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.
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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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.
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In these latest videos I continued my walk through Gwenffrwd Dinas nature reserve until I met the legendary Welsh highwayman, Twm Sion Cati (endearingly brought back to life by another local Cambrian Mountains legend, Dafydd Wyn Morgan).
In the videos Dafydd explains the importance of Twm Sion Cati and how he evaded the authorities by hiding in a cave in the heart of this Celtic Rainforest.
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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?
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.
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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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?
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.
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.