we walked through coal mining country was the absence of vegetation around many of the towns and villages that serviced the collieries. That’s because much of the waste material and tailings from the mines had been deposited, dumped actually, on the hillsides around the settlements. A few days before, as we’d walked through the windfarm above Penrhys, we’d seen for ourselves the problems this practice had caused.
Below us we’d looked down on Stanleytown and Tylorstown, once thriving coal villages named after English engineers that came to speculate for coal and made a fortune. Today both villages sat stranded and forgotten in the steep, glacial valley of the Rhondda Fach. Probably the most successful thing to come out of Stanleytown since the coal mine closed in the 1960s is the comedian Paul Whitehouse.
Tylorstown, however, had been in news just recently but not for good reasons. In February 2020 unprecedented heavy rainfall caused a 60,000 tonne landslide at the site of an old coal tip above the town. We could see it clearly from our position on the mountain – a wide black scar on the hillside across from us.
As we looked down at the landslide it hit home exactly how, when you scrape the surface of south Wales, the legacy of the coal industry is still evident and still affects the communities that live among its ghosts.
The warnings of more landslides also evoked memories of the Aberfan disaster a couple of miles northeast of where we now standing. On October 21st, 1966 at around 9.15am a coal tip that had been piled on a mountain slope above the town gave way, sending an avalanche of slurry pouring down upon Pantglas Junior School where the young students had just started their lessons. The entire school was engulfed and local people were forced to dig with their hands in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt save the children. In total 109 pupils and five teachers perished under the weight of the landslide.
The Aberfan disaster shocked the entire United Kingdom – reminding a nation that was increasingly seeing itself through the lens of modern of the brutal reality of its heavy industrial legacy. Many Britons were starting to enjoy owning TVs for the first time and the horror was exacerbated by the scenes of the aftermath that were broadcast on TV news. That horror turned to anger as it became clear the accident could have been prevented – reports revealed that the coal waste had been dumped over a natural spring and that the government run National Coal Board had been aware that the tip was unstable. The tribunal convened to investigate the disaster laid the blame squarely on the Coal Board writing that the “Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.”
Now there seemed a very real danger that another Aberfan-style disaster might occur in the future. The Tylorstown tip was just one of nearly 300 old dumping grounds across the south Wales valleys that were at significant risk of slippage according to one recent report – a threat exacerbated by climate change geologists had warned.
All over the world the effect of climate change is being exacerbated by widespread deforestation – trees and vegetation help anchor soil to the ground preventing erosion and landslips during heavy rain. This is hardly a new issue. Experts have long pointed to the effects of deforestation caused by sugar cane plantations all over Haiti as a worst-case example, while recent mining operations in Indonesia and Malaysia denuded vast tracts of hillside land.
Here in the valleys the situation was doubly troubling. Not only had all the local and available trees been cut down for pitwood leaving the surrounding hillsides bare and exposed to the elements, the collieries had then made the situation worse by dumping its waste on already unstable ground.
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In the run up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, the business world suddenly seems to be waking up to the looming disaster that will befall all of us as a result of climate change, environmental destruction and the loss of biodiversity. So I thought it would be a good time to share this short essay from my 300-mile walk through Wales exploring how we restore balance with nature.
It’s about The Physicians of Myddfai and how modern Pharma’s knowledge of the healing powers and wisdom of nature can be traced to their teachings of over 1000 years ago.
Science may only now be starting to explore and understand the true nature of trees and the connections of forests but people have appreciated the medicinal and healing power of trees and plants for many hundreds of years.
No more so than where I was right now in the shadow of the Black Mountain, walking on the Beacons’ Way towards the village of Llandeusant. In the 19th century this was a corpse road – where the bodies of local men who had perished working the coal pits of Brynamman were carried back to be buried in their home village. Brynamman men would start the journey and meet the men of Llandeusant by a bronze age cairn situated on the mountain.
And it was here that one of the greatest medical dynasties began – a family of physicians born of otherworldly heritage whose knowledge would be passed down through successive generations of doctors over the next 700 years. These were the Physicians of Myddfai and their nature-based remedies and philosophy, however folkloric it might be, continues to have resonance today.
the Physicians of Myddfai do appear to have been real people. The Red Book of Hergest, one of two medieval Welsh language tomes hand-written on velum in the 14th century, recounted how a father, named Rhiwallon, and his three sons, Cadwgan, Gruffudd and Einion, were physicians at the court of Rhys Gryg, the son of the Lord Rhys. Rhiwallon was said to be the eldest son of the Lady in the Lake.
The Red Book’s version of Meddygon Myddfai (The Physicians of Myddfai) included some 500 herbal remedies prescribed by the Physicians, including everyday medieval ailments like how to treat a snake bite (drinking juice made from fennel, radish and wormwood was recommended), how to reduce swelling and pain in the thighs (a mix of rue, honey and salt applied topically would do the trick) and how to stop a nosebleed (betony powder and salt applied inside the nostrils).
