On the Trail of Pryderi in a Celtic Rainforest

Last week we spent a welcome few days in North Wales, during which I paid a return visit to some of the castles I wrote about during my great Welsh Castle Quest of 2019. Amid the current stresses and distractions surrounding our house move, I found a timely respite within the walls of some of the great thirteenth century fortresses that secured Edward I’s hold over Wales, and unwound amidst the mountainous majesty of Snowdonia once more. But this time I had an extra treat, an escape into a wild and natural landscape of a different kind, for we went for a walk in one of the most peaceful and captivating woodlands I’ve ever seen. Not only was this leafy haven truly magical to wander around, it’s a rare and ancient habitat, and it’s even mentioned in a famous Welsh medieval story as the last resting place of a revered and heroic king.

A magical woodland awaits…

Hiding in the heart of Snowdonia in the village of Maentwrog in the Vale of Ffestiniog, Coed Felenrhyd and Llennyrch is one of the few remaining examples of a Celtic, or ‘Atlantic’ temperate rainforest that once extended from the north of Scotland all the way down to Portugal. Largely untouched for over 10,000 years, and thanks to it’s sheltered gorge setting where rain falls around 200 days a year, the woodland is home to a unique and complex ecosystem where an abundance of plants and animals thrive.

A river runs along the valley beside the quiet entrance

Rare species of lichens, mosses and liverworts enrobe the twisted and gnarled oaks, ash, birch and hazel. Examples include the globally scarce lichen Pyrenula hibernica, or ‘blackberries in custard’ as it’s more popularly known, and the rare oceanic Sematophyllum demissum, or ‘prostrate signal-moss’ that clings to boulders by the wood’s many rocky gullies and streams. The diverse habitat makes the woodland a paradise for the wildlife-watcher, as an abundance of native and migrant birds find refuge and sustenance among the trees, while foxes and badgers thrive on the ground, otters play in the flowing waters and ravens nest on the gorge’s craggy cliffs.

One of the many species of mosses (if that’s what it is!) that thrive in Coed Felenrhyd. This one caught my eye because of it’s unusual pinkish hue.

Its easy to see why this green oasis is one of Wales’s best kept secrets. There’s no signage directing the visitor from the roads, no car park, no sweeping entrance or attention-grabbing welcome signs. In fact, the ‘main’ entrance is an easily missed and very unassuming double gate next to a hydro-electric power station on the A496 to Harlech. But once inside, another realm unfolds before you, and the 765-acre site can be explored through a network of paths and tracks including a waymarked trail.

The modest sign marking the entrance. Notice the alternative spelling of ‘Felenrhyd’, which I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Another realm lies beyond the almost hidden entrance.

We took the trail that follows the Ceunant Llennyrch valley, beginning fairly flat and wide before meandering upwards on a narrowing and sometimes steep path to a hidden waterfall at the eastern end. As we climbed ever upwards, pausing to catch our breath and take in the verdant views, we savoured the serenity of our surroundings, losing all trace of the modern world. With only the sounds of our feet crunching over the forest floor, echoing birdsong and gently trickling streams to break the silence, all my stresses fell away as a rare but enchanting feeling came over me, a sense that at this precise moment, in this beguiling place, we really could be ‘anywhen’. Of course, during perfect moments like this, my mind will always transport me to the Middle Ages, and this is particularly appropriate in Coed Felenrhyd, as the woodland’s age and distinction earned it a place in a famous medieval prose tale.

A hauntingly overgrown bridge on the lower path of the trail.

A pathway to paradise…

Views on the ascent: green as far as the eye can see…

Taking a break on the way up…

The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven medieval Welsh tales written down in the late eleventh century but with roots in the oral tradition. With a range of themes including Celtic mythology and Arthurian romance, the fanciful stories tell of dragons, witches, shape-shifting magicians and heroic warriors. Four of the tales, referred to as ‘branches’, form a loosely connected but distinct group and they have one recurring hero, namely Pryderi, the son of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed and the beautiful and mysterious horsewoman Rhiannon. Pryderi is born in the first branch and dies as the King of Dyfed in the fourth, and it’s his tragic end that has left its mythical imprint in the lush landscape of Coed Felenrhyd.

