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?

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.

Follow me on the rest of my journey by signing up to the newsletter