A change in my work shifts means I now start at 4 pm most days giving me the freedom to get out and enjoy the autumn for a few hours before work. It’s 8 am on a misty November morning. In an hour or so, I’m, going to be walking the trails of Caio Forest, Carmarthenshire for the first time.
Ever since first visiting the sprawling Brechfa Forest over a year ago, I’ve felt a desire to diversify, and try some of the lesser-known Welsh forests. Caio forest has been at the top of my list of forests to visit for about a year now. Googling ‘Caio Forest’ returned some pretty underwhelming image results, but I was still keen to go and explore for myself. I get the feeling that these forests are less touristy than some of the larger ones, and so don’t have such an image presented on the internet.
It’s an unusually cold morning. Perhaps not so compared to previous decades, but recently we’ve grown accustomed to milder autumns, and the perfectly normal cold-snaps seem to shock us. The sky is clear this morning, but it’s misty, turning the deep blue into more of a baby-blue sky. Where the sunlight hits the deep amber of the remaining autumn leaves, the mist makes them glow. Once I take the turning to Lampeter at the north end of Llandeilo, the mist becomes fog. Heading along some of the valley roads, I can see nothing but a huge wall of white beyond the hedgerows.
Suddenly I find I’m not just stuck behind one tractor, but two. Three miles at 30 miles an hour initially causes expletives as I’m keen to get to my destination before the mist burns off. I have a somewhat irrational anxiety about missing photo opportunities. It causes me not to spend too long photographing one location, and instead, hurry on to the next opportunity. I try to take a calm approach, and view the situation as a positive — in that, by going slower, I get to enjoy the moment more.
Arrival in the vicinity of Caio starts serendipitously. I berate myself for missing the turning for Caio and head about a mile uphill looking for a safe spot to turn around. When I find one, I notice wonderful views of the ‘dragon’s breath’ (a local term for rolling mist) creeping over the surrounding countryside, beyond the hedgerow. I park up and take several shots. With an interesting photo already ‘in the bag’, I know that whatever I see in Caio Forest, I already have a share-worthy photo for the day.
Once in the quiet village of Caio, I don’t see any signs for the forest. My sat-nav tells me I need to carry straight on, up a road marked as a dead end. I come to a single-lane gravel track by a bungalow. With my Tomtom having taken me through some ‘interesting’ rural routes on previous occasions, where it might have been more appropriate to be driving a tractor, I decide to check my trusty OS map. The map suggests that the car park is indeed at the end of this track, so I follow it, bouncing and bumping my way along the muddy and potholed road. At the end of the track, a familiar Natural Resources Wales sign espouses any doubts. I’ve arrived.
It’s bitterly cold when I get out the car. The forest has seen an overnight frost, and the sun is yet to bathe the car park. As I put extra fleece layers on, I’m gutted to find I’ve forgotten to bring my earbuds. Listening to music while walking is one of my favourite things as the scenery enhances the music, and vice-versa. It seems I’m going to be accompanied by my own thoughts and the sounds of the forest. I’m not too sure about the sound of my own thoughts.
The info board in the car park suggests three walks. I decide to start with the Rhiw Goch trail, as this states a moderate climb, with views from the top. I head on up the hill on reasonably wide forestry tracks carpeted with orange conifer needles. With clear blue skies, and golden larches appearing out of the haze, it makes for a striking scene. It seems I’ve missed the turning of the larch needles at their best. Many of them are looking a little barer than I’d hoped. Visiting a couple of weeks earlier, and I probably would have caught them at their most vibrant. I resolve to plan an earlier visit around this time next year.
The trail turns back on itself as it climbs the hillside. The cold air makes my chest feel a little tight as I ascend — or it could be my vaping habit, something I really need to quit. Soon the track splits into an overgrown track to the right which heads uphill, and a more pedestrian route that continues straight ahead. If I carry on straight ahead, I’m not going to go any higher. Where are these views? Yes, I can see the forest below, but are these the ‘great views’ the sign mentioned I’d see on this trail? I follow the right-hand fork for 100 yards or so. Judging by the mass of brambles growing in the deep tyre tracks, this track hasn’t been driven in some time. It’s pretty hard going, and I suspect I’m not going the ‘right’ way. The lack of waymarkers isn’t helping either. If I had more time, I’d persevere and see if I could find these ‘great views’, but I’m aware I can’t spend too long out here this morning — I need to get back for work.
