Tales from the Trees: St Mary's Vale, Abergavenny - On the magical frontier between fantasy and reality

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The Independent Travel

I think the wood is moving. Maybe it's just blurred vision brought on by the exertion of hiking up its sloped sides at a good lick on a hot day, but I could swear the trunks are closing in on me.

Each is stunted and erupts into strange, twisted forms with long, limb-like branches. Knots are droopy facial features; moss and lichen beards and hair. It is as though I've stumbled across some fantasy world of tree nymphs and dryads up a muscular flank of Welsh hill.

Below, a pastoral idyll stretches down to the tumbling geometry of Abergavenny, a pretty market town two miles away. Above me, through the wood, the peak of Sugar Loaf mountain soars volcano-like into a blue sky. I am in the peaceful middle ground, St Mary's Vale woods, a swarm of extraordinary sessile oak. "Sessile" refers to its stalked leaves and stalkless acorns, both of which are the opposite of the English oak. Perhaps because of this contrariness, the sessile oak has become the national tree of Wales. Fittingly, it is a wonderfully defiant tree, stout of heart and favoured for shipbuilding and wine barrels.

I rest with my back to a trunk. The sound of the wood floods over the deep carpet of last year's fallen leaves. Far away, I can hear the bleats of lambs on the hills; closer is the trickle of Nant Iago, the gentle stream that murmurs and chuckles away downhill through sun-dappled trees. I love woods with character and it is a wrench to move from here at all. The dryads have truly worked their magic.

The view from the iconic Sugar Loaf is well worth the climb. Rarely can a summit provide such geographical variety: the Brecon Beacons to the west, the Cotswolds to the east, the Bristol Channel to the south and the Black Mountains to the north. However, since travelling is not just about the destination, I look down at the thick seam of sessile oaks bubbling beautifully from the valley sides and smile at the thought of my return journey.


St Mary's Vale Woodland (Abergavenny, NP7 7LA) is two miles from Abergavenny. From the A40 turn into Chapel Road (turn left from the west, and right from the east). The road bears round to the right and turns into a wooded lane. When the trees end, take the first left between a house and a farm and continue. Just before the road splits at a junction there is a small car park surrounded by conifers on the left. Trains to Abergavenny are operated by Arriva Trains Wales (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk), with connections at Crewe, Shrewsbury and Newport. The Angel Hotel (01873 857 121; angelabergavenny.com) has doubles from £101, room only.