Elegy for a wonderful, dying land

Tom Bullough’s journey from south to north Wales, along a Roman road, brings him face to face with the climate crisis
January 25, 2023
Sarn Helen: A Journey Through Wales, Past, Present and Future
Tom Bullough (RRP: £16.99)
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Sarn Helen. It’s an evocative name for an evocative thing: a Roman road—or, more accurately, several lengths of road—bisecting Wales from south to north, running from Neath to the Conwy estuary, a distance of some 160 miles.

It’s also the name of this new work of nonfiction by Tom Bullough, who wrote the fine novel Addlands. At the height of the pandemic, when everything was locked down, he decided to walk Sarn Helen, in patches, tagging on a little extra in the north—and write about what he found. 

It helps, of course, that this is a land of stories. Of men turned into rampaging boars and chased by King Arthur. Of Roman, Spanish, Irish and, yes, English settlers. Of deindustrialisation and crisis.

But while Bullough tells these stories well, the joy of the book is in its attention to smaller things, from the flight patterns of birds to the gleaming Subaru Imprezas on housing estates. Here, the mythic and demotic keep close company, and both are given the same descriptive weight.  

As the walk progresses, there is a touch of elegy, too. So much is dying out, including, perhaps, Wales itself: “you could just blot it out with your thumb. It feels that small, that threatened.”

The threat, on his account, isn’t so much political or cultural but environmental. Most chapters conclude with what are practically transcripts, albeit educational and quite inspirational ones, of Bullough’s conversations with climate scientists and other experts on nature. Illustrations by Jackie Morris draw attention to some of Wales’s most endangered species.

So: pictures, stones, kings, crisp packets, Zoom calls. This is a collage of a book that would fall apart were it not well made, but—thankfully—Bullough is a master craftsman. Croeso i Gymru.