Sarn Helen

Sarn Helen by Tom Bullough

It must have been back in 2008 when I resolved to walk Sarn Helen: the Roman road that crosses the hill behind our house on its way from Neath, in the far south of Wales, to Caerhun, in the far north. Everything about it appealed. Here was an aspect of the history of Wales not determined by the Welsh-English conflict that can so dominate your thinking closer to the border. Here, without the forts, ports and mines that once gave Sarn Helen meaning, was an almost arbitrary line: a cross-section of this small, fragmented country, of obscure villages, mountains, farms and post-industrial towns.

It was hard to imagine, given my preoccupations, a much more promising journey.

The problem was that, in 2009, our son Edwyn put in his appearance and all ambition was redefined – principally, as getting any sleep at all.

If I could travel back to those times – the times of The Claude Glass and Konstantin – and ask myself why I was writing, what I was writing in service of, I wonder how I would reply. Certainly, as it seems to me now, I was responding to an instinct, as you might respond to sexuality; I was trying to resolve tensions in myself, particularly in regard to Wales; I was trying to explore, as I usually do, the relationship between people and the natural world. (Konstantin is a fable, more or less, about human efforts to ‘rise above’ nature.) And, of course, I was trying to make a bit of money, to keep that startled-looking baby in food.

All of these things pertain today, except that the baby is almost my height and has an even more vocal sister. And yet, had I walked Sarn Helen then, rather than in 2020-2021, and decided to write about that, the resultant book would have been something quite different to Sarn Helen as it is now.

What has changed, I think, is awareness – a question of degree. Age and experience come into it, no doubt, but the change I mean is a wider change, the (very slow) awakening of society at large to the single, central question: how do you make sense of yourself in the face of the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE)? After all, on our current course, we will leave to our children a world whose average temperature will have increased by 3°C or more: a world of conflict and starvation, mass displacement and mass extinction. What, then, is there left to discuss except how we change that course?

One night, in October 2019, my friend Gerwyn Davies and I found ourselves locked together in the junction of Marsham Street and Horseferry Road, not far from the Home Office in Central London. It was the third night of an Extinction Rebellion (XR) action: a third night of almost no sleep, lying on the bare groundsheet of a pop-up tent, freezing cold and working our way respectively through nicotine gum (me) and cigarettes (Gerwyn). The cigarettes we rolled with my left hand and his right, since the other two were clipped inside a length of steel pipe. Outside the tent, the police had adopted a very different approach to their approach of the day. A night shift had arrived at 9pm with the obvious purpose of clearing the junction of its hundred or so protestors as quickly as possible and by whatever means. They surrounded us with high-sided vans, to obscure any cameras or legal observers, and then they set to work.

Much worse things happen in the world, of course, but there is a reason why bright lights and sleep deprivation are often used as an element of torture. For seven hours boots struck us from each side, while officer after officer crouched above us, shouting abuse and holding torches to our eyes until we couldn’t tell the light from the noise from the pain. The torches were that high-powered sort; they made you feel like your mind was on fire. I was wearing a red Welsh rugby hat at the time, and it was instructive too how much anti-Welsh abuse was thrown at us as we lay there, silent – and surprising how, finally, the onslaught lapsed when we addressed the police in Welsh. Welsh is Gerwyn’s mother tongue. My own Welsh is an embarrassment, but still it was enough to see them fall back, audibly discussing what language this was and what they could do if we didn’t understand them.

‘Did you come here on an aeroplane?’ one officer asked, his shadowed face appearing above us, his arms held out like wings.

Near six o’clock, a specialist team arrived. They cut the tent away from us, covered our exposed skin with plastic shields and, with drills and angle grinders, divided us from one another. Then came handcuffs, Charing Cross Police Station, cells, paperwork and petty punishment – mostly, having to stand with your face to the wall.

That was Edwyn’s tenth birthday.

