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Sarn Helen – A Road Less Travelled

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Sarn Helen is the name of a road in Wales.  Legend has it that it was named after a Celtic Saint, Elen, whose story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, part of the Mabinogion.   Mmmm! We don’t really know.   The route is as mysterious as its mythical history and, according to wiki, there is much academic dispute about where the road actually went, sections of it being lost.  However, just for the sheer romance of the whole thing,  it was time Sarn Helen had a book, and here it is.  Sort of.

Review: Sarn Helen; A Journey Through Wales, Past Present and Future

Author: Tom Bullough

#9 of 10 Books of Summer

The road of the title runs across Wales from Neath, Near Swansea to Llandudno in North Wales.  Half of Bullough’s book is a delightful tale of people and places met along the way, shortly after the first lockdown in 2020 –  this half is the book that I thought I was buying.

The other half of the book – which I didn’t know I was buying – is a series of didactic essays about ecology and climate change.   These are of course entirely valid, stand alone essays and interviews on matters related to climate change and species extinction are hugely relevant.

I’m not being a denier here.  I too have sat in Parliament Square and waved banners.  But these essays – irritatingly printed in italics as if insisting on their greater importance than the rest of the text –  felt in this particular volume to be added on to the main theme of the book.

Some sections of the work with names like Y Gaer to Llandovery; Cedris farm to Dolgellau and Coed Penbryn to Machynlleth are replete with lyrical writing:

“In Coed Penbryn, above the Melindwr Valley…an acorn lands with a thwack.  Between  my long, deep washes of sleep, a tawny owl gives his hollow cry; some small creature scrabbles through the bracken; the sky, by increments, reveals itself: a silver river through the black of the trees.”

Then suddenly it feels like we hit a brick wall of horror in the shape of climate disaster.  Yes, I know the doom is there waiting, but still, there are ways and ways.

The last chapter is randomly titled ‘City of London Magistrates Court, April 2021’.  Or at least it seems random when you get to it.  In fact, it is the whole point of the book.  It is poor Sarn Helen that is the add-on, not the City of London Mags.

In 2020 Bullough took part in an XR protest in Parliament Square.  He was arrested after he waved a banner supporting the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, tabled in the House of Commons by the Green MP, Caroline Lucas and failed to move on when asked to by a police officer.

I’ve taken part in XR sit-ins.     If you do not move on when asked, you know you will be arrested. Basically people did this not because they fancied a night in a cell, but because getting a day in Court was one of the few ways of being heard as a climate protestor.  Although I write as if this is the current situation,  it is not.  It was the situation back then, all those eons ago in 2020 when we Brits still inhabited a democracy in which peaceful protest was considered a fundamental right.  Now, since the passing of the Public Order Act 2023 in the UK,  the police have huge and sweeping powers to arrest peaceful protestors.

When in Court, Bullough explains to the Magistrates that the increase in global heating will, when his children are in their forties, their sixties, their eighties  – be variations on an eye-watering theme of 5 degree rises.   By this time the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet will almost certainly have melted.  No-one really knows what a 5 degree world will look like.  We have seen the wildfires, floods and other catastrophes that are happening now, when  as far as we are aware in 2023, global heating is still below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

I might add that Bullough was lucky that he had his day in Court when he did.  Now he would not be allowed to give that evidence. Following the Public Order Act 2023 environmental issues cannot be used as a defence.

Yes, you read that right.

This savage, stupid and cowardly piece of legislation, seeks to stop people legitimately protesting about our burning world, even though they cause no damage and harm no-one.

The brunt of the issue as Bullough explained to the Mags is that, as a writer, he has written reams on this subject.  He has given talks and speeches, written to MPs, this MP or another one.  Absolutely nothing happens.  The legitimate route gets you nowhere. There has also been a carefully orchestrated smear campaign against XR.  The message is clear.  If you want to save the planet, that makes you a criminal.

Sat at the back of a courtroom listening to a case against airport expansion,  I too have heard damning evidence given by estimable organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace on matters of ecology and global heating. I have watched it all pass over a judge’s head as if the issues concerned arrangements of table places at a teddy bear’s picnic.

I will not take part in any more protests because it is very easy to burn out.  Bullough probably will not either because he has young children and will not want to risk a prison sentence.  It is so easy to silence people, especially during a cost of living crisis.

Anyone who has persevered this far will no doubt accuse me of digressing wildly from the point of the book.  Rather like the author.   I do admire Tom Bullough for his persistence in getting his message out.  I understand entirely how he feels. But also,  I thought that a book about Sarn Helen should just do what it says on the tin.  I felt a bit short changed tbh.

2 responses to “Sarn Helen – A Road Less Travelled”

    • Yes although re-reading the book description there is nothing that is inaccurate – it mentions urgent conversations with climate scientists. Just doesn’t say quite how much of it is given over to that.


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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