My first visit to the temperate rainforest of Coed Felenrhyd in North Wales was in early autumn. Entering the ancient site was to walk into a cathedral, a multi-layered, multi-faceted arena of light, sound and life. Here was space, but a confusing space of fullness. The impact was visceral: I gasped.
This ancient site had its own language, a chorus of huge proportions: birds sang, branches creaked, streams burbled, leaves whispered, shades of green ceded one to another, while humus emitted earthy odours. Not one surface of Felenrhyd was free of plant life, from the understorey of mosses, ferns, bracken and bramble to lichens encrusting rocks and fallen branches, up to magnificent epiphytic vegetation navigating, exploring and festooning every crevice of oak branches. All life was here. In his book Wildwood, Roger Deakin writes, ‘To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed’. I prepared to be transformed.
Temperate rainforests are known also as Atlantic woodlands, reflecting their key locations, places subject to the influence of the sea. They are characterised by high rainfall and humidity, often fostered by their presence in steep ravines. They are also called coastal and upland ancient woodland. This rare habitat is found only in a few locations in the world and is increasingly threatened, in part due to land-use change. Historically, many activities would take place in these woodlands, but over time those have receded with the result that bramble and bracken have spread, out-competing some of the important ground flora.
Coed Felenrhyd in Snowdonia National Park, North Wales. It is one of the Meironnydd Oakwoods and Bat sites Special Area of Conservation (SAC) included in the prestigious Celtic Rainforest LIFE project. The mild, humid conditions of the steep-sided valley, together with a heavy rainfall of about 200 days per year, are conducive to the growth of a rich plant cover. Most of the woodland is ancient in origin. Key tree species include sessile oak, hazel, birch species, rowan and hawthorn, with willow in wetter areas. The forest has been managed by the Woodland Trust (Coed Cadw) since 1991. Research shows this site to have been wooded for many thousands of years, even since the end of the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. This magical area needed further exploration, not least because these temperate rainforests of Europe are globally rare and threatened. These sites must not be lost.
The £7 million LIFE project was awarded in 2018 and is to continue until 2025. The project’s main aim is to reduce potential threats to this precious system to ensure its sustainability. Key objectives include:
- Removal of invasive rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum);
- Implementation of active woodland management including conservation grazing, to foster the growth of a better ground flora and to develop a more resilient ecosystem;
- To increase cultural, wildlife and natural capital of the Celtic rainforests by improved engagement with local communities, tourist agencies and schools.
On my first visit to the woodland in September, with late summer on the cusp of autumn, it seemed wise to follow a lower route paralleling the Afon Prysor flowing along the valley floor. Any sense that this would be an easier walking introduction to Coed Felenrhyd was soon shown to be wrong. The topography fostering this habitat ensures that ‘easy’ is not an option. The path is visible throughout the wood, hemmed on each side by a wealth of vegetation that is a key attribute of Coed Felenrhyd. Progress was slow, not only because of landscape challenges but also because there was so much to see. I was compelled to pause and imbibe.
Autumn had not yet imposed its cooler, windy influences so leaves remained on the trees imposing a dappled light show on the forest floor, helping the walker to witness the valley’s verdant luxuriance. Fungi, those organisms of the season, were abundant. I was witnessing fungal fecundity.
Many forest fungi are mycorrhizal, forming a symbiotic relationship with the wood/soil they are growing on. Decaying matter provides fungi with nutrients and, in turn, they deliver those nutrients to the trees. Toadstools and mushrooms littering the ground surface and growing on tree stumps are rather like icebergs. Those above-ground fruiting bodies disguise many thousands of metres of underground fungal hyphae, filamentous structures that link fungus to tree in this two-way relationship. For all conversation taking place above ground, a deeper underground communication between trees, mediated by the chemistry of fungal hyphae is critical to the forest’s survival.
My second visit in March revealed a different environment, but one that still made an impact. Leaves on most trees had not yet fully escaped their dormancy. A faint green hue promised a canopy that the warmer weather would gestate in the coming weeks. This undressing did not diminish the landscape. Ancient sessile oaks appeared as gnarled silhouettes, shapes forged through time. Mosses tumbled down slopes and draped fallen trees and rocks, while epiphytic ferns freeloading a ride high up on branches were more visible than they would be when disguised by the dense canopy. Spreads of Lesser celandine bequeathed yellow bursts of colour illuminating the drab brown and grey of the leaf litter.
The weather was unseasonably warm and dry that week. Water, to which the rainforest owes its existence, seemed restricted to streams decanting down slopes. Raindrops were not there to drip off the tips of fern fronds. The steady roar of torrential rain or the gentle whisper of drizzle was absent. Even the humidity was diluted. There were clues of an intimate relationship with rain. Lines of leaf litter spoke of an aquatic energy that had remobilised them. Cushions of Sphagnum moss revealed locations where water would linger longer so that the hyaline cells of these mosses could have their fill. Logs in the river channel spoke of times when forest slopes would discharge torrents heading for Afon Prysor.
