This wood has fascinated me for a long time. It seems mysterious and outside of time, as if no one has ever set foot in it.
Today I am sitting near the top of the wood at about 1000 feet with my back to a small cliff, in a kind of ‘cwtch’ in the rocks, so they fit round me keeping off the worst of the cold wind. Probably people and animals have sheltered here for centuries. Fallen bracken, the colour of dried tobacco, is folded over some of the rocks below me; dotted amongst it are patches of crystalline snow. I can hear Hywel whistling to his dogs lower down the valley. A raven croaks overhead. Half a mile away and 100 feet below me the river sounds like distant motor traffic; a dispersed white noise I could easily not hear. Underneath this is a silence, a stillness that is always there, unchangeable. It is that which takes this place out of time.
I understand why I like this spot: I have my back against the wall and I can see all the territory below me. If I don’t move I am unlikely to be seen amongst the trees. It gives me a sense of both safety and advantage, which must be hardwired from the time we were both predator and prey. I also have a sense of expectancy, waiting and watching for something. It dawns on me that I have come looking for the first signs of spring up here in the hills. There is little to encourage me; the wood seems implacable, and of course the expectation is only mine.
The ground slopes steeply away from me, a chaos of boulders ranging in size from a bucket to a garden shed. The trees that have somehow struggled into being in such an unforgiving place are bent and twisted, festooned with moss and encrusted with lichen. The moss also demurely carpets the boulders wall-to-wall, concealing all manner of fissures and holes. It is a treacherous place to walk. To my left Moel Llyfnant, covered with snow, looks like a huge cone of sugar. Beside it the flank of the Arenig disappears into low cloud, the summit lost from view. To my right, perhaps 10 miles away, is the rounded profile of the Berwyn Mountains, where I spent a good chunk of my working life. Sitting here I feel nourished; there is nowhere I would rather be. This must be what Thoreau meant by ‘the tonic of wildness’.
This wood has such presence it is easy to imagine it as ancient but it is probably quite young. The trees are almost exclusively birch or rowan, which are classic short-lived pioneer species; the sort that colonise open ground and get woodland started. The oaks, ash and other longer-lived trees gradually follow, although perhaps at this altitude that pattern of succession is less certain. The wood is on the map from 1921, in more or less the same configuration, but probably none of these trees are more than 150 years old, so it cannot date from long before that. There are no large decaying stumps to suggest a previous generation of trees and as far as I know there have been no specialist wildlife species found here that might indicate an ancient woodland. It is more the sense of ‘place’ that makes this wood stand out. And of course it is beautiful – whatever we each mean by that. I remember once walking with a farmer into a narrowing valley on the western escarpment of the Berwyn. It was a glorious spring day, the birds were singing and a waterfall poured over the towering cliff at the head of the valley in front of us. I stood in wonder. He looked at me appraisingly and we had an exchange that went: “I suppose you think this is beautiful? I do, don’t you? It’s just the place where I work”. Perhaps he was just winding me up or, more likely, making a point that this was not just a ‘playground for nature’ but a place of hard and sometimes brutal work. It seems to me that embracing both these viewpoints – the beautiful and the brutal if you like – is essential to understanding such places and our relationship with them.
You could be forgiven for thinking the wood is untouched, but this land has been farmed for centuries and that has shaped the wildness of the place. It probably got established by default, at a period when grazing pressure was low. This boulder scree is a place of last resort for grazing sheep so perhaps that was enough of a window for saplings to get away and a wood began. Also I know that the wood was cut for firewood for many years, in particular to feed the ‘popty mawr’, the big bread oven on which the family depended for their loaves up until 50 years ago. Now the wood is fenced out as part of an agri-environment scheme which permits only limited winter grazing. Will this allow new saplings, which are almost totally absent, to provide the next generation of trees and so prevent the wood from dying out? Or perhaps in the near absence of grazing brambles will grow up and smother the woodland flowers.
I have been sitting here for more than an hour and the cold is beginning to get into me. Reluctantly I pick my way between the trees and over the boulders towards the fence. It is then that I notice them. Hundreds of stiffly pointed bluebell leaves pushing through the moss; a literal manifestation of Dylan Thomas’ ‘green fuse’, through which the life force flows. It is beginning again. In six weeks this place will be a carpet of blue – and I will call it beautiful.