Always everywhere people have walked

King Arthur's Caves

For east or west all woods must fail
-Tolkien
We recently camped in the Doward to the west of Symonds Yat on the Welsh English border. It is a rich varied landscape of deep ravines, tumbling rocks and dense woodland, cut through by the mighty river Wye, which winds its way towards the gaping mouth at Chepstow. The descent from our site resulted in a precarious scramble over slimy boulders and moss under the swaying canopies of leaves dripping with moisture. The walk gave us a chance to trek through what at first felt like a primal realm of long shadows, curling ferns and rich fecundity. Nearby Puzzelwood apparently inspired a young Tolkien on an archaeological dig to envisage the Old Forest at the edge of the sleepy Shire, one of looming whispering trees ‘very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak than things are in the Shire’. However, shot through this verdant knot of twisted flora are subtle traces of mans’ prior footprints. The steep inclines in the past have been cleared for sheep grazing, so we witness gnarled trunks that rise out of cracked dry stone walls painted with lichens and shattered gates standing alone, guarding thick undergrowth and solitary squirrels. Soil and root have crushed all traces of formal shelter and reclaimed the valley walls as nature’s tendrils steadily fought back against the generations of agricultural use from the Stone Age period onwards.

King Arthur's Caves
King Arthur’s Cave © Sarah Wainwright 2012

Further down the hill, one comes to a curious outcrop of pale rocks forming a small cliff face. At the foot of this incline can be found King Arthur’s Cave. These are a series of natural holes leading into the damp velvet embrace of the hill. There is evidence that these folds have been inhabited since Early and Late Upper Palaeolithic periods, but now the open chambers are left to chunky cave spiders and tiny bats serenaded by the gentle drip drip of liquids seeping through the strata. Entering the womb-like space one is quickly consumed by the whisper-quiet darkness, eerily reminiscent of a line from the novel House of Leaves which details a curious and vast void found within a house, ‘very soon he will vanish completely in the wings of his own wordless stanza’. Fragments of neolithic pottery, bones of lions, elephant, rhino and bear have all been excavated within, and the location is steeped in conflicting legends. Esoteric types list it as the supposed magical stash of King Arthur’s treasures sealed up by Merlin, and others allude to a last stand of the ancient Briton King Vortigern who apparently fought against the invading Anglo Saxon armies.

Plunging ever onwards towards the surging river along sodden tracks under gentle beech trees and spidery ivy we finally reached the rain soaked valley floor. This is the final level of abandoned human habitation and detritus, one of skeletal 17th century iron works and navigable waterways now consumed by decay and lush cryptoforests. Symonds Yat at one time was a bustling vale of single story workshops, pungent lime kilns and belching iron forges expelling wreaths of smoke which slunk along the winding valley and enveloped the inhabitants. The remains of these squat geometries can be occasionally glimpsed within the gloomy woods, angular ghosts of block work are glumly set against the bark and branch of the vibrant foliage. Brick shapes have crumbled and split, gnawed by mineral laced rivulets, civilisation now gone feral, the muddy paths enabling us to ‘slip back out of this modern world’ as W H Hudson once observed.

The valley base under fluttering tree domes and walled in by lofty crags has an almost oppressive quality in the slate grey light of stormy skies. As the clouds slowly morph the post industrial space appears to stretch and contract, reminding me again of House Of Leaves and the explorer character Navidson lost within his sepulchral maze. The author Danielewski writes ‘nor does this endless corridor he travels remain the same size’, as the man drifts in charcoal darkness and degeneration. However as the sunshine penetrates the depths our spirits lift. It picks out motes of pollen and dust, dancing along the well worn zig zag footpaths which welcome our weary feet. The line at the start comes from Tolkien’s poem All Woods Must Fail, which celebrates that gentle emergence from the shade-

‘O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
Despair not! For though dark they stand,
All woods there be must end at last,
And see the open sun go past:
The setting sun, the rising sun,
The day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail.’

In Robert Macfarlane’s latest book The Old Ways he writes about the ancient tracks, drove ways and lanes which criss cross our land. He quotes the poet Thomas Clark ‘always, everywhere, people have walked, veining the earth with paths visible and invisible, symmetrical or meandering’, Symonds Yat is strewn with these subtle markers, echoes of mans’ thunderous footfall and industrious efforts. However in spite of the mechanical progress here the brave old boughs have reappeared, all woods do not apparently always fail and the bountiful power of the Green Man flourishes anew amongst the dappled valleys.

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12 Comments

  1. So easy to forget there are places like this – if anyone’s like me I always think of England as a grey-layered flat place without distinguishing features; and towns that now are all homogenous, with the same supermart ‘architecture’.
    Ah, but this is Wales (in part), and like Scotland, the Borders, it does indeed make a difference. These places are to me me homely.

    Once again an excellent and stimulating post, my man. Keep on doin’ what you’re doin’ – cos you’re doin it right!!

    1. As always you are too kind sir! I know what you mean about these hidden places. London sucks us all in like a black hole, but in these places the landscape has a texture that is quite different!

  2. Visiting that area for Hay Festival, perchance? I was there this year, but sadly didn’t get to see Robert Macfarlane speak (sold out by the time I tried to book a ticket), or do much exploring. This area may be a visit for future years… if they don’t pimp out the festival too much more than they have!

    1. Sadly not visiting the festival, though I certainly would love to, what writers did you get to see/ hear? The Wye valley is definitely worth a visit, next time i’d love to canoe down the river over a few days.

    1. Yes, once we started looking the layers of history unraveled around us, it’s certainly an thoroughly intriguing place, i’ve yet to visit any part of Offa’s Dyke which apparently has a walking route along it.

  3. The Wye Valley, Forest of Dean and Welsh Marches are full of such places; apparently on the edges of history but teaming with overlaying stories from the past. I would suggest Michael Murray could possibly get out and about more; England, like other parts of the British Isles, has a lifetime of such places, usually not far from the grey monotony that also sadly characterises all countries.

    1. I guess it’s just easy to be blinded by suburbia, lost in frantic work I often forget to look out of my office window and I have the South Downs and the sea for a twin view! Borderlands are such fascinating places, at the edge of urban conflict and competing demands. Your blog is great btw.

  4. I remember visiting Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean many years ago. It seemed a very special and secretive place that gave itself easily to musings on elves and pixies. There’s a similar place with stunted moss-covered oaks on top of Dartmoor in Devon, although its name temporarily evades me.

    1. Ah I think that place is Wistman’s Wood. Dartmoor too is a wonderful landscape that shows the scars of mans’ ebb and flow upon the soil over time. I wonder if future archaeologists will excavate ice cream vans and quad bikes from the soil?

  5. As a child I remember being driven regularly through that part of the world on the way to relatives in Shropshire, fabulous country. Must get back there and do some walking this time.

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