Artrudge – Cwmcarn Forest Drive

by Elliot Davies.

Wooden Wizard

Artrudge is a semi-occasional feature in which one of our number trudges around a place looking at art. This time, we’re having a look at the Cwmcarn Forest Drive carvings.

Cwmcarn Forest Drive is a seven mile long winding road through some of the lushest greenery north of Newport. It’s run by the Welsh Forestry Commission, and it features seven car parks, each of which has a different theme. Whilst some of them simply offer a particularly awe inspiring view of the valleys, others feature sculptures and wood carvings. For this installment of Artrudge, we’re going to have a look at some of these marvelous creations.

CP1 is the Giant’s Court, and there’s a lot going on here. A salmon jumps up a dried stream, straight out of Middle Earth, whilst various characters from Arthurian legend and the Mabinogion cavort around stone altars.

The giant, in whose court we are guests, takes centre stage. The sculpture is based on sketches by nearby school pupils. Looking at his face, I think it shows. That’s the sort of snarl that’s regularly rendered by felt tip pens.

We know this giant’s name. It’s Ysbaddaden Pencawr, from the Welsh folk tale, Culhwch ac Olwen. It’s a tale of difficult childbirths, strange curses, impossible tasks and unhappy arranged marriages, remarkable for being the very first story to ever mention a specific geographical location of Arthur’s court. He was based in Cornwall, apparently.

The Giant’s Court is situated in the heart of the Nantcarn Valley, where some have reported sightings of a ghostly Green Warrior. Legend has it that those who see the Green Warrior are doomed to die within a year. This was one ghost I was pleased to have missed.

CP2 is the Sensory Garden, which resembled an elaborate puzzle from Myst.

Perhaps through orientating the sail to view each of the nearby landmarks in turn – Ty’n-ffynon Farm, Rhyswg Fach, Pen-y-Pant and the Twmbarlwm hillfort – you can cause for the giant sphere to hatch, revealing the benevolent pterodactyl who’ll fly you to the next world.

Or the next car park, at least. CP3 is The Land of The Tylwyth Teg. Here be fairy folk.

So we have Merlin conquering the dragon using his trademark wit and panache, and a storytelling snail, who from certain angles looks like alien clergy.

By the time we got to this point, the sky was a murky charcoal, and the wind was picking up. It seems that an Artrudge is destined to always be wet. The wooly weather meant all but bypassing CP4, which is ominously labelled Windy Ridge. CP5, though, was not to be missed.

Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd was a Welsh prince who may have sailed to America in 1170, over 300 years before delusional moron Christopher Columbus “discovered” the continent. CP5 is Madoc’s Place.

In 1793, John Evans of Waunfaw sailed to America with the intention of finding the Mandan, a tribe of Native Americans who he believed could trace their roots back to Madoc’s voyage. Evans honestly expected to find a tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans.

Of course, he was disappointed to find that the Mandan weren’t actually that Welsh. Still, the maps he created during his 1,800 mile journey up the Missouri river would eventually be used by Lewis & Clark on their historic trek. Gruff Rhys this year paid tribute to Evans’s epic journey with his multimedia project, American Interior. A strong contender for my album of the year, it features some of the loveliest music of his career. Gruff would be missing a trick if he went to his grave without having performed the album in full at Madoc’s Place.

Our last stop was CP7, Twmbarlwm, or The Haunt of the Celts. This was a punishing struggle to an Iron Age fort, up a mound sodden with mystery and history. Those who disturb the mound will unleash The Curse of Bran, which manifests itself as a deadly swarm of bees. There are also stories of ghostly subterranean music, which is supposed to be so seductive that it has lured at least one hapless hiker to their misty demise. Tread carefully.

Yet despite these fascinations, Twmbarlwm is adorned with perhaps the most underwhelming sculpture of the whole trail. It’s an austere carving called Search and Rescue, depicting a man and a dog.

But this is the haunt of the Celts. There is nothing to suggest that he doesn’t wander the hills at night, a vengeful golem in search of lost hikers and stray legionaries.

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