The path winds ever on…

A glimpse of the Snowdonian mountains from the top.

Veiled in trees and vibrant foliage, a waterfall marks the high point at the eastern edge of the woods.

In a complex web of desire and deceit, Pryderi is goaded into battle by Gwydion, the magician and trickster and nephew of Math, King of Gwynedd. According to the tale, Math is in the curious position of only being able to exist if his feet rest in the lap of a virgin (perhaps she was good at reflexology), so he’s ‘unable to circuit the land’, although he is allowed out to go to war. The problem is, Gwydion’s brother is deeply in love with the maiden carer, Goewin, but as she is permanently looking after the king’s feet, he can only get to her if Math is out of the way. So Gwydion cooks up a plot to provoke a battle with Pryderi’s forces, and travels to his land disguised as a poet, where by illusion and magic he steals a load of special pigs (of all things) that were a gift to Pryderi by the king of the ‘Otherworld’. When Pryderi discovers he’s been cheated out of his precious swines he is furious, and the conflict escalates into war when his and Math’s armies march to battle, converging on Felenrhyd. However, Pryderi has second thoughts and ‘as soon as they reached Y Felenrhyd … Pryderi sent messengers requesting that both armies be called off, and that the matter be left to him and Gwydion’. Single combat ensues, but Gwydion triumphs by using magic and Pryderi is finally killed. The author tells us that ‘he was buried in Maentwrog, above Y Felenrhyd, and his grave is there’.*

Moss-clad boulders and trees. Could this quiet sanctuary be where Pryderi is resting?

A small footbridge crosses one of the woodland’s many streams

A view on the way down.

We didn’t find Pryderi’s grave, but if he is lying somewhere in this unique woodland he couldn’t wish for a finer and more tranquil final resting place. We certainly found it a perfect sanctuary, and we’re looking forward to returning to Coed Felenrhyd and Llennyrch to explore some more. And our return here is indeed a certainty, for the reason for our Welsh trip was in fact to do some house hunting, as it is to North Wales we are moving. There’s no denying that fate works in mysterious ways, because following my great Castle Quest here back in 2019 that proved to be such an exciting and wonderful adventure, this place is soon to become our home.  

 
*Quotations taken from ‘The Mabinogion’ A new translation by Sioned Davies. Oxford World Classics. Oxford, 2007.

28 thoughts on “On the Trail of Pryderi in a Celtic Rainforest

  1. That truly is a magical and beautiful woodland – I love Welsh woodlands – they’re just so lush! I’ve been around that area a lot but never to that wood – I will certainly be rectifying that when I get back to Snowdonia.

    And I love your expression ‘anywhen’ !

    How fantastic for you to be moving to North Wales – I’m very jealous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can definitely recommend it – it really is beautiful and peaceful, and you’d trot up that path to the top with no problems at all! And you get nice views of the mountains on the way down.

      I came up with the idea of ‘anywhen’ – believe it or not – whilst walking in a woodland not far from where we live now. It sums up how I feel when I can lose the modern world and feel more in touch with the medieval. 😀

      And yes, we’re very lucky to be moving to North Wales. Fate conspired to very definitely point us in that direction, and it would be rude not to follow! 😀 When you’re next down our new way, you’ll have to come and visit us. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed Coed Felenrhyd, Carol.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We’d love to see you there. 🙂 Hopefully we’ll have settled in properly by the time you’re in our new neck of the woods… 🙂

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    • Indeed, Martha, it is both a stunning place, and a bizarre story! I actually thought about you when I was writing about Pryderi and wondered if you’d ever come across ‘The Mabinogion’ in your literary career. They are very fantastical stories, but they also give a great insight into the world of the Welsh medieval storyteller. Sometimes I do wonder, though, whether some of the authors were on something at the time! What great imaginations though! 😀

      Thanks for reading, and I hope all’s well with you. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will look for The Mabinogion. It sounds right up my alley. Thank you!

