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|The Monks Trod: A path of time and place|
|by Liz Fleming-Williams
and Clive Myhill
Photography by Liz Fleming-Williams
Liz Fleming-Williams is a geographer, who has lived and worked in south, north and now mid Wales. Liz is interested in real sustainable strategies that deliver for the people and biodiversity of Wales and the world.
Clive Myhill farms the land that his great grand father farmed in Radnorshire. Clive has concern not only for the welfare of his own land (he is a Tir Gofal farmer), but also for the real sustainable future for the rest of Wales.
One of Wales' most significant paths is under threat. The Monks Trod resonates with historical, cultural, ecological and spiritual meaning and yet it is being threatened by unsustainable motorised vehicle use.
| This article looks back at the historical roots of this path and addresses
some of the issues threatening real sustainable futures for some of our uplands.
Contemporary maps of Wales reflect much of the character of our twenty-first century globalised, motorised, struggling to be sustainable, nation. Criss-crossed by a lattice of roads they reflect the dominance of traffic activity, noise and pollution over much of our country. The heart of Wales, the core of the Cambrian Mountains, known as Elenydd, stands out as a remarkable island of road free land.
On a map of conservation designations, it is this same heart of our nation that the largest land area designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest is found with, at its core, Claerwen National Nature Reserve. This is a rich upland tapestry of habitats, of globally important blanket bogs, and deep tranquillity. In spring, skylarks rise up on a crescendo of song all along this upland plateau, studded with recently returning wheatears, golden plovers and dunlin. Ever present, the kites manoeuvre in the wind, effortlessly gliding.
|Today our mental travel maps over Elenydd are likely to be oil-fuelled routes, keeping to the roads in the valleys. The Monks Trod, about 25 miles from Ystrad Fflur to Abbey Cwmhir, is a reminder of how the uplands were once a more familiar sight to the traveller, providing a range of significant communication paths. The drovers' tracks are a vivid and more recent example of their importance. Any route with more serious intentions to use by the internal combustion engine has been tarmacked. The Monks Trod, through serendipity, is unafforested and untarmacked for its entire path from the top of the Ystrad Flur valley to the Wye.||Nearly a thousand years ago the Cistercian monks founded two of their monasteries in Ceredigion and Radnorshire at Ystrad Fflur (Strata Florida) in 1164 and Abbey Cwmhir in 1143 respectively. These religious homes of the so-called white monks found comparative shelter in the valleys near Tregaron and Rhaeadr. Between the two, lay the Wye valley and Elenydd. It was over these gently undulating wild horizons of mediaeval Wales that the monks walked the Monks Trod, a path connecting their two lives - connecting their prayers, poetry and products. Giraldus Cambrensis was one of many notable characters who walked the Trod in the twelfth century. The path, 'Sarn Elenydd', follows a much earlier prehistoric one.|
|To travel this route on foot today is to experience a profound sense of Wales' sense of place. Writing in a 1970 booklet for the YHA, Timothy Porter wrote that the Monks Trod was the finest walking route of Elenydd and saw it as "..one of the great routes of Britain...The feet of ages have marked its course as a gentle hollow over miles of moorland. When I first walked it, the last snow was still lying in the smooth depression, and the track showed up as a white ribbon for miles ahead".||
The Monks Trod in summer: the path curves around the head of Nant Bryn-hir. In places the path surface is soft Silurian rocks. Dramatic views of the rich upland habitats of Elenydd of European status.
'Dacw y llynnoedd yng nghesail creigiau,
Yn union fel yr oeddent gynt:
Y praidd rhwng twmpathau,
Y grugieir mewn plasau,
A'r nerfus hwyaden yn ffoi ar ei hynt'.
W. Teifi Jones, Cylchau Teifi,'Llynnoedd Teifi' (1971)
|It is here, in the heart of the wild beauty and tranquillity of Elenydd that the repercussions of a
decision taken twenty-two years ago are seen today.
In 1981 burgeoning leisure time co-incident with the arrival of more affordable and reliable 4X4 vehicles and off-road motorcycles (and commitment to sustainability not even a twinkle in the eye of Rio), brought pressure to designate the Monks Trod from Pont ar Elan to Claerwen as a 'Byway Open to All Traffic'. After a local public enquiry these powerful vehicles were given the green light to speed up the gentle blanket bog path across the territory of the then rare, and now much rarer, golden plover and dunlin, and amongst the bogs that so effectively, and sponge-like, release their 80 inches (2000ml) of rainfall a year to feed the Elan and Claerwen reservoirs. A track built for feet and the occasional horse in an area of soft rocks, where it can rain on 200 or more days a year, failed to cope with the vehicles. Big patches turned into swamp or eroded into deep impassable gullies. Vehicles sought new virgin vegetation. The damage spread out into the bogs around the Trod as a result of this illegal off-road activity.
|During the 1980s, the University of Wales Field Centre at Newbridge-on-Wye, produced two reports
for the Welsh Water Authority, the owners of the Trod at the time, who were becoming concerned
about the ecological damage being caused by the vehicles. Photographs taken then show the ruts
tearing at the peat. This peat had taken thousands of years to develop, and is so sensitive it
takes over a year to recover from even a human footprint. Precious bogs were being eroded.
In 1990, after nearly 10 years of 4X4 use the road became so dangerous and difficult to use, that a Traffic Regulation Order was imposed by Powys County Council to stop four-wheeled vehicles from using the Trod; motorcycles were not restricted.
Near Carn Ricet the erosion damage caused by vehicles is dramatic. When this 2003 photograph is compared with one taken in the same place 15 years ago, the scale of damage becomes evident.