I recount all this to illustrate just how far my concerns had come over the course of the previous decade. As I detail in my 2021 defence statement (following a second arrest), there was evidence that this type of direct action had affected UK government policy and, to me, this made it a moral imperative. To remain beneath the ‘safe upper limit’ of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average – a global necessity on countless counts – required drastic and immediate changes from government, and, like so many others, I was willing to do anything that might make these changes come about.

A couple of days later, I gave a short talk for Writers Rebel in Trafalgar Square, urging other writers to leave their desks and take direct action because, as Jay Griffiths explains in This Is Not a Drill, ‘words (and this is a heavy heresy for a writer) are not enough’.

In truth, at the time, words seemed to me to be worth little if anything at all.

That defence statement, as I have come to understand, had a considerable effect on me. Certainly it affected Sarn Helen (not least by showing up, in part, towards the end). At the time, it simply summarised the state of things as they appeared; I expected only that it should be heard by whoever was present in court, and hoped only that its moral case should receive some official recognition. Standing in the dock of Courtroom 2, in the City of London Magistrates’ Court, put all this in a different light. It revealed, in the trial’s inevitable process, the scale of the challenge that change represents. And then there was the acute discomfort that suddenly it was all about me. The CEE is a collective problem, and XR is a collective response, a group in which everybody plays some part, whether they are planning transport, cooking food, stitching flags or risking arrest. It felt as unnatural to be singled out for punishment as it did to explain myself as an individual – as if my reasons for sitting in a street, or my history of respect for the law, could be of any consequence to anyone at all.

And yet, by and large, this is how stories work. There is an individual protagonist, and the techniques of writing allow a reader to care about them and their individual concerns. It might be preferable, given the CEE, for us to develop a new sort of narrative – ‘an account of collective agency’, as Martin Puchner writes in Literature for a Changing Planet. But for now we face an urgent, an existential threat, and we can only marshal every tool and skill we have to the cause of heading it off.

Whatever my original intention, I am hugely grateful to Writers Rebel for including my statement on their blog. By the time it was approaching 100,000 views, I had become clear on several points. For some time, of course, I had been forced to accept that our governments would not move at the necessary speed – that, in fact, there had never been a hope of meeting 1.5°C. Plainly, the only course was mitigation, trying to head off the worst of the scenarios – and, in this challenge, everything mattered: every fraction of a degree, every species spared extinction, every person who refused just to watch and put their backs to the cause. What was new, for me, was that writing on this subject did not necessarily alienate people – that an honest piece of writing could actually engage, which is to say, in a small way, help – which meant that words matter, after all.

I love to write, and most of all I love the way that (on those occasions when it works) it can happen almost weightlessly, as if by itself. There is a sense that you, the writer, are aligned with the world in a manner surpassing any conventional understanding. For me, it brings to mind convergent evolution: the way that a pair of unrelated species, such as Smilodon fatalis and Thylacosmilus atrox (respectively, once, an American saber-tooth cat and an Argentinian saber-tooth marsupial), could somehow arrive at a similar form. If there is no mightier hand at work, and there is no Platonic ideal of your book already somehow latent in the cosmos, then it feels at least as if the world comprises some sort of underlying pattern – and as if, for now, you and it have become one seamless thing.

Well, that’s how it is in that adrenalised condition. (There have been times when I have felt that I could walk across a motorway without any concern for my safety, I was that sure that a book must happen – which goes to show, if nothing else, that it is also a form of intoxication.) In fact, there are more tangible aspects. For one thing, this state of clarity never simply comes from nowhere; it follows an immense amount of thinking and research, and in my case, usually, a deep, despairing murk. For another, it always seems to come when you find yourself in possession of a shape.

Addlands came with its basic structure, which overlies the years and the seasons.

Sarn Helen, basically, came with the road.

It is hard to think back and be truthful about this. (I have, at all times, a swarm of possible books vying for primacy in the back of my head.) The fact that I was taking notes suggests that when, in July 2020, I finally set out to walk from Neath, I had some idea to write about Sarn Helen. But I am sure, all the same, that I had no plan to walk for more than a couple of days – the second with my friend Christopher Meredith – as far as Y Gaer, the Roman fort just to the west of Brecon. I am also sure that, right from the start, it felt like a lifetime’s worth of thoughts and experiences were beginning to fall into place.

