Tree lover Archie Miles on where to see the wood (and the trees) in Wales
Arguably the finest remnant of a yew circle on a pre-Christian site in Wales. At first difficult to locate, since Llanfeugan is not even marked on the Ordnance Survey map, 12 magnificent old yews encircle the tiny, remote church of St Meugan, just half a mile west of Pencelli, near Brecon.
An ideal site to access if you’re heading up into the Brecon Beacons, but always worth a detour to sit among the writhing, contorted forms of the ancient yews, soaking up the tranquillity of the place and contemplating the history and mystery of our most venerable native trees.
Here, long-neglected beech trees have become dramatic, Tolkienesque forms. A network of ancient paths, holloways and green lanes weave through the woods and pastures on this great hill looming high above the Usk Valley near Abergavenny. Old pollards signify ancient wood-pasture, and massive outgrown coppice stools, uncut for well over a century, evoke memories of a ceaseless thirst for timber and charcoal to fire the south Wales iron industry.
On the top of the hill windblown, gappy hedge lines signify smallholdings and enclosures long forgotten. Neglect can be a gloomy, dispiriting experience, but here the power of nature left to its own devices is reassuring, even awesome.
Some 12 miles inland from Aberystwyth, in the Ystwyth Valley, the Hafod Estate is surely one of the hidden gems of Wales. Widely regarded as one of the finest surviving examples of a late 18th century ‘picturesque’ landscape in Europe, Hafod was in its prime some 200 years ago. Since then, and particularly throughout the 20th century, its story is one of neglect and decline.
All the wonderful landscaping and forestry begun by the great Thomas Johnes back in 1780 might have been lost completely were it not for the creation of the Hafod Trust in 1994 – a dedicated group with a passion for the estate. Today the public have access to the wonderful scenic walks around the estate devised by Johnes, taking in the river, numerous waterfalls and cascades, rustic bridges and some stupendous trees and views.
Although Johnes planted many conifers here, it’s the huge moss-clad beeches that steal the show. In particular try and seek out the great ‘Hafod Beech’ on top of Allt Dihanog. Surrounded by conifers, this massive tree with a remarkable girth of almost 28ft is one of the largest and most impressive beech trees in the whole of Wales.
Hidden beneath the sea (mostly) lies another of the tree secrets of Wales. Walking on the beach at low tide, between Borth and Ynyslas, you might be forgiven for thinking that there are a lot of strange pointed rocks protruding from the sands. Closer examination reveals that these are not rocks, but trees!
As you look a little closer it’s easy to pick out the grain of the wood and sometimes to distinguish the annual rings of growth. However, what makes these stumps even more fascinating is the knowledge that these are the remains of trees that grew here some 5-6,000 years ago. This is a forest that was submerged in the wake of the last Ice Age, as the glacial melt waters increased sea levels and flooded the basin between Ireland and Wales.
The seawater has preserved the trees throughout the millennia and, amazingly, it is still possible to distinguish the species that grew here – principally Scots pine, birch, hazel, oak and willow. If nothing else these are also beautiful sculptural forms moulded by the ebb and flown of countless tides.
To find one of the most exhilarating walks with the promise of wonderful trees it has to be a return to the Usk Valley once again. The limestone crags of Craig y Cilau hang high above the southern side of the valley with the little market town of Crickhowell far below. Park up anywhere on the moorland road above Llangattock and strike off to the south, heading for the cliff edge (be careful) and discover some incredibly rare examples of the Sorbus species – four ever so slightly different whitebeams, specifically endemic to this very localised part of Wales, cling to the cliff edge.
The only reason for survival being their precarious roothold on such a precipitous site that is out of reach of marauding, ravenous sheep which relish whitebeam leaves. Other trees of note here are the many windblown rowans and hawthorns, some of the latter having been perennially cropped by sheep, blasted by winds and squashed by snow, making them into natural bonsais.
On the cliff face below, the rare large-leaved lime thrives, as it has done here for thousands of years, affirmed by the pollen records from the bogs far beneath. In spring and early summer wild flower enthusiasts will also reap ample reward. There’s even a pretty good chance of spotting the odd red kite up here. It’s just one of the best places I know to sit and watch and wonder and lose yourself.
Archie Miles is a specialist writer and photographer on trees and woodland. He’s a keen hiker, a lecturer and also runs a successful card business. He lives in Herefordshire with his partner Jan, two Scottie dogs and a cat. His latest book, Heritage Trees Wales, can be ordered now on Amazon.
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