The August bank holiday weekend was fine and sunny so I decided to have another look at Waun y Griafolen, the great bog at the source of the Mawddach river which, although only about three miles from our house as the crow flies, is as inaccessible as it is wild. Elen and Gethin elected to come along too and we decided to try a route from the west to cut down on the long slog in. During the hour it took us to drive there along winding single-track roads we only passed one other vehicle, which says a lot about the place. Bumping along a potholed farm track we finally came to a halt beside a deserted farmhouse – corrugated iron over the windows, swallows flying in and out of its flaking roof. A caravan, green with mould, half buried amongst some ragged conifers added to the god-forsaken air of dereliction that so often haunts profitless hill farming. All around us in this valley are centuries of worked and built stone: field and boundary walls, sheep pens, barns, pigsties, houses – the product of hard, patient labour and great skill that are slowly falling down, collapsing back into the earth out of which they were hewn. Right beside the track is a maze-like complex of sheep pens, now reduced to stone skeletons laid-out under shrouds of woolly hair-moss. The ghosts of half forgotten families, even whole communities, stalk these places with palpable sadness. Part of that story rings the horizon like sharks’ teeth: conifer forests, that deadening industry that swallowed up so much hill land in the twentieth century.
After half an hour of stiff walking we top the escarpment at about 1400 feet and can see through to Waun y Griafolen. Over the last few hundred thousand years the river has cut a notch in the ring of protective hills that offers us an open doorway. Beyond that we could see an area of eroding peat-hags that I was particularly keen to revisit, having been there only once before, three years ago. And they are extraordinary. Ragged mounds of brown peat about ten feet high with teetering topknots of heather and moss are scattered over about two and half acres. Rising abruptly from the flat ground they look like features from the Arizona desert made out of chocolate. We are looking at about three metres depth of exposed peat, which will, on average, have accumulated at about a millimetre a year. That is three thousand years worth of vegetation history stacked up in front of us. Peat really is extraordinary stuff. The gentler slopes and basins of much of upland, western Britain are clothed in a layer of it, sometimes, as here, several meters thick. It is made up of partially decomposed plant remains, in particular bog-mosses which thrive in waterlogged conditions and are resistant to decay. In places like this the wet, acidic, nutrient poor substrates are starved of oxygen, which means that the microbial plant and animal life which break down plant material cannot live in any numbers, so decomposition is inhibited. This leaves ever deepening layers of partially rotted leaves and stems which, when wet, are the colour and consistency of Christmas pudding. As long as rainfall outstrips evaporation and the transpiration from living plants the peat will continue to grow giving rise, in wet and mild places like this, to a world draped in peat. This is ‘blanket bog’ a distinctive landscape that rolls gently away in soft greens and brown, sodden underfoot, treeless and mercilessly exposed to wind and rain. Such places are not to everybody’s taste but I find their space and solitude deeply nourishing.
Blanket bogs are a rare landform globally – Britain and Ireland have 20% of the world’s total – and surprisingly valuable to human society. They are an important source of drinking water with many of our great cites being supplied by the rainfall from boggy moorlands such as these. The taps are kept running in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham thanks in large part to rainwater caught and stored in the hills of Wales. This ability to store water in the spongy ground is also a vital for flood prevention: An intact bog is 85-98% water; in effect an enormous water absorbing sponge which allows little lateral movement, so when the rain pours down it is held and then released slowly, rather than careering downhill and flooding homesteads and villages below. Blanket bogs also have huge stores of carbon bound up in the peat, which, if excavated or damaged is released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which accelerates climate change. These vital functions along with its unique assemblage of plants and animals and wide-open spaces provide a vivid example of how our welfare is inextricably and elegantly bound into the health of the natural world. Ensuring that farmers, foresters, grouse shooters and others keep the skin on the soft underbelly of this land is in all our interests.
Littered across the eroded ground and protruding from the bottom of hags are bits of wood, some soggy others bleached as bone, ranging in size from twigs to hulks of timber. These are the preserved remains of a forest that covered this ground 3-4000 years ago, before the climate shifted into a warmer and wetter phase and the blanket peat began to form, gradually burying the remnant trees and preserving some of them forever. It is exciting to realise that the knotted and still fibrous piece of birch I am holding is 3000 years old; a surviving splinter of the original wildwood right here in the palm of my hand.
Gethin is prowling around the peat hags peering at the ground and I know what he is looking for. When we were here three years ago he found two fragments of worked flint, details of which he sent to the county archaeologist, who followed up with a further visit and found several more. His report said five of the flints, including the two that Gethin had found were “small blades, probably punch struck, suggesting a late Mesolithic date.” He thought it likely that the ‘scatter’ was the remains of a small temporary summer campsite on an open area of exposed riverbank in an area that was otherwise forested. It is likely that the spread of peat was the main cause of forest decline in areas such as this but recent research suggests that the small human population, with their stone tools and use of fire, may also have had a considerable impact on forest clearance. The woody fragments protruding from the eroding peat together with Gethin’s sharp-eyed finds gives us to an extraordinary glimpse of a scene from 3-4000 years ago where a group of hunter-gather people, probably on a deer hunt, camped right here on the bank of the river in a forested landscape that must have looked entirely different from the windswept moorland that surrounds us. This was a time when humans were of little ecological significance – just another predatory animal roaming the primeval landscape. How times have changed.