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Travels through Farynshire: the Lost Valley of Oes


Originally posted here

There are no roads around the Wild Gift. Luckily for us, the mud tracks that lead away from it are dry in the summer. You have to walk for ages (the map says it’s three miles – I don’t know what scale they’re working to: it feels like at least ten) to get to the nearest village. This is Cawr Collen, which consists of a few houses, including a Cawr Collen Welcome House, a pub, a post office and a bakery, all clustered around a jetty that sticks out into the wide, slow moving river, known locally as Kel Afon. The crumbling buildings with exposed rotten wooden beams felt like a return to civilisation after the wilderness and humanlesness of the Wild Gift.

We had booked a couple of rooms in Cawr Collen Welcome House, and it was a relief to have a shower and then crash straight into sleep on a clean, soft bed.

The next day, after breakfast, we set out for Oes – sorry, the Lost Valley of Oes. It’s an odd name for one of Farynshire’s famous Natural Parks. It was (thankfully) very clearly marked on our map, and there are frequently placed signposts on the nearest roads. But when you see it, the name makes sense.

This area of the county feels like it is trapped in the past. Quiet lanes pass through fields that surround villages smaller than Cawr Collen, a smattering of quiet farms, and … not much else, really. It’s like wandering through a Famous Five novel. Until you come to Oes – then it’s like you’ve gone back to the time of the dinosaurs.

As soon as you lay eyes on it you can see that Oes is a completely different forest from Gnivil. Gnivil has pleasant groves of flowering shrubs, wildflower meadows, tall smooth-trunked beeches that inspire a reverent hush, and shimmering green canopies penetrated by sunbeams that dapple the forest floor. Oes is more – I can think of no better word than forbidding. It looks like a forest that can take care of itself. It lies in a wide sunken gorge, riven by ravines. From a distance it looks like a cloud has fallen from the sky. As you get closer you see the valley – and it is green: the greenest greens I have ever seen. Closer still and you can see through the dark jagged walls of the narrow ravines that criss-cross the valley, and cut into the walls of the gorge. Ferns and vines hang from the rock, and they seem to grow straight out of the shiny black rock.

According to Felix’s The Living Forests, Oes is Farynshire’s only rainforest. I didn’t even know that rainforests exist outside of the Amazon, and surely the UK, let alone Farynshire, had no rainforests? This is true enough: we do not have tropical rainforests like the Amazon, but we do have temperate rainforests – though unfortunately not many anymore. What little we have left is concentrated in small scattered isolated patches across the country, like Oes.

I strongly advise you wear wellington boots if you come here (learn from our mistake). It is a wet place, and you notice this immediately as the dry mud lanes quickly transform into squelchy mud as you approach the slope that leads down into the valley. Clambering down the steep slope is not easy. We had heard in the Welcome House that if a foolish sheep fell down into the valley it was never seen again (there were stories that carnivorous foresteens ate them). The rocks are covered in what I think is moss – it’s thick, green and spongy, and in places full of so much water that you can squeeze it and wring out enough to fill a flask. The trees at the bottom are covered in bright green vegetation; it coats their trunks, their branches and right to the tips of their twigs. Ferns grow everywhere (according to The Living Forests nobody knows how many types of ferns Oes has, but the current count is over twenty seven) – at the base of every tree, sprouting out of the lichen-covered boulders, rising so high as we scrambled over the rocks that their wet fronds soaked our coats and hair.

The air! I wish I could have bottled the air! My lungs had never known anything like it. It was so fresh, so pure, so healthy. I could have stood there for hours, filling my lungs with that air. I’m sure it added a few extra years on to my life.

Sounds fill the forest. The calls of birds, swooping in and around the branches, hunting the abundance of insects (second tip: no matter what time of year you come, wear trousers and long sleeves or you will be eaten alive by midges). The sounds of water fill the forest: constant dripping from the vegetation, and the rushing water in the rivers and waterfalls.

We were advised to remember our route, and stick to only one ravine, less we became lost. We picked one that was close to the slope, and kept a close eye on it. It swallowed a river, so we thought that it would keep us on track.

We kept going down the steep tree-covered slopes, and came to a river, rushing along the bottom of valley, and disappearing into a ravine that split the rock wall. Ferns grew out of the rock, dropping over the rapids so that their fronds trailed in the white water. Waterfalls cascaded down on either side of the dark opening of the ravine, and the air was full of fresh droplets. We scrabbled over slippery boulders and crazy rock formations. More than once I feared I was going to lose my footing and fall into the tumbling rapids, but I somehow managed to cling to the rock, and we entered the narrow ravine.

The two walls almost touched, and the water surged just below our feet. But it was only a few nervous metres later, and the walls grew apart, as though they had been pushed away from each other by an impatient giant.

And now we were in an open space, with a very strange landscape. Oak trees, twisted and ancient, grew up between dark and dripping boulders. Their trunks branches grew in arthritic, lumpen shapes, and were sleeved in orange and white lichens. They did not move, nor show any inclination that they were anything but trees, but I am sure they must be foresteens. They look as though they are alive, and as soon as you are not looking at them their eyes will open, and they will stretch and move again. We hurried passed them, just in case they were the carnivorous kind, and had not a sheep to snack on in a while.

The water calmed down here. The white water spilled into a wide lagoon, and became so clear that we could see the multi-coloured stones in the shallows. Felix took a sip from the lagoon, and declared it as refreshing as the air. Other trees – birch and holly according to The Living Forests – grew out of the nooks and crevices between the misshapen and various sized boulders that surrounded the lagoon. Lichen bubbled over them, and tendrils hung from the larger branches like dead skin.

On the far side of the lagoon was a vertical rock wall. Rivulets of fresh water made their way down the rockface, flowing over stunted trees and clusters of thick dripping ferns that sprouted all over it. The late day sun managed to touch a few of the dark rocks, but it was a chilly place, even in summer, full of cool greens, the gentle murmur of the water, and the cheeping of the birds flying about. And then we realised that they weren’t birds, but bats, hundreds of them, swooping over the surface of the lagoon, skimming the water, and then zipping back to the steep, dark rocks. They were mesmerising, and I could have watched them for hours. But we had not prepared to stay overnight (and Felix was very reluctant to stay in Oes in the dark; probably worried about the carnivorous foresteens).

We began to climb up the slope so that we could make our way out. There was no path, of course, no human path, but there was a line, maybe made by rabbits or deer, that led to an outcrop. Oes had a parting gift for us. Below the outcrop was a precipitous slope that plunged down into a wide, low bowl. The bowl was full of shifting mists that sometimes drifted and thinned to reveal and open glade, full of soaking ferns, ghostly in the mist.

It was nearly dark when we reached the ridge that overlooked the Lost Valley of Oes. I now understand why everyone calls it that. It is easy to feel lost when you are inside it, as though you have left our world and entered another. It is mysterious, slightly creepy, its own place: a precious fragment of a nearly lost ecosystem. It needs to be protected, and perhaps the best way to do that is to ensure it remains “lost”.

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