Storm Francis battered the United Kingdom at the end of August, bringing heavy rainfall and record-breaking winds. As the ocean receded off the west coast of Wales, it carried sand away from the beaches on Cardigan Bay and revealed a never-before-seen stretch of preserved forest in Llanrhystud, Dylan Davies reports for the Cambrian News.
Tree stump-covered beaches are a more common sight in Borth, 15 miles north of Llanrhystud. There, the stumps stopped growing between 4,500 and 6,000 years ago and became covered in sea water and grasslands. It remains unclear whether the two sites are part of one continuous, ancient forest or if they underwent the same processes at different times. Researchers are now studying the Llanrhystud stumps to determine their age, Mari Grug reports for BBC News.
"It's exciting because it's additional evidence of these climate change processes that have been going on for so long,” Aberystwyth University geographer Hywel Griffiths, who studies coastal change in Ireland and Wales, tells BBC News. "But also worrying because we are seeing these landscape changes occur more often. It's due to the impact and influence of the storms that feel like they are happening more."
The forest in Borth made headlines in 2014 and 2019 when it was uncovered by storms. Scientists rush to study the stumps when they peak up above the sands—the stumps become covered again within two to three months of a major storm, University of Wales Trinity St. David geoarchaeologist Martin Bates told Atlas Obscura’s Jessica Leigh Hester in 2019.
So far, research shows that the stumps are growing in a three-foot-thick layer of peat, which dried before the trees began to grow. The forest probably flourished for over a millennium before the sea level rose, trees fell and grassland took over. Researchers have tried to take samples of the earth below the forests, but the sand on top presents a challenge for core drills, Bates told Atlas Obscura.
Residents of Wales have wondered where the petrified forests came from for so long, they feature in the oldest surviving Welsh manuscript. The Black Book of Carmarthen presents the mythical kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the Lowland Hundred. In one version of the story, the kingdom is submerged when a maiden named Mererid let her well overflow, Simon Worrall wrote for National Geographic in 2014.
In another version, a kingdom protects itself from the sea with a sea wall called Sarn Badrig. Each night, the gate keeper needed to close the gate to keep the sea out, per the Cambrian News. But the gate keeper, Seithennyn, spent too long drinking at the king’s feast one night and forgot to close the gate. His forgetfulness doomed the kingdom—the spring tides flooded Cantre’r Gwaelod and its people escaped into the hills.
“The remains of the forest’s tree stumps are well preserved, having been exposed by the storm moving vast quantities of stones, revealing the subsoil, peat and tree stumps,” Charles Green, a member of the Ceredigion Historical Society, told the Cambrian News after visiting the newly uncovered petrified forest. “Could the land and myth extend as far south as Llanrhystud?”
As National Geographic points out, there is no evidence that the Borth beaches were inhabited in ancient times. Today, Sarn Badrig is the name of a reef formed by the remains of a glacial moraine. But perhaps the borders of mythical Cantre’r Gwaelod extended further than once thought.
The petrified forest at Llanrhystud is “an addition to what we already know about the extraordinary number of petrified trees that have been found all along the coast of Wales,” historian Gerald Morgan tells BBC News. "It's exciting because we have found another one that hasn't been recorded yet."