Sophie Buchaillard Reviews Tom Bullough

Rev. Tom Bullough Sarn Helen: A Journey through Wales, Past, Future, and Present, illustrated by Jackie Morris (Granta), £16.99.

The cover of the book with the text: SARN HELEN A Journey through Wales, Past, Future, and Present, Tom Bullough, with illustrations by Jackie Morris in green and white type. A bird is pictured in close up flying over a mountainous landscape.

When I picked up a copy of Tom Bullough’s new book Sarn Helen it was with the enthusiasm of a reader accustomed to the precise writing of a novelist who, in Addlands and The Claude Glass had detailed the evolution of life in rural Wales through the generations, representing the complexity of farm folks with the attention of a pointillist painter, intent on correcting the othering that people from rural Wales have often suffered in literature. Bullough’s descriptions, by contrast, are deeply rooted in his love for the place and filled with details which denote a profound familiarity with his subject.

With Sarn Helen, I had anticipated a certain continuity, made further appealing by the promise of illustrations by Jackie Morris. I had become acquainted with her beautiful depictions of watercolour wildlife in earthy tones when reading The Song That Sings Us by Nicola Davies to my 11-year-old son. This epic story centred around the power of human and animal voices coming together and rising against sinister forces destroying nature is a family favourite.

In fact, Sarn Helen is Bullough’s first non-fiction. At first glance, it reads like a typical travel narrative, Bullough tracing the old Roman road that stretches south to north across Wales on foot, from Neath Abbey to Llandudno, across woods and farmlands, through the Brecon Beacons, along the west flank of the Cambrian mountains, passing Eryri (formerly Snowdonia) and to the sea. The excursion provides an opportunity to revisit historical anecdotes that harmonise with depictions of today’s landscape and convey a particular idea of Wales, reminiscent of Bullough’s earlier novels.

But of course, there is nothing simple about the pastoral picture he depicts. Bullough’s journey starts in July 2020, a liminal time in between two lockdowns, a space for reflection, amidst a global pandemic, and in the shadow of a Brexit felt most sharply by the rural communities he now traverses. A meditation on the reality of communities too often caricatured and embittered by the perspective outsiders reflect back at them. “As someone from the border parts of Wales, it is easy to get trapped in a story of division,” he writes, later remarking that rural Wales experienced more change in the last thirty years than in the 300 years before. 

At the start of the pandemic in 2020 I had read Riverwise, by Jack Smylie Wild. In his travel narrative, the author followed the river Teifi, and its tributaries, sharing reflections on the benefits of nature to the individual. Along the way, he made marginal reference to the changing nature of the river’s ecosystem, pointing at pollution from farming. Published only three years later, Sarn Helen bookends a period of great turmoil and accelerated change and reminded this reader that we have definitely stepped over some invisible threshold from which there is no return. In many ways, the world that Jack Smylie Wild had described in his book, one where we could simply observe the man-made effects of pollution like a footnote to an otherwise idyllic stroll, is no more. The connection between human activities and climate crisis are everywhere to contemplate, and so Bullough’s book becomes a reflection on what the future might look like for a country largely defined by its rural activities, and what results the tensions between the local and global might mean for us all.

Walking the old Roman road in sections, Bullough intersperses the narration with first-hand interviews with local climate scientists, environmentalists and government advisors. It is clear that he has applied his usual attention to details to his quest for understanding, articulating reflections on national identity with his own experience as a Welsh writer; weaving facts about droughts, floods, deforestation, river pollution and their impacts on communities, culminating in the realisation that towns like Fairbourne might be lost to the elements within our lifetime. All the experts he meets provide Bullough with evidenced details about the actions not taken, the future trials lying ahead, and the scale of change required to avert disaster. A scale unlike anything Wales has seen in its troubled past. “Look at the advice of the CCC [Climate Change Committee] in sum and that’s all but an end to the livestock industry, within a generation”, Dr Rudd, climate change educator from Swansea University, tells him. The UK Government, despite declaring a climate emergency, has already fallen behind its own targets. Another expert concludes that what is required is a revolution.

Moving away from the traditional travel log, Sarn Helen tracks the implications of climate change for Wales. We come to understand that such a change would for ever transform Bullough’s beloved landscape. Yet, change we must. That much is clear. And so, we find the author, no longer in the hills of Wales, but in a magistrate court in London, one of many peaceful protesters arrested for calling the rest of us to attention. “My name, under regular circumstances, is Tom. I am forty-five years old: a writer and a tutor in Creative Writing. I have two parents of retirement age. I have two children of primary-school age.” Tom Bullough is any one of us. And as I read the statement which he gave the court, tears are flowing down my cheeks. I think about my own child; about the kind of future which he is going to inherit; about the actions we have taken as a family and whether there is more that we should be doing; whether it will be enough. Sarn Helen is a book of our time which spoke to me because it provides a local, relatable, perspective on the climate crisis. Framed in the continuity of a Welsh history shaped by periods of challenge and reinvention, it urges the end of division and invites collective action, from us all.

Author Sophie Buchaillard is the former policy advisor for the collective Stop Climate Coalition Cymru and a contributor to An Open Door: New Travel Writing for A Precarious Century (Parthian, 2022). A long-term environment campaigner, she shares her experience of living a plastic-free lifestyle on Twitter @growriter #plasticfree . Her debut novel This Is Not Who We Are (Seren, 2022) focuses on the themes of identity and migration.