Wilderness Wales


The Wilderness Concept

For my first proper post, I suppose I should start with wilderness, a subject close to my heart. Just what is wilderness? Or more to the point, what do I class as wilderness?

There are many purists who consider wilderness to be nature in its pristine state, never before touched by the hand of man. But if you accept this definition, there is no wilderness in the UK, let alone Wales, so how can I justify calling my website Wilderness Wales?

Unlike the purists, I see the world in shades of grey rather than black and white, so I see four different degrees of wilderness.

1. Pure Wilderness. One dictionary definition of this is “an unsettled, uncultivated region left in its natural condition.” This is the wilderness of the purist. Once touched, it is tainted forever and can never again claim this hallowed title.

2. Second-hand Wilderness. When an area which was once cultivated or settled by man is abandoned, nature once more exerts her power over it, and the area returns to the wild. This is what I call second-hand wilderness. Certainly it’s been tainted by the hand of man. Certainly it’s no longer in its pristine state, but to all intents and purposes, it has effectively returned to the wild.

It’s not the same wilderness that it once was, but a different one, a new kind of wilderness. For me, the key factor is that the area is no longer cultivated or settled. It is no longer managed by man. Just because man interfered with it in the past doesn’t mean that it can’t become wild again.

3. Relative Wilderness. On the whole, Britain isn’t a very wild country. Certainly we have nothing to compare with the vast wilderness areas that exist in other parts of the world. But we still have relative wilderness, areas that are relatively wild compared to the gentle farmland and urban areas that surround them.

Choose any area. Whichever bits are the least cultivated and least settled, that’s the relative wilderness! Relatively speaking therefore, the UK has plenty of wilderness. These are the places that cause Londoners to remark, “There’s nothing here!”. Such people tend to be at risk of dying in these places, since there’s no corner shop or pub available every 100 yards! [;-)]

4. Pseudo Wilderness. I’m rather fond of this one. It’s not real wilderness, but it feels like. Some dictionary definitions are “not actually but having the appearance of; pretended; apparently similar; counterfeit”. So a pseudo wilderness is a “pretend wilderness”. It looks or feels like, but it isn’t.

There’s a lot of pseudo wilderness in the UK, and you often don’t have to go far to find it. The important thing is that it should feel wild, so there mustn’t be anything man-made in view, nor should there be any sounds of civilisation, like cars or people. If it feels convincing enough, then it’s a “psychological wilderness”, so it can be real in the mind even if it isn’t in reality. All you need is a good imagination and you could be in the middle of nowhere!

The Man-Made Argument

There are those who argue that there is no natural landscape in the UK, that it’s all “man-made”, but this is nonsense IMO. Just because we cut most of the trees down long ago doesn’t mean that we “made” the landscape! It was already here, we just modified it a bit.

The underlying geology gives rise to the shape of the land, and while we’ve drained most of the marshes and altered the course of a few rivers, most of them are natural in origin. Even after felling the trees, man was not responsible for the plants that grew in their place. They were created by nature, not man.

So while it’s true that we’ve modified the surface features, i.e. the “skin” of the landscape, the underlying shape of the land, and the rivers and the plants that grow on it, are the product of nature. You could call the process “landscape gardening”, but “man-made” it is not!

Grazing Animals

Another oft-used argument is that since most upland areas are covered with grazing animals like sheep, the land is technically “farmland”. While that may be true in a sense, that doesn’t make the land itself any less wild IMO. After all, there are grazing animals in many wild parts of the world. Just because they chew on the vegetation doesn’t stop it being wild. And even if the herds are managed by man, why should that make a difference? Is Lapland any less wild just because reindeer chew on the tundra?

A common argument is that sheep aren’t indigenous to the UK, therefore their grazing is unnatural. But there’s nothing unnatural about sheep, they’re just products of nature doing what animals do. Just because we brought them here doesn’t mean that they’re doing anything unnatural. It certainly doesn’t make the land “man-made”. It just makes it sheep-grazed, that’s all.

The Forest Myth

A popular myth is that Britain was once completely covered in forest. The assumption is that man chopped it all down, and therefore the whole of Britain is no longer wild. But the highest peaks and ridges were never covered in trees. This is because the soil up there is too thin to support the large roots that trees require, and some of the land is bare rock so that could never have been tree covered.

Also ridges, as well as some exposed coastlines, are often battered by high winds, so this is not an hospitable environment for trees to establish themselves.

In fact, many ancient tracks follow ridges for this very reason. The high ground was the only place which wasn’t covered by the ancient wildwood, so it was the easiest way to get around inland. This may also help to explain why there are so many ancient monuments like cairns and stone circles located on high ground.

So when we look at the summits of the highest peaks in the UK, we’re probably seeing them pretty much as they’ve always been. Arguably, it truly is wilderness up there.

