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.
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.
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.