As soon as we decided we were going to do this trip, we knew we had to see the Forests. Farynshire has two, very different, Forests. The first we came to, situated between the mountains and the coast, was Gnivil Forest.
It crept up on us. The coach pulled up onto a low ridge that gave us lovely views over the meadows and copses we had just travelled through. But that was nothing compared to the view of what we were about to travel down in to. Gnivil Forest lies entirely in one valley between two limestone ridges. A layer of thin mist draped over the lush canopy, as though the trees were producing their own microclimate. It looks like an exotic rainforest, but this is ancient British woodland, and all its trees are native. Although managed and looked after, Gnivil is not a hub of tourism like the Lake of Doom: there are no garish attractions or parks here. Most ancient woodland is managed in cycles and does not have room for very old trees. But in Gnivil there is no coppicing: the ancient trees are protected and allowed to dominate the spaces.
What everyone immediately notices about Gnivil is that it is living spelled backwards. This has irked etymologists over the years. Farynshire has three official languages: English, Welsh and its indigenous Musril. English might be the most widespread, but it is still the newest, and some hold the view that the name for Farynshire’s most ancient woodland should not derive from the upstart invader. Considerable (some might say obsessive) effort has gone into trying to tie Gnivil to some forgotten Musril word – the hope being that its connection to English is just an unfortunate coincidence. There are tomes written on this subject; explanations for the name are in every guidebook for the county; there is probably a department in Rookpot Museum devoted solely to discovering the “true origins” of the name. One of my professors, Doctor Rhyll Jones, is passionate about this subject, and has written papers and subjected his students to many lectures on how Gnivil’s etymological roots are as Farynshiren as its tree roots. But however it happened, the forest ended up with the most appropriate name it could have.
There are no roads in the forest, so the coach dropped us off at the edge of the tree line. There are no signs announcing when or where you enter Gnivil: the road just peters out into a wide pebbly carpark. A few cars, four-by-fours and an ice-cream van were parked there. This was the only concession made to humans.
Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit Gnivil, when the trees are full of blossom and new leaves, and carpets of bluebells, wood anemones and primroses cover the woodland floor. But I can tell you that it is glorious in summer too. The warm sunshine makes the greens breathe with life, and there are still flowers in the clearings, and lining the wide corridors between the ancient misshapen trees. In Felix’s The Living Forests there was an excellent flora and fauna section, and we managed to identify wild garlic, violets, a bunch of what were probably celandines or buttercups, and a few fading primroses. There is also plenty of fauna: butterflies – smaller, more delicate than those in the mountain vineyard – and bees made the most of the flowers. Great tits, bullfinches and chaffinches flitted busily around their half-grown chicks. We saw a couple of woodpeckers who regarded us suspiciously from a head-high branch as we walked beneath them.
We hurried through all this, though, because there is one place that you have to go to if you’re in Gnivil Forest.
There are no sign posts in the forest, so you have to rely on maps and the well-worn trails. And few of the trails are worn as well as the one that leads to the Wise Grove. After a mile of walking through the peaceful forest, and across a few wildflower meadows, you come to the edge of a shallow bowl crater. A few saplings gather on the grassy banks, overlooking the group of seven trees in the middle of the depression.
Even I, who cannot tell an oak from a pine, could see that each one was a different type. Luckily Felix’s book had a whole chapter on the Grove. The most imposing one is the ash, because it is the tallest. The yew, with its peeling reddish trunk, is the wildest, and takes up the most space. The oak’s twisted branches are clad in new green leaves. The elegant apple tree rustles on one side of the yew. The stunted thicket of hazel huddles close to the ash. Felix informed me that the other short one was an elder, and the least impressive, darkest and most ordinary looking of the group is an alder – but it would produce catkins at some point, which made it more interesting to me.
To the surprise of many historians, Druidism has never been widespread in Farynshire. It has certainly been there, but not as extensively as some might have guessed given the pervasiveness of the Welsh language and Welsh names. One theory about the Wise Grove was that it was the centre of their limited influence. The official guides and respected academic publications could find no other credible explanation for the careful plantation and arrangement of seven different types of tree. And these official explanations, of course, went out of their way to avoid the word foresteen.
The literature mentions tree spirits, and would often recollect the many myths from various cultures about world trees, living trees, the believed powers of trees etc. but it was all just backstory and scene-setting, it was never addressed as anything remotely serious. And it was only in this context that Farynshire’s “living trees” were sometimes mentioned.
There are, of course, any number of books on foresteens, like there are on all the Peoples, but they are always shelved in the folklore or mythology section in book stores, even in The Lilac Beech. These books write that the seven trees in the Wise Grove are slumbering foresteens.
Now, I’m not saying I believe this theory, but there is definitely something … different about the Grove. The whole forest is serene and peaceful, and when we went we could feel that the trees, the birds, the butterflies, the bees were all enjoying summer with a smile. But I got the feeling as we walked down the banks of the Grove that the seven trees were not smiling. It was not sinister or even unsettling, just sombre and a bit subdued. It felt like a place for Serious Business. It was a place of respect. Everything was hushed here. It was a contemplative place. Neither of us spoke a word until we had climbed back up the banks through the on looking saplings. We didn’t take any photos.
I would love to say that I saw faces in the trunks of those trees, but I did not. I don’t know if foresteens even have faces. I looked at each one, right into its knotholes, and they all have their own characters, for sure, but they still looked like … trees. According to folklore, if one of them awakens and looks at you, they can see into your very soul, which does suggest they at least have eyes …
The birds did not seem at all bothered: they landed in the branches, or scurried through the leaf litter. I think there are blue tits nesting in the oak, which showed no signs of caring.
We looked back down at the Grove from the top of the bank. The leaves were thick and bright and gilded by the summer sun in gold. There was a slight haze over the hollow making the trees look slightly out of focus.
I recalled the over the top tourism at the Lake of Doom: a blatant attempt to cash in on a local legend about one of the Peoples. The thought of something similar happening to the Wise Grove made me feel sick to my stomach. Viewing platforms sunk into the raised earthen banks, open-sided vans selling plastic figurines of each of the trees. But this would never happen. Gnivil Forest was a Natural Park and protected. And the idea of interfering with the Grove seemed like blasphemy.
We left quietly. The Grove instils respect and reverence in all who visit it. We were back at the car park before we had a proper conversation.
Mabel Govitt (by kind permission of Ammaceadda)