Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Forest Primeval

Deep woods in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, County Offaly, Ireland.
I love forests, and they've featured prominent roles in many of my books. So when I planned my first visit to the British Isles, finding a native forest was high on my list.
Woodlands near Llyn Crafnant, North Wales
You would think that would be easy, but no. Although most of the British Isles was once covered in woodlands, only a few thousand years after humans arrived there, the majority of the wild forests were gone. Cleared for farming. Burned as fuel. Used to build houses and boats. Today forests cover only 10 percent of Britain and Ireland, and of those woodlands, only about 1% is native. And of that 1%, a good share are in private hands and inaccessible to visitors.
Slieve Bloom Mountains, Ireland
Oh, there are trees. Indeed, in some places whole forests of trees. But a lot of them have been planted in the last couple of hundred years and often they're not even trees native to the area.
Oak trees, County Antrim, Ireland
Knowing this, I research native oak forests before we went to Ireland and discovered that there was supposed to be a patch of relatively untouched woodland in County Antrim. With that goal in mind, I dragged my husband, son, brother-in-law and his girlfriend to the glens of Antrim. We saw some lovely scenery, some beautiful oaks, and had a fabulous time in one of the local pubs. But we didn't find a forest, and certainly not the magical primeval woodland of my fantasies.
Croaghan Breen Forest, County Antrim, Ireland
On a second trip to County Antrim with my daughter I fared no better. We hiked for miles, mostly uphill, but never got to the portion of the trail where the woods looked like they did in the distant past.
Coed y Brenin, North Wales
On my recent trip to Wales, I tried again. I researched native woodlands and found a place called Coed y Brenin (Forests of Kings) where there was said to be a patch of pristine forestland. But my hopes were quickly dashed by the sweet young man at the gift shop/visitors center who expressed grave doubt there was any area in the park that was native forest. And if there was, he felt certain none of the trails would take me there. He was right. While I had a nice hike and heard a real cuckoo calling, I saw nothing resembling a native woodland.
But my futile search was redeemed when I reached my destination that night--a charming country inn close to the forest called Plas Dolmelynllyn Country Hotel which translates to something like "hall by the meadow at the yellow lake". The yellow probably comes from the fact that that gold was mined in the area and created yellow-tinted waste water.
With beautiful gardens, a Egpytian-themed breakfast room named after poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (who stayed there for a time), this 200-year-old inn made me feel luxuriously pampered, and quickly soothed away any lingering disappointment in my fruitless quest.

At this point I've begun to wonder if I'm meant to find my vaunted woodlands. Perhaps I should content myself with the forests I've visited. With bluebells like purple mist beneath the trees, brilliant yellow gorse, stands of pink foxglove and grass and bushes and ferns and moss in a dozen shades of green to sooth and refresh my spirit. And trees, wonderful trees.

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