Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Physicians Well and a Trip to Dryslwyn

At last, after a glut of work and a dodgy internet connection, I shall finally relate the events of last weekend - a visit to two special places.

My activities are currently largely dictated by efforts to prepare for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2009 and last Sunday was no exception.

Our desire to relate to the Americans the incredible importance of plant-based medicine in the history of Wales sent myself and my partner, once again, in search of the Physicians Well, a little known place not far from the village of Myddfai in South West Wales.

We've been there a couple of times before, but only with a guide leading the way over field and heath from the Myddfai direction. Previous efforts to find it ourselves using another route have been just a little disappointing to put it mildly.

Last year we tramped, my whole family and I, for what felt like hours as we attempted to approach the well from a direction that would bypass the land of local farmers. The fact that the well is not marked on any maps, whilst the Forestry Commission's haphazard approach to felling makes footpaths more of a suggested rather than practicable concept, meant our plan for a gentle roam turned into more of a team-building obstacle course. We found ourselves clambering and climbing endlessly in often fruitless attempts at getting our feet to touch the ground let alone find the well.

This time was different. Huge tree trunks no longer criss-crossed every path and my partner and I had a better idea where to start looking so that, with a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we finally made it to the grassy pathway that leads to the well through the trees.

Said to have been the preferred source of water for all remedies made by the Physicians of Myddfai, the well is actually a small spring. Bubbling gently out of the earth, the surrounding stones have a gentle red tint indicating a reasonable iron content.

The water itself both smells and tastes faintly metallic with just a hint of sulphur and is oh so refreshing and delicious on a hot day after an energetic walk. And the plants growing around the area are just so green and lush. I always find the pine plantations of Forestry Commission land have a kind of deadness to them, devoid of vitality, at least in areas where pine would not normally grow.

This little patch just on the edge of FC land next to the Usk reservoir is different though. A small belt of broad leaf trees have been allowed to remain and, although pines are still very much in evidence, there is also a localised flush of other vegetation that almost conjures up an idea of what the area may have looked like all those years ago when the Physicians are said to have frequented the spot.

And their legacy has certainly lived on here. Just outside the forested area is a marshy patch that borders the heath we walked across on previous visits. This area is called Pant Meddygon - The Physicians Meadow - and is said to be one of the places they collected their

Here too (or at least, not far from here) are the remains of the famous scar across the landscape, said to be the result of two oxen dragging a plough back to Llyn-y-Fan-Fach after the Lady returned to her lake. You can read the legend of the Physicians here.

The scar is visible when standing on a high point of the heath, and although subtle, is most definitely there. Ironically, it doesn't remotely head in the direction of Llyn-y-Fan however. Maybe the Oxen were taking the scenic route back home.

The area does have a definite atmosphere. It's so unbelievably peaceful. We both sat down on the remains of an old stone wall in the meadow (might there have been a dwelling here once?) and enjoyed the sun for a bit. We commented on how quiet it was. With 3 or 4 Red Kites circling above and the occasional noise of other birds chattering in the forest behind us, we couldn't hear a single other thing apart from the trickling of a stream and the distant winds across the black mountains and the ridge over Llyn-y-Fan itself.

It was also nice to see that others regularly enjoy the spot. We had passed a small group of wild horses (how genuinely wild I don't know) including a fluffy black foal on our way to the well and there was clear evidence that the well itself was another of their favourite haunts. There's something rather nice about the idea of sharing a drinking hole with a horse even if I did cheat and use the little cup that's left there by the potters of Myddfai for human use.

Sadly, we couldn't stay long because we had a spontaneous meeting with two of the Smithsonian Institutions curatorial staff from America and Gareth Evans, a fellow plant medicine/Myddfai enthusiast who is also on the Smithsonian curatorial committee.

We met them at the top of Dryslwyn Castle (pictured at the top of this post) which is located just near the Botanic Gardens and is one of my favourite places for dragging visitors to.

The view from Dryslwyn is just incredible. From it you can see right across the green flood plain with the Towy river snaking it's way through and the sun always glinting off the water to produce what feels like a brighter than normal light.

The castle itself is more ruined than most although I can't comment on it's history except to say that it was the victim of quite a brutal siege. The bonus of a castle on a mound with all it's walls in bits is that you have a 360 degree view of the local area and from here it's possible to see the next castle along (Dinefwr), Paxton's Tower up on it's hill, the mountains of Llyn-y-Fan over in the distance and a beautiful canvas of overlapping hills and dales fading off into the distance - all pastel shades of green and blue and grey.

The site is truly spectacular and is only added to by the greenery of the hill itself which is often tended by a flock of sheep. Down at the bottom of the hill I was also pleased to find a bountiful patch of dandelion (Taraxacum officinal), Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis) and bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) - all worth a good nibble.

I plucked a couple of huge dandelion heads for a snack - so sweet - and we headed home. With plans to return to the Physicians Well to take photos for the festival as soon as possible, all I had left to do was admire the rather impressive blisters I'd acquired as a result of stupidly wearing new boots for our long walk.

Dryslwyn by Clare West
Llyn-y-Fan-Fach by SNappa2006

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