Monday 27 August 2012

"Is there no end to this accursed forest?"

Back from a long weekend camping above the Wye Valley, on the edge of the Forest of Dean: "The very rim of England" (Roger Deakin, Wildwood). 
As the visit was punctuated by the biblical downpours that have characterised this summer, a trip to Puzzlewood, with its network of rocky pathways winding through a dense woodland canopy, seemed appropriate.

The paths through the wood were laid down by the landowner in the 1800's and explore the rocky mini gorges known locally as Scowles, formed through the collapse and exposure of the cave systems that riddle the carboniferous limestone of the area; the result of natural erosion, and subsequently exploited for mining iron ore in the Iron Age and Roman period.  

The wood, more recently used for atmospheric sylvan scenes in television series including Dr Who and Merlin, was an inspiration for JRR Tolkien in formulating his imagery for the dark and forbidding great woodlands of Mirkwood in The Hobbit.

The magical character of the woods results from a dense treescape of yew, beech, ash, oak and lime overlying the narrow rocky ravines; creating a dark and damp environment where mosses, lichen and ferns thrive and tree root systems encase the rocks in fantastical patterns. 

Here are some images and words that capture the spirit of the place.

"Deeper into the forest it got darker, like a mineshaft" (Roger Deakin, Wildwood).

"As their eyes became used to the dimness they could see a little way to either side in a sort of darkened green glimmer. Occasionally a slender beam of sun that had the luck to slip in through some opening in the leaves far above, and still more luck in not being caught in the tangled boughs and matted twigs beneath, stabbed down thin and bright before them." (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit).

"The first grows in damper places...reared on the creeping dankness of the earth" (John Silken, Moss)


"The yew in British folklore tales is often invested with dark or magical associations" (Robert Bevan-Jones, The Ancient Yew).

And from a few miles south, on an extant section of Offa's Dyke cresting the lower Wye Valley, the comforting light and airy beech woods that have colonised the eight century earthworks; a counterpoint to the gloom of Puzzlewood.

"About four days from the enchanted stream they came to a part where most of the trees were beeches. They were at first inclined to be cheered by the change, for here there was no undergrowth and the shadow was not so deep. There was a greenish light about them, and in places they could see some distance to either side of the path. Yet the light only showed them endless lines of straight grey trunks like the pillars of some huge twilight hall" (JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit).

"Nostalgia links the Old Forest of Middle Earth with the Wildwood of Kenneth Grahame, and its a link that goes back through Edward Thomas to the pre-enclosure woodlands of John Clare" (Richard Hayman, Trees).

Select bibliography

Bates, Brian, 2002 The Real Middle Earth: Magic and mystery in the Dark Ages. London: Pan

Bevan-Jones, Robert, 2002 The Ancient Yew: A history of Taxus baccata Macclesfield: Windgather Press

Cotter, Gerry (Ed.), 1988 Natural History Verse: An anthology. Bromley: Helm 

Deakin, Roger, 2007 Wildwood: A journey through trees. London: Hamish Hamilton

Hart, Cyril, 2000 Between Severn (Saefern) and Wye (Waege) in the Year 1000. Stroud: Sutton

Hayman, Richard, 2003 Trees: Woodlands and Western civilization. London: Hambledon and London

Hill, David and Worthington, Margaret, 2003 Offa's Dyke: History and guide. Stroud: Tempus

Tolkien, JRR, 1999 The Hobbit. London: Harper Collins 

Walters, Brian, 1992 The Archaeology and History of Ancient Dean and the Wye Valley. Cheltenham: Thornhill Press


  1. I really enjoyed that - thanks. It's got me thinking about path building and path names, partly because of one I used to cycle in the Forest of Dean about 15 years ago. You've inspired me to write a blog post about it - cheers! Kieron

    1. Thanks Kieron,look forward to reading your Forest of Dean blog. The Forest, Wye Valley and Black Mountains are a Holy Trinity of special landscapes.


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