Just on that first day, Sarn Helen brought communities struggling to recover from Covid-19 and from flooding caused by unprecedented rainfall – both, of course, symptoms of the CEE. It brought mountains reduced to a virtual wasteland, but it also brought relics of the Age of Saints – of the 5th and 6th centuries, the roots of Wales, when the natural world inspired a divine awe. To write about the CEE, really, you have to do little more than observe: the crisis is no less than everything we are. What that first day provided was the shape of the book, but also (as it seems to me) its basic music: the disjuncture between who we were and who we have become.

I read an article once, in which Jan Morris wonders how her life might have been had she remained in Wales – had she kept her attention on the things around her, not on the full expanse of the world. It was a reflection that returned to me often as I was working on Sarn Helen: it is, after all, a travel book. In the end, of course, Jan Morris was not that writer – for all that she wrote of Wales as well. In the end I am, if I like it or not. Wales alone has the hold on me that, now and then, blesses my work with life.

So, yes, Sarn Helen is a book about Wales, but I hope that it is more than that. I hope that it will matter to people without an existing interest in this country. The reason, I think, that my defence statement worked – not legally, sadly, but as a piece of writing – was that it casts the impacts of the CEE onto the future lives of my children. By and large, people care about children, and there you have your emotional purchase: the threats they face become a reality in a way, it seems, that they fail to become with the facts and figures of the IPCC. By and large, too, people care about a place: their state, their city, their country, their island. The point, then, is not that they care about my place, any more than they care about my specific children. The point is that, if the writing is honest and loving, then perhaps it will bring them to reflect on the future of their own place too.


“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”
Peter Hoskin, Prospect Magazine

“A profound and beautiful portrait of Wales. With great charm and learning, Tom Bullough walks us through the country’s leafy backways, its deep pasts, the sparkling shards of its identity, its vanishing rural traditions and its fragile ecology”
Philip Marsden

“Bullough has produced an urgent logical and lyrical call for climate action, using his deep knowledge of Wales, past and present, as a catalyst. This is a stunning book”
Gwyneth Lewis

“Sarn Helen is a beautifully downbeat travelogue that’s full of love, rage and humour. A brilliant, pivotal book by one of the most engaged and engaging writers around, it will change you”
Toby Litt

“A wondrous and arresting journey teeming with wisdom, insights and humanity. Walking through Wales with Bullough is to see the nation – and the UK – with new eyes”
Ben Rawlence

“Vital, and urgent with concern. You cannot leave this book without its message thundering in your head”
Cynan Jones

“Sarn Helen is a thrilling journey through Wales and through time… This is the finest kind of travel writing: a book that makes you see what is really there, and fills you with the author’s passion to defend it”
Horatio Clare

“An impassioned book that rings with beauty, grief and urgency. As he journeys through Wales’ past, present and future, Bullough sounds a clarion call for us all to play our part in averting global catastrophe”
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

“A rapturous lamentation, and a winding tale with an unswerving message. One of the best books I’ve read on the climate emergency”
Chloe Aridjis

“A deeply engaging, and deeply engaged, travelogue by one of our finest and (old-fashioned word that I can find no modish synonym for) noblest writers”
Gregory Norminton

“Sarn Helen is accomplished and stunning in every one of its many personalities: as history, as memoir, as eco-parable, as impassioned call to arms”
Niall Griffiths

“Part love-letter, part lament, part call-to-action, Sarn Helen is one man’s passionate attempt – in prose that’s at once lyrical and forensic – to put into words what’s at stake for us all in our present moment”
Carys Davies

“All time is now: in walking the length of Sarn Helen, Wales’ great north-south Roman highway, Tom Bullough meets centurions, saints and climate scientists alike, and has them all help him weave an urgent and powerful narrative of past, present and future. Though often deeply sobering, it is also a joyous voyage of discovery, of Wales itself, of Tom’s place within it, and the nuggets buried deep in its bedrock that might just help point us towards some hope”
Mike Parker