The Trees of the Ceiriog – John Vidal

John Vidal, ex-Environment Editor at the Guardian, treads the Ceiriog paths to reveal the stories behind the remarkable trees of our valley, and sheds light on how they may have determined history.

An ancient tree at Chirk Castle

The great oak, which stood above Cilcochwyn farm house in Pontfadog, fell in a gale five years ago. Approximately 1,200 years old, it was the oldest tree in Wales and the third largest in Britain. People flocked to pay their respects and to wonder about this burred old giant of the Ceiriog Valley that would have been alive when Charlemagne was crowned King of the Franks, and before the English started building castles in Wales.

Due to its national importance, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew sent a specialist to the Ceiriog Valley to clone it. A man duly came, but since then nothing has been heard. Recently, however, Double.LL Magazine were told by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum, Gardens and Horticulture at Kew, that the grafts didn’t take, “most likely because of the incorrect timing for grafting, and because the vigour of the plant scion material of the oak was weak”.

What this means is that the Ceiriog Valley, and Wales itself, has been diminished. There are now just a handful of saplings of the Pontfadog oak alive and these will, strictly, not be exactly the same as the oak itself because they would have been either grown from acorns – which would have been cross-pollinated by nearby oak trees and so not technically unadulterated plants – or from cuttings which are a combination of the new root stock and the old tree. A clone is one of one.

“People flocked to pay their respects and to wonder about this burred old giant of the Ceiriog Valley that would have been alive when Charlemagne was crowned King of the Franks.”

So, the Ceiriog Valley must remain famous for its many other remarkable trees. According to the National Tree Register, there are 18 “champion” trees in the 18 mile-long valley, all officially “notable and ancient”. This is remarkable in itself and one of the highest counts in Britain per square mile.

Some are in Chirk Castle park, others in old churchyards and in ancient hedgerows. They include the yews of St Ffraid’s in Glyn Ceiriog, St Mary’s in Chirk and St Garmon’s in Llanarmon, all of which are hundreds of years old. Also on the champion register is the great sweet chestnut of Chirk Castle park, which has a girth of 8.3 metres (27 ft), a massive European ash and a 44 metre (144 ft) tall larch.

Many others have been recorded in Pontfadog, Glyn Ceiriog and elsewhere by Tree Hunter, Rob McBride of Ellesmere, who is writing a book about the trees of Offa’s Dyke. McBride insists that the trees on the Ceiriog Valley stretch of Offa’s Dyke are some of the wonders of Wales. 

There are hundreds of trees in and above the valley that are remarkable without being on any register. Happily, the valley has many people who know them well. Nigel Douglas, a former Woodland Trust Officer who lives in Glyn Ceiriog, says the valley is special not just for its great oaks, but for its variety of trees. Huge old hollies, alders, hawthorns, beech and mountain ash go barely noticed. He asks whether the name ‘Ceiriog’ is derived from the Welsh ‘ceirios’, which means cherry. 

One of the most famous champions stands beside the valley road at Castle Mill. The oak at the Gate of the Dead, on the path up to Chirk Castle, is possibly 1,000 years old and is living proof that the trees of the Ceiriog Valley may have directly shaped history. 

This great tree, which split a few years back, stands by the site of the 1165 Battle of Crogen, which pitched Henry II, a Norman who never spoke English, against the united Princes of Wales. English historians often dismiss this as a “skirmish” or “a small melee” – possibly because the Welsh won hands down.

This infuriates Mark Williams, the best sort of amateur historian, who lives in Weston Rhyn, and is the grandson of a famous bard. He’s gone back to the original source material, translated the old Welsh manuscripts and field names, walked the site 100 times and concluded that this tree is the living witness to what was in fact a huge battle with as many as 40,000 combatants. 

The story goes that Henry’s army, which had collected in Oswestry and was drawn from Belgium, France, Spain and England, was met near what is now Castle Mill, not just by thousands of Welsh warriors but by what later historians say was the “almost impenetrable woods of the deep (Ceiriog) valley”. 

John Vidal in conversation with Tree Hunter, Rob McBride (left)

The trees saved Wales. Caught in the Ceiriog’s oak thickets, unable to progress, Henry’s troops were routed and thousands of his dead are believed to have been thrown into a small ravine near the present tree.

Even though Malcolm says that odd human-looking bones appear in the winter, and nettles grow seven foot tall in the woods there – confirming the ancient belief that nettles grow from the bodies of the dead – no money has ever been made available to properly examine the site.

Defeated and chastened, Henry fled to the valley top where he became bogged down in torrential rain and mud and never tried to invade Wales again. Instead, he went to Ireland, so beginning centuries of strife between the two countries. The European mercenaries fled home leaving the British Isles alone for many more centuries. 

The Ceiriog Valley may have lost the Pontfadog oak, but its trees may be said to have determined Welsh, English, Irish and even European history.

Not bad for what Prime Minister, Lloyd George, would later call, “a little bit of heaven on earth”. 

John Vidal is the former Environment Editor at The Guardian newspaper and author of McLibel – burger culture on trial. He is one of the foremost writers on environmental matters of our generation, and has covered topics such as the Gulf War, air pollution, globalisation and climate. John lives near Chirk and continues to write for The Guardian

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