        The thing of authors being “on something” back then, wasn’t there the problem of eating bread made with rye that had been infected with ergot? Seems likely that something was messing with their minds — or they were brilliantly imaginative.

        I just did a quick lookup and found this…

        https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/botanical-origins-medieval-madness

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good grief, I hadn’t thought about it like that, but after reading that article it may well be true. Thanks for that – it’s fascinating! You don’t think of medieval people as being stoned or ‘tripping’ really, do you? I guess, as the Welsh were renowned bards and storytellers, some of their creativity may well have been a mixture of ergot and imagination.

        I’m sure you’d love the Mabinogion, Martha. I studied it for a while during my last module, which was all about Welsh History, and there are some great tales to get your teeth into. I’m looking at doing an MA in Medieval Studies at Bangor University in Gwynedd now, as we’ll be living in North Wales, and I think it’s covered in their modules too. I think I’ll try to steer clear of the ergot though! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think your new direction sounds wonderful as does living in Wales! 🙂 I just wonder how many time the Holy Spirit visited one of those people and it was really an ergot hallucination. Some of those dark images…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Forgive me, Martha, but half way through our conversation WordPress – in its infinite wisdom – decided to spam your last comment, and I only discovered it in the spam folder by accident – a lucky find though! 🙂 Anyway, now I’ve recovered it, thank you for replying and yes, we are rather excited about moving to Wales. It’s going to be quite an adventure!

        I know what you mean about the ergot hallucinations and those dark images – it really does put a different light on what people thought they were experiencing! Truly fascinating stuff, though. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s funny with history. We learn stuff and we somehow think we’ve “got it” but we never really do. All we have is what we’ve learned. Imagined trying to explain the convolutions of our time to someone in the future. It would be skewed simply because we’re just one person with our limited knowledge and experience. It’s crazy.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely. It would be impossible to explain the hotchpotch mess that’s the world today to someone in the future. I don’t envy the historians in centuries to come. I’ve been saying for ages that the pandemic of the last few years will be the subject of future dissertations and theses. But there are so many stories, policies, perspectives and experiences making a melting pot of sources that you could probably come to any number of different conclusions! At the end of the day, it’s all down to interpretation and bias, and I agree entirely – we’re never really likely to have ‘got it’.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Ah no, don’t know that one. I’m intrigued now though. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed reading about Coed Felenrhyd, John, and thanks as always.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, as always, Malc. It does rather feel as though I fit in there very well. Fate is a funny thing, isn’t it? And sometimes I think you have to listen to what life appears to be telling you.

      Fingers crossed things go smoothly, then, and I’ll be over to catch up with your site this week. Sorry for the delay until now – you wouldn’t believe all that’s going on here. :-0

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That certainly does look a magical place, even if it weren’t for the extra intrigue of speculation about Pryderi’s grave. I see someone else has already asked if you’ve read The Owl Service by Alan Garner. Although aimed at young adults it’s an excellent read and really captures the otherworldliness of the Mabinogion’s tales.

    I am sure you’re going to be very happy living in that part of the world, it seems well suited to you. I hope everything goes smoothly for you and you get to walk in ‘anywhen’ (love that word!) very soon again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sarah. It is truly beautiful place, Sarah, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading about our walk and the tale of Pryderi. I’m going to have to get a copy of that book and see how the Mabinogion has inspired a modern author.

      I think you’re right, North Wales seems very suited to us, so I’m looking forward to getting over there now. Thanks for the good wishes for our move, and I’m sure in time there’ll be some more reporting from our escapades in ‘anywhen’. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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