Sarn Helen, end to end

February 10, 2023 4 Comments

Several stretches of Roman road in Wales are labelled ‘Sarn Helen’.  The one Tom Bullough sets out to walk, in a roughly straight line except for a lurch eastward to Brecon Gaer, is the road that leads from the fort at Nidum (Neath) to Canovium (Caerhun, near Conwy).  He has recorded his trip in a new book, Sarn Helen: a journey through Wales, past, present and future.  The subtitle interweaves the three threads of the book: the Wales of the (mainly distant) past, the Wales of the land and people he meets on the walk, and, frighteningly, the likely future the country faces as the planet heats and its inhabitants suffer.

Tom Bullough has already published several books, including the excellent novel Addlands. unusual in its subject and its location.  It’s set on the edge of Wales among the sparsely populated Radnorshire hills where he grew up.  But Addlands barely mentions borders.  Its people rarely think of themselves as Welsh (or English), but as Radnorshire people.  Though localism is a feature of the new book too, borders come back into view, and so does Wales as an entity.  In his preface the author offers Wales as a unit sufficiently small to make comprehensible what would otherwise be a subject too vast and complex to grasp – the climate catastrophe facing the whole world.

Tom Bullough

The medieval tale Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (The dream of Macsen Wledig) tells the story of how Macsen, emperor of Rome, a version of Magnus Maximus who seized the throne in 393 AD, tracked down in Abersaint (Caernarfon) the woman of his dreams, Elen Luyddog.  She demanded, as a price for marrying him, the right to build a series of forts throughout Wales, and the roads to link them – hence, Sarn Helen.  As Bullough points out, the story mangles history.  Magnus Maximus was a figure from almost the end of the Roman period, whereas the roads were built over three centuries earlier as part of the first military campaigns in Wales by the early governors, Suetonius Paulinus, Julius Frontinus and Gnaeus Julius Agricola.

The Sarn Helen that leads from Neath to Caerhun isn’t an obvious walker’s route.  Even the veteran long-form trekker Ursula Martin hasn’t yet attempted it.  Many stretches are followed by modern roads, some of them busy and unpleasant to walk along.  Others have disappeared altogether, so that the exact routes linking forts, like the stretch north of Pennal, are uncertain.  None of this deters Tom Bullough, who is a tough pedestrian.  He takes in Pen-y-gadair, descending Cadair Idris by the Fox’s Path, and isn’t afraid to sleep under the stars.  He does the journey in stages, between July 2020 and May 2021.  The Covid pandemic casts its weird shadow over parts of the narrative.  Uncannier still, February 2020 had been the wettest February on record, and September 2020 proves to be the hottest September (‘my sweat drips from alternating elbows’).  At some points he has company, the fellow-authors Christopher Meredith and Jay Griffiths, and he records conversations with people met on the way: a builder, an angler, a farmer, a shopkeeper.  He writes lyrically about the natural world, and his eye for landscape and wildlife is keen.


He keeps another eye on the future of Wales.  Reminders of climate change are all around, no more so than when, from the top of Cadair Idris, he spots the village of Fairbourne at the mouth of the Mawddach, doomed to be erased from the map by the swallowing sea sometime in the new few decades.   Interspersed throughout the narrative are edited transcripts of Zoom conversations Bullough has arranged with scientists specialising in the effects of climate change.  He asks them about many subjects – sea level rises, the future of agriculture, conservation, tree planting, coastal flooding and carbon capture – but the responses are bleakly identical.  Global heating will inevitably cause huge problems, whatever is done today, but unless people and their governments take urgent action now to change their behaviour in radical ways, problems will, just as inevitably, turn into catastrophe. 

Sarn Helen at Cellan

The climax of the book is a digression, but one that hits the reader hard.  Almost at the end of his walk, in the Conwy valley, Bullough has to break his journey to attend the City of London Magistrates’ Court.  In September 2020 he’d been arrested for his part in a demonstration by Extinction Rebellion in Parliament Square, and now his case is to be heard.  He gives us his ‘speech from the dock’, an impassioned, Socratic justification for law-breaking in pursuit of a higher cause – an ‘absolute moral obligation’ to try to safeguard the future of his two children in a world that will become increasingly impossible to live in as time goes on, unless governments can be made to change course: ‘if I am a moral person, I cannot simply observe this crime [of ignoring the crisis].  I cannot simply be complicit.’  The magistrates in Courtroom 2, ‘white men of advanced years’, listen politely, ignore his argument and convict him.  He leaves the court, poorer by £772, thinking a bitter thought: ‘we are travelling unchecked towards disaster, led by lying governments – and it is neither a help nor a consolation to know that our children will curse them to hell.’


But this isn’t the end of the book, and bitterness isn’t the final taste.  There’s a final stretch of Sarn Helen, to Caerhun, and then a sort of coda, a continuation of the walk to the coast at the Great Orme.  Within the Roman fort at Caerhun is St Mary’s Church, and here Bullough lingers and finds some refuge from the sound of the road and of destruction (though this site too will vanish under seawater under some scientists’ projections).  At Llandudno he finds another church, that of St Tudno, who ‘washed up’ here in the sixth century and founded his church (though he himself seems to have lived in a cave on the Orme).  Again, Bullough finds some respite and encouragement.

