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?
Dewi Sant, or St. David as he is known in the English language, is the patron Saint of Wales.
More importantly for my Liminal Forest adventure he’s also one of a long line of Celtic Saints who have deep connections to nature and, possibly, to the ancient Celtic philosophy of the Druids who revered the power of the natural world.
In this video snippet I visit the village of Llanddewi Brefi where Dewi was said to have performed the miracle that made him famous throughout Wales and beyond and established both his saintly and his mystical credentials.
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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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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.
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