A more startling difference in this season was evidence of Storm Arwen’s impact. Ed Midmore, Site Manager for many of these critical Woodland Trust sites, had spoken of how hectic life had been prior to my visit. The scale of the storm’s destruction was the source of his exhaustion. Veteran oaks and other species had succumbed to the winds, with many fallen across footpaths so needed immediate attention. Those not obstructing footpaths were checked for safety and then left. They will provide homes for diverse flora and fauna, their decomposition a crucial element of forest ecology.
The lower path, followed in autumn, was currently impassable: fallen trees barred my way. I retraced my steps, choosing instead a middle path unexplored on my last visit. The scale of tree loss was considerable. Storm Arwen had risen on northerly winds, a contrast to the dominant westerly storm directions common to the area. This seemed to have disturbed the trees’ capacity to withstand any wind impact. These fallen giants induced such a sense of sadness, yet there was comfort in the fact that the forest would have survived such forces for many hundreds or thousands of years. Fallen trees would soon be invaded by lichen, mosses and fungi whose work would provide future nutrients to underlying soils.
The best time to visit Coed Felenrhyd is probably late April/early May. This is when the avian songsters are at their best, with the indigenous birds joined by migrant species including redstarts and pied flycatchers. I did have the joy of standing and listening to Great Spotted Woodpeckers calling to each other. Their calls echoed around the woodland.
Walking in this superb site I had a strong sense of tapping into time. No signs indicating an ancient landscape were needed; it was tangible. As the topography led me up and down, it was as if I was being drawn through an invisible chronology. The sense of walking in the paths of others, those from many hundreds of years ago, was profound. The landscapes were as they may have been seen by those early settlers thousands of years ago. Coed Felenrhyd’s place in ancient mythology is not surprising. Some have described it as a place where ‘nature and legend intertwine’.
The Mabinogion, an ancient collection of Welsh legends, has an account of a battle in Melenrhyd. The story goes that Gwydion and Pryderi, King of Dyfed, had an argument over a gift of pigs. Gwydion enticed Pryderi to Felenrhyd where a battle ensued and Pryderi was killed. Pryderi’s burial site is debated. Some believe his final resting place is somewhere in Coed Felenrhyd, while others consider a spot in Maentwrog to be his final resting place.
The imperative to conserve these temperate rainforests has never been greater. They are important, not only for their flora and fauna but also because they are a tremendous store of carbon, a critical issue in these days of climate change. The Woodland Trust is engaged in assisted natural regeneration (ANR), a nature-friendly way to give forest regeneration a helping hand. This ensures future trees with a local provenance are more resilient to the local climate, soils and topography of the area. Tree seed is collected by Forestart, a Shropshire-based company specialising in tree seed collection and storage. The Woodland Trust also invited local school children to collect acorns. Thanks to their efforts and those of volunteers, 12,000 sessile oak acorns were collected, to be planted to provide a next generation of trees for the Celtic Rainforest LIFE Project.
There is a paradox with these sites. Over many hours on both visits to Coed Felenrhyd, I did not meet anyone. I wanted to shout to everyone that they must visit and immerse themselves in the woodland and experience its many qualities for themselves. However, enticing too many visitors to such sites risk overwhelming and potentially harming them. In conversation with a local bookshop owner, it became clear no one had ever asked for anything written about forests, nor did they feature in any postcards. Venturing to a nearby artist’s shop, paintings featured mountains, the estuary, and coastal images, but not the Meirionnydd oakwoods. Are these habitats not as inspirational as I had found? Outreach is an element of the LIFE project, but more needs to be achieved here.
Preparing to leave Coed Felenrhyd, there was a compulsion to sit down and lean against a tree. Its strength was powerful, and I felt grounded and rooted to that place. Lichen spoke of time past and present. This ancient rainforest imbued a sense of place, a place surviving for thousands of years and which must continue to survive to preserve its biodiversity, store its carbon, and enable myths and legends to have a location where they can survive. Temperate rainforests are more threatened than their tropical counterparts, yet do not attract similar attention. I was grateful for the Celtic Rainforest LIFE project funding and the efforts of all those involved from the Snowdonia National Park Authority, groups such as the Woodland Trust, local farmers and many volunteers who will strive to ensure the wood’s longevity.
My forest visits made a huge impact on me. I was transformed. My body was calmed, my mind inspired. Over the past 40 years the approach of Japanese forest bathing – shinrin-yoku – has gained publicity. During my time in Coed Felenrhyd, I had, unknowingly, been forest bathing. I had not felt afraid, alone in the forest, but I was vigilant. I know I must, and will, return to engage with these beautiful, enticing and globally important sites. They keep drawing me back to them. I seem to have developed some sense of hiraeth – that special Welsh form of longing – for that forest life.
Jennifer Jones is a scientist, nature writer and children's author living in northwest England. Soils, particularly peat, are her passion. She is currently working on her first non-fiction book about soil which was short-listed for the Nan Shepherd nature writing prize.