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.