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Book Review: Tir – The Story of the Welsh Landscape by Carwyn Graves

17 Mar 2024 6 minute read
Tir: The Story of the Welsh Landscape by Carwyn Graves is published by Calon

Jon Gower

This absorbing and constantly illuminating book is about many things, as its author asserts: it is about farming and conservation, literature and ecology, nature and culture.

It also attests to Graves’ dedicated diligence as a researcher and to a curiosity employed in the service of envisioning a sustainable future for the Welsh countryside.

It also speaks to his ability to explain complex things with clarity, much like cutting a path through the brambles without damaging the briar patch.

In this he is aided by the many experts he meets as he crosses and climbs the land, from shepherds to weavers, from vegetable growers to dedicated restorers of hay meadows.

In so doing he presents ‘the human and natural ecology of Wales through…its sayings, its myths, its references and resonances…looking through a farmer’s and a forager’s eye ­– rather than purely through the lens of ecology.’

The Wales he sees is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth, where the degree of destruction and loss is not always clear, due to shifting baseline syndrome, a ‘condition whereby each new generation inherits an environment that has worsened from the generation before, producing lower expectations for conservation and recreation.’

Human landscape

Carwyn Graves surveys a landscape which is a cultural creation, a human landscape where almost everything is a consequence of our actions and interactions.

He concentrates on eight key features such as that ffridd and rhos. In the case of the latter it is the landscape component which has been lost in the greatest measure during the last few centuries and is also the one which is the least well known.

Rhos lands once covered 40% of the Welsh land mass, familiar to travellers in most parts of the country. They were a key part of the farming system and a huge habitat for wildlife into the bargain but now often only linger on in place names.

Dismissed by romantic travellers as having too little scenic drama, rhos has been overlooked in many other ways, unstudied in the main. And yet, Graves suggests ‘these areas may well be the missing piece of the puzzle as we try to understand what a farmed Welsh landscape looks like that allows wildlife to thrive alongside people with crops and animals.’

In compiling the story of the rhos jigsaw piece, Graves is also sharing with us some of his family’s history.

His grandfather grew up on a patch of rhos on the border of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, living a tough life of stifling poverty, owning only the clothes in which he stood.

Small scale ‘war’

Graves also explores some fractious moments in Welsh history, when ownership of the rhos led to not only local discontent but even to small scale “war.”

Rhyfel y Sais Bach, the war of the Little Englishman centred around a Lincolnshire nobleman, Augustus Brackenbury, who acquired a thousand acres of Cardiganshire Crown Land and started to build a manor there.

Hardly had the building work started before someone knocked the place down, which prompted a new plan, for a manorial pile on higher ground.

But one night, a local man summoned 1000 men by blowing his horn and they surrounded the now -fortified building and threatened to burn it down, inhabitants and all.

After Brackenbury fled the place, Castell Talwrn was summarily razed to the ground.

In charting the land’s history Graves takes us back to a time when things were very different. Before the 1282 Conquest by the English Crown:

the extractive industries underpinned by imperialism did not exist; indeed almost all the large megafauna supported in Wales since the last Ice Age still shared the land with human culture. Wolves, beavers, deer and wild boar were not only present in the landscape but featured strongly alongside domesticated animals and plants in native mythology, replete as it is with tales of shapeshifting and talking creatures.


But Graves is not an advocate of turning the clock back, or trying to return the country to, say, the time of wolves, for he avers that there is ‘no one period within Welsh landscape history which represents an equilibrium to which we should or even could return.’

This is a forward-facing history, a level-headed account of how the land has been shaped and has, in turn supported Wales’ people.

It therefore introduces us to the possibilities of biochar, a carbon capturing material made of organic matter burnt at high temperature which can be mixed with slurry to create a fertiliser with less run-off risk and more benefits to soils.

He tells us, too about Sida, a perennial plant with the potential to contribute significantly to decarbonisation and farming viability in Wales.

It’s a free-ranging book, that’s for sure, finding historical evidence in the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym, or climbing up Carn Ingli to explore a model for agricultural rewilding suited to the Welsh context.

Read the land

Graves takes us to orchards and mountainsides, woodlands and fields, always attentive to the various ways in which we can read the land and sense its story, or stories.

On a farm near Dolgellau he talks to a farmer about the various walls he can see. In so doing he is reminded of the vein of cultural knowledge which runs through the place.

The wall separating the ffridd from the mountain lies on what is often the snowline. Another, much lower down, divides the ffridd from the farmyard and infields and ‘is the line for spring frosts, where cold air descends and is then caught in the hollow just where the wall runs.’

You can see that this is a book written by an attentive traveller and thoughtful listener.

Carwyn Garves has written a book that fully deserves to be be read widely, adding to our understanding of the shaping of Wales even as it suggests ways to revivify the landscape, thus ensuring it can remain a home for the people who live there and ‘form an essential, shaping part of the living world.’

Tir: The Story of the Welsh Landscape by Carwyn Graves is published by Calon and is available from all good bookshops.

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