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Sarn Helen: an appreciation

06 Jul 2024 5 minute read


Sarn Helen is published by Granta Books

Jon Gower

Every so often a book comes along that seems so of its time that it pretty much defines that time. Sarn Helen, the winner of the English language Wales Book of the Year award for 2024 is one such volume. It’s an utterly important book and an engaging hybrid of travelogue and straightforward interviews with a range of climate scientists, who help Tom Bullough understand and gauge the danger we have made for ourselves. So in a year when the WBOY shortlists featured many brilliant books, this one stood out because of the sheer urgency of its utterance.


It’s a book that’s already been very positively reviewed on Nation.Cymru, where Lottie Williams found it ‘beautiful and terrifying,’  while elsewhere the plaudits and praise have flowed as a pretty endless stream. Kathryn Hughes, reading it for the Guardian suggested that Bullough ‘understands more than most the patchworked nature of Wales. How, for instance, the English language is all that has been heard in his native Radnorshire (now part of Powys) for the past 300 years, yet scoot six or seven miles over the county line into Cardiganshire and it’s mostly Welsh. And how, when you are on the west side of the Cambrian Mountains, the idea of Welsh independence seems entirely logical, while in the rich hedged meadows around Hay-on-Wye it may be regarded as eccentric posturing.’

I first read Sarn Helen: A Journey Through Wales, Past, Present and Future after hearing Tom Bullough speak at an event in Waterstones in Cardiff. I’ve know Tom for a good many years, and would have probably described him as being quiet, earnest, always thoughtful when he said pretty much anything. A man who cares for words, chooses them wisely and well.

Crafted prose

That same care and attention went into the writing, so that in his marvellous novel Addland, the subtle changes in the Radnorshire countrymside over four decades were noted in a crafted, skilful prose that might have been assembled by a Swiss precision engineer, one working with one of those special timepiece maker’s monocles they use, or a jeweller’s loupe.

But the man in front of us that night was on fire, ablaze with passionate concern for the burning world that is our planet, written by a writer had by then fully transmuted into a campaigner, promoting the messages of Extinction Rebellion in his book just as he had done in court after he had been arrested during one of their London protests on Parliament Square. The speech he made to explain his actions is searingly power and came directly from the heart and is one of the most, well, dimantling passages in the book.

So if you don’t believe in climate change, or, more accurately the climate emergency, this is most certainly not the book for you. But then again you probably live in a cave of ignorance and books of any kind don’t much feature in your days.

But if you have one shred, one single, miniscule shred of concern about the incendiary mess we’ve made of our custodial duties on a planet that is palpably cooking up, then read it, please, I implore you. Or you also read it simply because it’s a superb read. Finding the universal in the particular, taking you with him to hawthorn strewn ffridd, or climbing up hillsides to gain a clear view.

Urgent action

One of Bullough’s great skills is not being the sort of doomsayer whose words only serve to get you down. He is an advocate of urgent action and reform but not so much so that he can’t show and share the beauty of the spinning orb on which we live.


He does this by going for a walk, starting not far from his home in Llanspyddid and then following the eponymous Roman Road of Sarn Helen as it cuts through the Welsh countryside. As the title suggests it’s a tripartite approach, looking back to the age of saints and pondering the extractive nature of Sarn Helen since the Romans built it and looking to a future where there are no house martins. When biodiversity has narrowed down to next to nothing.


Bullough is an attentive traveller, able to register the nuances of landscape as well as tell us the day-to-day stuff – where he gets food, how he finds shelter. That attention is almost rapt at times. It’s the same sort of attention-paying one associates with the American writer, Barry Lopez, who suggested, in the essay collection Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World that ‘We must reckon with the Sixth extinction, which will remove, for example, many of our pollinators and one day, probably, many of us. We must invent overnight, figuratively speaking, another kind of civilization, one more cognizant of limits, less greedy, more compassionate, less bigoted, more inclusive, less exploitative.’

Sarn Helen is both an alarm call and clarion call at one and the same time. It is also beautiful and frightening and lucid and true. A deserving winner if ever there was.

Sarn Helen: A Journey Through Wales, Past, Present and Future by Tom Bullough is published by Granta Books and is available from all good bookshops.

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6 days ago

Hear hear hear. So very very very glad to see this appreciation – I was worried to see Tom’s win disappear in all the election news. Well done Jon and especially Tom.

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