The Impact of Walkers

Another argument is that even if the hills were once wild, they no longer are because of all the erosion that hill walkers cause. But again, I’m not convinced. The key definition of wilderness IMO is “an unsettled, uncultivated region”, and walkers are certainly not settling or cultivating anything up there.

I admit that the eroded paths are unsightly, and they certainly do damage the natural state of the hills, but although they’re “man-made” in one sense, they’re not “made” in the sense of being designed and created in a purposeful way, they’re just an unintended side effect of walking. Grazing animals have the same effect. There are sheep trails all over the hills. How are human trails any different?

To my mind it’s design that makes the difference, not erosion, so I class things like roads, walls, fences, buildings etc as man-made, but not eroded paths, which I class as natural. Erosion is a natural process, even if it is unsightly.

However, there is an ever increasing tendency to pave over many of these natural paths, and that most definitely is by design, so they aren’t natural and they ruin the illusion of wilderness. Of course, these are unavoidable in some places and I accept that, but there’s a disturbing trend toward building them where they aren’t really needed.

So Where is the Wilderness in Wales?

Well primarily on the hills of course, specifically the open moorland. There’s also a lot around the coast. Although it’s a very thin strip, there’s a “no-man’s land” between the land and sea - the tidal zone - which is sometimes land and sometimes water. This is definitely wilderness. There’s also a thin fringe of land that is generally left uncultivated too, which is wider in some areas than others. Sand dunes, for example, can cover a large area in some places, as can salt-marsh.

Finally, there are a number of steep narrow valleys and gorges in which remain the last few vestiges of natural woodland. Due to difficulty of access, these woodland areas may not be much different to the original wildwood, although most pockets of woodland will have been managed if it was accessible enough.

Wilderness Photography

Finally, the wilderness concept as it applies to my photography. Many people will be aware that I’m no fan of including people or buildings in my landscape photographs, nor do I like to include paths or fences or walls. In fact, I pretty much like to exclude everything man-made from my images. I only like to photograph what’s natural. This is my philosophy of “wilderness photography”.

Like the pseudo wilderness mentioned earlier, it’s often only an illusion, but it’s the illusion I like to create whenever possible. I just don’t like taking photographs of man-made stuff, or man himself. Not so long ago I took a photograph of a sunset from a crowded beach. It looks as though it was taken in the middle of nowhere, yet there were people walking past and kids playing just a few yards away from me.

Of course, it’s not always possible to exclude all traces of man’s handiwork from my photographs, in fact, it’s often extremely difficult to avoid it. So rather than be an obsessive purist and not take any photos at all in these situations, I simply do the best I can under the circumstances. I don’t take my wilderness philosophy too literally, and I do appreciate that many people don’t dislike man-made elements as much I as do, so I cater for that. I’d just prefer not to when I have the choice! [:-)]


So there you have it. A multitude of wildernesses! Take your pick!

If you have any views on this topic, feel free to comment below.

Originall posted on my weblog on May 21, 2007


  1. Bill Grey | 21 May, 2007 at 8:25 pm

Hi Paul,

I think I understand what you think of wilderness. I believe that nowadays we have to accept that which is nearest to our concept of wilderness. It might now be evident that man has intruded or influenced the landscape but I think we could accept the intrusions of post ice Age man as being OK. By that I mean stone circles , standing stones and ancient cairns are more or less part of the landscape we have to accept. Anything later does detract from the feeling of unspoiled countryside.

  2. {Stef (BG)} | 21 May, 2007 at 11:10 pm

I’m looking forward to seeing how your new blog develops, Paul. It’s a good chance to plough your own furrow, and reap what you sow.
If the term “wilderness” doesn’t quite cut it for you, how about “wildest”? It’s not such an absolute term, people can interpret it according to their wit.
Good Luck from Stef

  3. {Paul Saunders} | 22 May, 2007 at 5:58 am

Hi Bill,

I agree that ancient monuments don’t distract from the sense of wilderness, but as you say, later stuff does.

As for having to accept what we’ve got, well, it may not be pure wilderness any more, but it’s the next best thing. I certainly enjoy it!

  4. {Paul Saunders} | 22 May, 2007 at 6:03 am

Hi Stef, thanks for popping by.

Thanks for the “wildest” suggestion, but it’s too late to change now. My website’s been called Wilderness Wales for eight years, so the name is pretty much carved in stone! At one time I wanted to call it Wild Wales, but that domain name had already gone.

Besides, I like the word “wilderness”, whether it’s pure or not. It has a nice ring to it.

  5. stig_nest | 28 May, 2007 at 8:08 pm

hi paul,
whilst out in the berwyn region near cwm hirnant all i could think was wilderness.
or was that bewilderness…

  6. {Paul Saunders} | 29 May, 2007 at 9:12 am

Bewildered eh? Take a map next time! ;-)

  7. stig_nest | 30 May, 2007 at 7:13 pm

hehe, a map is indeed a useful tool. but when its mile after mile of undulating heather and bog you dont need a map. you need hooves!