‘A stone circle older than Stonehenge’: Welsh woodland walks steeped in folklore | Hiking holidays
JWalk through the woods and countryside of Wales and you enter a magical, liminal space – a threshold where history and legend, fact and fiction seem to merge and become one. Woods, caves, lakes and streams have long been central to Welsh folklore. In some Welsh mythologies they are believed to be gateways to the Annwn (the other world described notably in the Welsh Middle Text The Four Branches of the Mabinogi). These entrances were supposed to be protected by Y Tylwyth Teg, righteous people. In Welsh folklore, these fairies were the souls of druids who, as pagans, could not be granted passage to heaven but were too virtuous to be thrown into hell. In other cases, nature provides power or protection.
I had grown up listening to many of these tales. It wasn’t until I started a 300 mile walk across Wales, exploring, for a new book, how we as a society can restore balance with nature, that I began to realize the importance of folklore. It reminds us of our long ties to the natural world – even as industrialization and urbanization pull us away from it.
So here are five walks through Wales that capture the power of its folklore and legends. You never know, you might spot one of the beautiful people along the way.
Student Felenrhyd, Gwynedd
Just outside the village of Maentwrog, on the banks of the Afon Prysor in Snowdonia National Park, is Coed Felenrhyd, one of the few remaining temperate or Celtic rainforests in Wales. As you walk through the forest, owned and maintained by Cadw student (the Welsh branch of the Woodland Trust), you will be amazed at how the sessile oaks clinging to steep ravines and how the forest floor is alive with brilliant green combinations of bryophytes including liverwort and spectacular clumps of barnacles. Felenrhyd’s magical qualities are only enhanced by his place in legend. According to The Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, it was here that the malevolent wizard Gwydion killed Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed, after stealing a herd of pigs given to Pryderi by Arawn, King of Annwn. Pryderi’s body is said to have been buried in Maentwrog graveyard near an old yew tree.
Wentwood Forest, Caldicot
It’s a short but steep climb to the top of Gray Hill on the eastern edge of Wentwood Forest – the largest old-growth woodland area in Wales and of such stature and heritage that it is also mentioned in the Mabinogi. Once you’ve caught your breath, a quick walk up the brow of the hill brings you to a jagged set of ruined standing stones.
According to antiquarians, this stone circle may be older than Stonehenge and one of the most notable druidic sites in Wales due to its commanding position overlooking the Severn Estuary. Whether this is true or not, the area is steeped in ancient history; a mile to the north is another Bronze Age treasure – a burial mound estimated to be 3,000 years old.
This part of South Wales was once the stronghold of the Silurian Celts, who lived, cleared and farmed parts of the forest until the arrival of the Romans. Druids held a special, almost shamanic power among the Celts. Roman scholars tell how they had a special connection with trees – oaks in particular. Much of the ancient oak forest has been felled and replaced with conifer plantations, but today Wentwood remains a commanding presence in this part of South Wales.
In the 16th century, this area of Ceredigion, between the towns of Llandovery and Tregaron, was the playground of Twm Siôn Cati – an outlaw gentleman who rose to prominence through folk writings (and many layers embellishment) under the name of Welsh Robin Hood. Born Thomas Jones in Tregaron around 1530, Twm has a reputation based more on mischievous trickery than any ruffian – he had a knack for outwitting his victims.
Nevertheless, Twm Siôn Cati spent a lot of time on the run from the Sheriff of Carmarthen. It is here, in the dense Celtic forest of the Gwenffrwd-Dinas nature reserve, that Twm is said to have hidden – in a cave (his personal other world, perhaps) on a hill surrounded by sessile oaks. A 2.5 mile circular trail along the Afon Twyi River guides you through the reserve. Halfway you can climb a steep track to see Twm Cave for yourself.
Llyn Y Fan Fach, Carmarthenshire
A young farmer was grazing his cows near Llyn y Fan Fach (Lake of the Little Peak) in the foothills of the towering Black Mountain. In front of him, a beautiful woman climbed from the lake. When their eyes met, the two fell in love and the beautiful lady agreed to marry the young farmer. But on one condition. If he ever hit her with iron, she would go back to the lake forever. The young man nodded – how could he hit someone he loved so much?
The couple lived happily and had three sons. Then, one day, the farmer accidentally hit his wife with an iron bridle while trying to harness a pony. Without hesitation, she sailed away, disappearing into the waters of Llyn y Fan Fach.
No one knows what happened to the farmer. But the three sons often went to the lake to visit their mother. One day she told them that their destiny was to heal the sick. She left the lake, walked with them through a deep wooded valley and taught them the medicinal plants and herbs of the forest. These three boys became the doctors of Myddfai – pioneers of medieval herbal medicine whose lineage would continue to this day. You can explore Llyn y Fan Fach and the surrounding Carmarthen Fans on a challenging but spectacular 15km circular walk starting just outside the village of Llanddeusant.
Ty Canol, Pembrokeshire
Near the Pembrokeshire coast is Ty Canol, probably one of the oldest woods in all of Wales. While walking through the woods of oak, ash and downy birch, which are home to more than 400 species of lichens, it’s like traveling back in time. A 4.5km walk takes you through Ty Canol and as you stand among these trees, it’s easy to imagine how the Druids drew inspiration from nature.
Just outside the wood is Pentre Ifan, a Neolithic chambered dolmen believed to date from 3500 BC. Its main cornerstone is five meters long. As if Pentre Ifan’s historical pedigree weren’t enough, he’s also shrouded in symbolic folklore. According to some stories, Pentre Ifan was considered “the womb of Ceridwen” – the enchantress/witch who swallowed her servant Gwion Bach and then reborn him as Taliesin, Wales’ oldest bard and poet .
Matthew Yeomans is the author of Back to My Trees: Notes from the Welsh Forests (Calon to £16.99), a walking adventure through Wales who explores our connection with nature.