But still the off-road motorcycles were able to plunder the Trod. Evidence showed that the elusive dunlin and plovers were unable to nest near to the Trod, almost certainly as a direct result of motorcycle activity. Motorbikes - an extremely noisy and intrusive form of recreation in such terrain - haunted any walkers enjoying the unusual experience of walking extensive lengths of upland plateau, not having to negotiate forestry or stumble through purple moorgrass tussocks and away from conventional traffic.
One Elan valley shepherd, living in one of the most remote farms in Wales, was forced on occasions to leave his land and home at weekends - driven away by the noise of tens of unruly motorcyclists rampaging on and off the Monks Trod.
The problems of policing the use of such remote byways are experienced in many areas of rural Wales.
In 2002, the Elan Valley Trust was successful in obtaining a temporary Traffic Regulation Order to prevent further destruction of the Trod by motorcycles. In February 2003, Powys County Council, against officers' advice, decided to again allow motorcylists use of the Trod. In May 2003 this decision was rescinded: Powys has asked the Welsh Assembly Government to further extend the temporary Road Traffic Regulation Order, prohibiting the use of motorcycles on the Monks Trod until repairs to the route have been completed. These repairs should only be undertaken after an Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed works has been completed and considered by the Radnorshire Committee.
Wales is one of only three countries in the world signed up to sustainable development. Getting to grips with how these elusive concepts can deliver for the future of the planet is a challenge. The concept of 'ecological footprint' is a valuable one, and extremely relevant in this instance. It helps us to consider our own consuming, working, travelling, living footprint on the ecology of this planet. The literal example here, of motorbike tyres raging through ancient peat is a potent one.
|In 1986 the Elenydd Site of Special Scientific Interest was designated which joined and enlarged
two smaller SSSIs creating 56,000 acres of upland habitat providing Wales' best territories for
upland birds with statutory protection. The Monks Trod was at its core.
Later in the 1990s, two European designations were added to the wildlife status of much of Elenydd. Firstly the internationally important bird species - merlin, peregrine, dunlin, golden plover, and grouse resulted in much of the Monks Trod gaining Special Protection Area status. Secondly, in recognition of internationally important blanket bogs - the extensive flat areas on the mountaintops, where sphagnum mosses in wet climates are pickled and preserved as blankets of peat - much of Elenydd was made a candidate Special Area of Conservation. Any change of use in areas with these designations requires a detailed impact assessment.
In 1994, the Claerwen National Nature Reserve was designated - further recognition of the area's importance for wildlife. The importance of these designations is enhanced by their extent and the minimal fragmentation of these wild, undisturbed habitats.
Special Landscape Area designation had been made earlier, reflecting a locally recognised landscape quality. Further designations came in 2001 when the Elan Valley uplands were put on the register of Landscapes of Special Historic Interest in Wales. In addition, several of the Biodiverstiy Action Plan (BAP) habitats are here in Elenydd, including blanket bog and heathland.
In the early 1970s a Cambrian Mountain National Park was proposed. The landscape met the standard but the threats to it then of forestry and agricultural improvement were better reflected, it was felt, by other means. The area became the Cambrian Mountain Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA).
Almost every bit of designation alphabet soup available was being stirred around in Elenydd.
|The inappropriate use of our uplands is experienced in many parts of Wales. In these turbulent
years of early sustainable development, we have some tough decisions to take. We must learn that
the environment is an equal player with social and economic needs. Agriculture can be supported and
bio-diversity increased by sophisticated environmental schemes such as Tir Gofal. Real ecotourism,
treading softly on these uplands, provides an opportunity to add value to sensitive habitats and
the local economy. Blunt environmental tools such as large-scale wind turbine developments, have
more to do with political dogma than addressing sustainable issues in a holistic way.
The looting of the fragile uplands must stop. Inappropriate activity is a reflection of a lack of
understanding of the role at the uplands play in our national ecology. These high rainfall, blanket
peat catchments not only supply millions with drinking water, but their slow release of heavy rains
helps flood control downstream.
Elenydd has a deep integrity that sustains not only its significant wildlife, but also reflects much of our cultural and creative history whilst providing for spiritual and emotional renewal today and in the future. It is an incredible chance of history - notably the requirement to protect the water catchments of the Elan Valley, that so much of the Elenydd uplands are not afforested or improved agriculturally; nor fallen to the greenwash of distorting wind turbine developments that fail to engage our population with critical issues of personal footprints.
Above Pont ar Elan, where deep channels have been eroded by wheels and enlarged by water over the past 20 years.
The Monks Trod travels, significantly, between the reputed burial places of Prince Llewellyn and Dafydd ap Gwilym, the mediaeval poet. Between these two rich historical sites is a wild land whose elemental quality connects us to something beyond the present. Its future integrity must not be left to chance. The silver lining to the black cloud of no National Park designation for Elenydd is the opportunity for the National Assembly Government (WAG) to innovate a designation that meets the needs of sustaining the land, its biodiversity and its people. The three-legged stool of sustainability, with the legs of environment, people and economy, is an appropriate metaphor for this heartland of Wales. WAG must dig deep into the spirit of this landscape and deliver a strategy that provides for it and future generations. It could well be considered as a World Heritage Site or a Biosphere Reserve.
|Allowing the Monks Trod to reclaim its traffic-free status would reflect a country making tentative steps to redressing the unsustainable decisions of the past and provide for tranquillity in future. All those concerned about the inappropriate use of our land should make their concerns known to our politicians and officers. In our war-torn, pressurised, fast-forward, high-density world, quality uplands as precious as those enjoyed from the Monks Trod should be celebrated not sacrificed.|
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