The ’past’ in the book’s title is a specific reference to the ‘Age of the Saints’, the ill-documented period following the departure of the Romans when saints proliferated all over Wales, founding churches and seeking peace.  Bullough isn’t specially interested, after all, in the Romans, even though he admires their road system, ‘a great piece of infrastructure’ and ‘a means of travel that did not rely on hydrocarbons.’  The post-Roman period, for him, was a fresh start, a fluid society open to many external seaborne influences, including saints and refugees, one that didn’t depend on the extraction and removal of economic wealth, and that existed in some kind of harmony with the natural world, rather than in conflict against it.  All along the way Bullough collects saints: Illtud, Samson, Melangell, Elen and others, and admires their searching for ‘seclusion, wildness and awe’.  He seeks out their llannau.  In the Fforest Fawr, north of Ystradfellte, he stops to gaze at Maen Madoc, the memorial to one of the ‘new men’, Dervacus son of Justus.  He pores over the works of the early poets.  In the figure of Taliesin he finds ‘the three realms of medieval art: humanity, God and the living world – all of them a unity, ecstatically alive’.  He writes about the warnings from mythology, like the drowning tale of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

Maen Madoc

All this is suggestive, though the green and spiritual pantheism Bullough tries to conjure doesn’t always convince.  It’s possible to project almost anything on to an age, the early medieval period, about which we know so little for certain.  As Bullough admits, the ‘lives’ of the saints are really hagiographies concocted much later for all kinds of different purposes, and contain almost nothing of factual value.  All the same, you can hardly argue against the proposition that the ‘saints’ and their sixth-century contemporaries were a great deal more innocent than we are of promoting ecological destruction.

It’s no coincidence that the last couple of years have seen the publication of several books of what you might call ‘eco-pedestrianism’ (others are Julie Brominick’s The edge of Cymru and Matthew Yeoman’s Return to my trees).  Walking isn’t just an ideal way of observing environmental collapse at close quarters, in itself it’s an act of defiance, an assertion that, unlike most other forms of locomotion, human feet do the least damage to the natural world.  I love the way Bullough spits out with disgust the brand names of the SUVs and other motor vehicles that litter the countryside: BMW, Audi, Subaru Impreza, Suzuki Vitara, Izusu Trooper, Daihatsu Terrier, Toyota Starlet.  He also has a good line in humour: llamas in Cardiganshire ‘seem these days to be Wales’s third-favourite animal: the Liberal Democrats of the grazing world’.

Extinction Rebellion

Tom Bullough’s book has its omissions and misunderstandings.  Fair enough, he doesn’t aim to give a socio-economic or political picture of Wales, but he misses some of the brighter lights, the initiatives that acknowledge the climate challenge and aim at local action.  He passes through Blaenau Ffestiniog without noticing the rash of new firms and projects that are part of the town’s energetic, locally-focussed foundational economy.  He laments the absence of The Great Welsh Novel and attributes it to a lack of cultural confidence, which rather ignores a poetic tradition of stature and confidence.  At one point he seems to suggest that the Welsh language, about which he seems conflicted, is racially excluding, which these days is far from true.  And he manages to visit Llanelltyd Church without spotting the mysterious Cynwrig monument, with its stone image of a (pilgrim’s?) human foot – a perfect symbol, if you’re looking for it, of sustainable travel in the medieval period.

But Sarn Helen is good and necessary book.  It says interesting thinks about Wales, but it isn’t just about Wales.  Its environmental message is universal and urgent, and powerfully argued.  It also carries fine illustrations, by Jackie Morris, of fifteen species in Wales threatened with extinction – and one reckoned to be already extinct.  Each picture features interlocking circles, emblematic maybe of the essential interdependence of living things: something that, in our haste to destroy other species, we usually forget.

Comments (4)

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  1. Richard Saville says:

    Is Tom B a relative of the excellent Oliver B? If so, is there a competition between them?

  2. Carlos Campos says:

    Dear Sir, It may seem strange to you to receive this message. I joined this post to learn more about this topic since in the process of doing my genealogy I came to the unbelievable finding, after 20 years of research, of connecting my maternal line to Elen and thus to Magnus, etc. It seemed so far fetched that I doubted my findings for a long time or the quality of my sources. Not being satisfied, and with no contacts in Wales, my only option was to take a DNA test with and to my great surprise I do have 1% of Welsh ancestry and Elen is my oldest “documented” Welsh ancestor. Many questions come to my mind. Since you and Tom Bulough are the experts on this topic I would appreciate your comments about the credible references to the genealogy of these historical figures and if there are any genealogical sources that you know of in Wales that I can examine for this period or other related genealogies. I enjoyed reading your article. Looking forward to obtaining the book. Sncerely, Carlos

    • Andrew Green says:

      Hello Carlos. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the piece. I fear that Elen is a wholly mythological figure, as is Macsen Wledig, except that takes his name from the real Magnus Maximus.

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