As I described in the previous post, Elyn’s dream-visit from Elen of the Ways propelled us into Wales to put our feet on Sarn Helen. What is Sarn Helen? It is a network of ancient Roman roads that connect north Wales to the south. The Romans probably built them to transport gold and silver from the mines to the south coast, from where goods could be shipped to Rome. The reconstructed, poorly signposted hiking trail from north to south is 160 miles and rugged—too much for us! But Elen “told” Elyn it would be good enough to “put our feet” on Sarn Helen. We didn’t have to walk it all.
Following Sarn Helen is not an easy task. Some parts of it coincide with modern highways and other parts are now forest trails and bike paths, but much of it is lost and no one knows where it went. Nevertheless, our trusty guide Ros Briaga had researched what is known, and she had chosen several stretches for us to explore.
We rented a car in Carmarthen and I signed up Ros as the second driver. Ros actually did all the driving, just as we had planned. Part of my saying YES to age 80 is recognizing my limitations, and driving on rural roads in Wales is probably one of them. I must adapt to my changing abilities, and I’m finding ways to accomplish that.
Our first stop was the Roman amphitheater on the edge of Carmarthen, which may be the end of one of the Sarn Helen routes. Elyn got a powerful “shivery” feeling at this site, so we knew that we were on the right track.
Then Ros drove us to Henrhyd Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in south Wales. We felt the need for the purification of water at the start of our journey, and these powerful falls were just right. We hiked down and up and back down and up the muddy trail to the impressive waterfall We breathed the mist drifting off the falls; Ros sang to the spirits; and we left feeling cleansed and blessed.
On the way to the falls, Elyn had noted a road sign to Coelbryn, which is reputed to be the birthplace of St. Patrick. Driving back we missed the turnoff, but Elyn insisted we turn around and go into the village. A sign pointed to Café Sarn Helen. That was enough to merit a stop. We drove into town but searched in vain for the Café. At the end of the road, however, we came upon an installation of two amazing mosaics on the ground, showing a map of Sarn Helen. Between these mosaics, a trail led uphill and was designated as Sarn Helen! We had found the road! We walked a few hundred yards up the asphalted path; we had, indeed, put our feet on Sarn Helen.
In many ways, the experience I just related is typical of how our days in Wales went. We would search for evidence of Sarn Helen—only to find that we were driving on it, albeit under the pavement somewhere. Or we would be led to a pasture in the country where the only evidence of Sarn Helen was the slight indentation that crossed the field.
After three days of searching for Sarn Helen in south Wales, Ros drove us to Caernarvon on the north coast so we would be somewhere near the start of the road. To our surprise, (though by now, why were we surprised?) we discovered a street named Road St Helen, which is a Christianized name of Elen of the Ways. At the top of a hill on the outskirts of Caernarvon we visited the Roman fort that served as the starting point for the road. A sign at the site gave an abbreviated version of the love story in the Mabinogi between the Roman emperor and a Welsh princess—she who became known as Saint Elen of Caernarvon. This is the woman who is said to be responsible for the building of Sarn Helen—and she is another version of Elen of the Ways.
Although Sarn Helen was elusive, Elen of the Ways frequently made her presence felt. We felt her guiding us in subtle ways and, occasionally, she made her presence felt directly. For example, later in the trip when we were in Edinburgh airport waiting to fly to the Orkney Islands, Elyn picked up a free magazine in the terminal. Returning to where I was sitting, she showed me her magazine, which had an artist’s rendition of the antlered Elen of the Ways on the cover. And later, when we visited St Fagans National Museum of History outside of Cardiff, Wales, Elen showed up again, this time as the antlered tree goddess in the park.
This was the beginning of our “walkabout” in the UK. We were guided by dreams, intuitions, and subtle signs that pointed us to the Way. One of our teachers, Robert Moss, describes these signs as “sidewalk tarot.”
Stay tuned for further chapters of our adventure, which took us to Ireland, Scotland, the Orkney Islands, and back to Wales.