I retrace my tracks and take the more pedestrian route that is also a lot clearer. This carries on for a bit and looks down into the haze-filled forested slope on the left. Rays of sunshine are penetrating the canopy and melting the frost, creating little plumes of water vapour which catches the golden morning rays.
This track also snakes back on itself as it winds back down the hillside with the coniferous slope on my left, and a young deciduous wood on my right. A small wooden bridge carries me over a trickling stream as the slender, towering trunks of the pines give way to a clearing bathed in sunlight, providing views of the surrounding hillsides. A line of larch saplings follow the grassy path that continues down the hill. It feels warm and calming here. I forget I’m wearing a few layers of fleece, and for a moment, I forget it’s autumn altogether. For a moment, I’m out on a spring morning’s walk. On another day, I could sit here for a while, reading, or writing on my laptop. Not a bad location for ‘the other office’ as I like to call it. But no, I need to crack on with exploring today. I know it’s here. I will return someday.
A little further on, and I’m back at the car park. It was a short walk — just over a mile. Pretty enough, but I’m left wanting more. The Glyn Annel walk tracks the base of the forest, up the western side, and back along the eastern side. At a mere 2.5 miles, on a level track, I know even stopping to take shots, I can do this in an hour or less, so I head off.
Caio follows a similar layout Brechfa Forest at Abergorlech, in that you head into the forest on the Western side where there’s the chance of sunshine on a fine winter’s day, and circle round via the eastern side which due to the nature of being a valley, is usually in shade.
At the beginning of the track, there is more of a mixture of deciduous and coniferous woodland on the slopes leading to the river at the base of the valley. I snap a few autumnal shots of the sun burning through golden Beech leaves before heading on. Further along the track, the treeline breaks and I can see down into the valley, and across to the slopes on the other side. My jaw drops. It’s an incredible scene. From this distance, the larches, spruce, and firs form a rich autumnal texture. The sun is burning off the previous night’s frost, and clouds of steam are weaving in an out of the trees giving the scene incredible depth. I photography madly, mixing wider shots, and close-ups, though the zoom on my Lumix is not particularly strong. I know this is the ‘peak moment of the visit. I’ve never seen anything quite like it — at least not in real life.
Looking back now, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t stay a bit longer to enjoy the scene in all its wonder, and perhaps video it. I tried my best to capture it in stills, but I don’t think it quite did it justice in the way that video could have. Still, those shots are amongst my favourites from the day and make a worthy addition to my forests gallery on my photography website.
I’m now at the northern extent of the Glyn Annel walk, the trail curves around onto the eastern side of the valley. It’s mostly in shade, but the rising sun is starting to crest the treetops. About halfway back to the car park, I see the sun penetrating an area of ‘deep forest’. Deep forest is a term I use to describe those areas of forest that are carpeted in mosses, lichen, and ferns, that seem undisturbed by the presence of people. I take a little detour off the track and into the trees. The sunlight backlights the moss hanging from the branches, and highlights bumps on the forest floor.
It’s a magical scene, perhaps ‘Tolkienesque’ in nature. I’m taken back to my early teen years, reading fantasy novels of lengthy quests across sprawling landscapes, and I’m almost expecting to see white-robed elves between the trees. I’ve been told Wales holds over 70% of the moss species in the UK, and that it proliferates due to the clean air. Over the last year, I’ve seen many scenes like this, but they never get old. It strikes me that this is the earliest time of day I’ve been out wandering the Welsh forests, and it’s certainly worth getting up for. I leave Lothlorien, and return to the track.
Two fast-moving masses of black hair rush me, barking loudly, the cries of “they’re friendly” from their owner in the distance follow. The two dogs are indeed friendly. They investigate my scent before carrying on with their morning walk. The owner catches me up, and we engage in small-talk about the beauty of Wales on our return to the car park.
Back at the car, I feel sombre at having to return home and go to work, rather than spending a few more hours in Caio. Still, the morning has been a great success. I’ve explored somewhere new, taken some great shots, and I feel inspired not only to return later in the year, but also to explore the other forests that seem to be abundant in this part of Carmarthenshire.