Silent Valley Nature Reserve, Blaenau Gwent


Shady trees
Old tramway

Wooded valley floor bisected by a stream (Nant Merddog); above, the slopes merge with heather-covered uplands, and are crossed by an old tramway line
Silent Valley Nature Reserve is a comparatively large site, 124 acres, containing the upper half of a short valley (Cwm Merddog) on the east side of the much larger Ebbw Vale, one of the many north-south ravines through the hills of the South Wales Coalfield. A tiny stream, Nant Merddog, runs through the valley, the name of which reflects its peaceful, undisturbed nature, separated from the busy corridor of the Vale by a low hill, to the west. On the east side of the valley, the land slopes much more, up to a narrow ridge that divides Ebbw Vale from the next big valley, formed by the Ebbw Fach River.

Around the stream, Silent Valley is thickly wooded, the trees including many tall, ancient specimens, while higher up the slopes, the forest gives way to bushes and then open land, covered by heather and bracken. Most trees are beech, and the woods here have the distinction of being the highest elevation beech wood in the UK. The upper section of the reserve, near the eastern edge, is crossed by an old ore tramway, which now provides a course for one of trails through the reserve, forming a loop with a path along the valley floor, near the stream. Four connecting paths allow round-trips of different lengths, from 0.9 miles to 1.5 miles.

Besides the beech woodland, which occupies the majority of the reserve, and the higher elevation bracken/heath slopes, the site also contains a few damp meadows, and the different habitats sustain a good variety of plant species, even though most are relatively common. Wildlife is also quite abundant, and increasing, since some parts of the valley were previously industrialised, used for iron extraction from medieval times and coal mining early in the 20th century, and are only slowly reverting to a more natural state. Nevertheless, it is probably the scenery - the cool, quiet valley floor and the far-reaching views on the slopes above - that provides the main reason to visit, rather than the flora and fauna. Wildflowers include wood sorrel, lesser celandine, mouse-ear hawkweed, water forget-me-not, bittercress and marsh thistle, plus at least three types of orchid: early marsh, heath-spotted and broad-leaved helleborine.

The Nature Reserve

The nature reserve is reached from the main road through Ebbw Vale valley, the A467, turning northeast in the village of Cwm, along a residential street, Cendl Terrace. Just past the last house, to the right, is a good-sized, free parking area, on the rim of the valley, bordered by trees to the east. The path into the reserve heads north, across a patch of grassland, then enters the woodland, passing a couple of old buildings and running alongside a wildflower meadow, which slopes down towards the stream. The path also soon descends to the stream then divides, one branch climbing the slope on the opposite side of the valley, southeastwards, up to the old tramway, another ascending the slopes to the northwest, later exiting the forest and returning to the road, while a third follows the stream further north, linking with the other connecting routes to the tramway, and also forming a short loop with a path that returns to the initial junction on the other side of the creek. The stream itself is usually very shallow, but quite pretty, forming little pools and cascades, all generally in deep shade. Beyond the path, the northern reaches of the valley floor are rather inaccessible, and part is a specially protected area, presumably due to some rare plants that grow here.

The Ore Tramway

From the south edge of the reserve, the tramway path at first traverses open, relatively dry woodland, followed by a wetter section crossed by a few tributary streams, and then a patch of undulating land covered by short grass, formerly a group of spoil heaps, then finally more natural grasslands that extends another half a mile, to the northern tip of the valley. In a few places the woods are crossed by ruined stone walls and remains of hedgerows, showing where ancient field boundaries once lay, before being overgrown by the trees.