The book also included what might be consider more optimistic remedies for curing blindness and deafness (a mix of elm wood embers, black eel oil, honey and betony sealed in the ear with the help of the wool of a black lamb.) The Red Book included a few cures where you feel the Physicians might just have been having a joke at their patient’s expense. One remedy for “a man’s swollen penis” advised “Take African lard (or grease) and leeks, and smear upon the penis, and it will be fine.”
Academics have questioned whether the remedies that appear in the Red Book of Hergest can really be tied to Rhiwallon and his sons. They note that many of the remedies were well known in medieval times. More intriguing is the argument that the Physicians of Myddfai story was embraced, adapted and embellished by 18th century Welsh antiquarian intellectuals (including a rakish poet named Iolo Morgannwg who you’ll meet later on this journey) in an attempt to trace a modern Welsh national identity all the way back to the ancient Druidic heritage. The Physician’s connection to the trees and nature, and their expertise in herbal medicine, also matched the values of the Romantic age that shaped these ideas.
Whatever the veracity of the original story the Physician’s understanding of nature to help cure disease still resonates. Just ask the hard-headed, extremely logical pharmaceutical companies who invest millions each year into the field of ethnobotany to discover and monetise plant-based medicines.
Medicinal plants contribute to pharmacological treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, malaria (arteether), Alzheimer’s (galantamine), asthma (tiotropium) and, of course, many types of painkillers (aspirin is made from willow bark while morphine comes from the opium plant).
And the philosophy espoused by the Myddfai clan continues among communities all around the world. The World Health Organisation estimates some 20,000 medicinal plants are used to treat ailments and promote health worldwide. In Sarawak, Malaysia, there are some 1220 species of medicinal plants used on a regular basis by local people. In South Africa, an estimated 80% of the population still use traditional medicinal plant remedies. And, in some Amazon communities of South America, shaman embrace the psychedelic properties of plants like the liana vine to provide wisdom and guidance to their communities.
There were no shamans in the village of Myddfai, just the local community centre featuring an exhibit celebrating the famous Physicians. It did have a café, however, serving tea and Welsh Cakes – exactly the remedy I needed.
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We had walked across the South Wales valleys from Caerphilly to Pontypridd to Ton Pentre to the top of the Bwlch Mountain. There we had traced an ancient Celtic walking trail over the mountains as it headed West. Now, after a bit of hit and miss navigation on my part, Jeff, Andy and myself had reached the old coal town of Maesteg and an homage to the ghosts of the industry that shaped modern South Wales.
The Spirit of Llynfi Woodland sat just above Maesteg on the site of the old Coegnant Colliery and Maesteg Washery that had closed down in the 1980s. The land was elevated but not really a hill – in Welsh it was called Twmpath Mawr (the big hump). It had been established five years before as part of a 10-year local regeneration project to reintroduce local people to the wealth of green space close by them, to promote biodiversity and to alleviate the likelihood of flooding. By installing a large new woodland space (it encompassed some 75 hectares) the Welsh government also hoped to promote the health benefits of embracing nature and woodlands – and so improve both the physical and mental health of a community where chronic illness and depression is high.
Over 60,000 trees already had been planted by local people including a mixture of broadleaves, fruit and ornamental trees and new walking and cycle paths had been constructed to encourage local people to visit. The project was being funded through a Welsh government grant and also, partly, by the Ford Motor Company as many of the workers at its nearby Bridgend plant lived in the area.
“That’s very corporate citizen of them,” said Andy as we walked through the woodland towards its centrepoint – the Keeper of the Colliery statue of a miner carved out of oak. “But who is sponsoring the cows?”
In front of us, surrounding the bemused looking wooden miner, was a herd of black cows. Some were munching on the grass around where the miner’s feet might have been had he been given any. Others were picking at the plants and bushes lining the paths that spread out through the woodland in straight lines to all points of the compass.
The animals stopped eating and stared at us as we approached – it was like being in a bovine version of the pub scene in An American Werewolf in London.
“Um, I don’t think those are cows,” said Jeff. “Those are young Welsh black bullocks and I’m not sure we want to walk through them.”
We all agreed. “They weren’t kidding when they said this park was all about reconnecting with nature,” said Andy as we rapidly backtracked away from the animals.
So we sought a new route through the woodland, backtracking until we reached a cycle path that ran on its southern perimeter just above Maesteg high school. There we met a man walking in our direction with his dog running a little ahead of him. We gave him a heads up about the bulls he was about to encounter.
“Oh bloody hell, not them again,” he said. “They’re becoming a right menace.”
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.
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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.
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