The primary time I went in search of Sarn Elen, I couldn’t discover it. The best way wasn’t marked, and there have been a number of doable paths. The Ordnance Survey OL map ought to have offered a clue; I might nearly see the phrases “Roman street” on a faintly outlined observe, however I’d left my glasses again on the B&B, and the print was so tiny I couldn’t make out which course I wanted to show to seek out my method onto it.
Wales map
So as a substitute of going straight on from my place to begin, as I ought to have executed, I headed, with a wholly unwarranted sense of confidence, off to the appropriate. And located myself wandering up and down a seemingly countless community of abandoned tracks within the stunning Gwydir Forest, which neighbours the village of Betws-y-Coed within the Snowdonia nationwide park.
In the meantime, a mile or two to the north, previous Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) himself regarded down at me and laughed. As a result of there was no small irony in the truth that I used to be dropping my method whereas in search of a street which Welsh legend tells us was constructed by a girl recognized, in some circles, as Elen of the Methods.
Sarn Elen (generally part-Anglicised to Sarn Helen) is an previous Roman street which runs for 160 miles north to south by Wales. It begins at Caerhun close to Conwy, then crosses excessive moors and wooded valleys by the counties of Gwynedd, Powys and Ceredigion, to Carmarthen.

The footpath to the hamlet of Rhiwddolion follows Sarn Elen. {Photograph}: Ron Evans/Alamy
There’s appreciable debate about its exact route, as a result of actions akin to mining and forestry have modified the panorama a lot over the centuries and lengthy stretches have develop into unidentifiable. Sections of the street have been overlaid by the trendy street community, however fragments – just like the part I used to be looking for, which hyperlinks Betws-y-Coed to the now abandoned quarrying village of Rhiwddolion – can nonetheless be seen in one thing fairly near their authentic kind.
My unintentional exploration of the forest was magical, although, and I completely advocate excursions off the principle observe if in case you have the time. I walked accompanied by the softest of rain, wandering by fairytale winter woods thick with contorted logs coated in moss, and lichen-encrusted rocks cosy beneath thick blankets of shiny ivy. One significantly putting cluster of tree stumps in entrance of a giant, darkish crevice regarded for all of the world like a pair of shaggy-haired, horned monsters rising from a cave, arms outstretched, staggering in the direction of me. A tall, lifeless tree reached out to me a skinny arm with lengthy thorn-like fingers; it had a crooked nostril and tangled vines for hair, like some previous witch of the woods. I handed murky swimming pools and darkish ditches; and tiny streams tumbled down from the mountains, discovering probably the most unlikely paths, carving their method by historic channels in tree-root and rock.

The Miners’ bridge close to Betws-y-Coed. {Photograph}: Andrew Kearton/Alamy
It might need been stunning, however it wasn’t Sarn Elen. So I set off once more the subsequent morning, totally geared up with spectacles, lastly following the course the trail had, irritatingly, been pointing in all alongside.
Elen is an elusive character, current within the tangled, gnarly borderlands between fantasy and historical past. Typically she’s recognized with Saint Elen of Caernarfon, however we discover her most memorably within the The Dream of Macsen Wledig, a narrative contained throughout the assortment of medieval Welsh tales now often known as The Mabinogion, a lot of the contents of which emerged from historic oral tales. On this explicit story, Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), who was emperor within the western part of the Roman Empire from 383-388 AD, goals one night time of a good looking, unforgettable lady in a faraway land. Upon awakening, he sends his males all around the world in quest of her. They finally discover her in a grand fort in Britain, and lead Macsen there, the place all the things is strictly because it was in his dream. The girl, whose identify is Elen, agrees to marry him; as her “maiden price”, she asks him to construct three nice forts for her, the biggest of them at Caernarfon. “After that,” the story continues, “Elen determined to construct nice roads from one fort to the opposite throughout the island of Britain.”

A Gwydir Forest path passing moss and lichen-covered rocks and timber. {Photograph}: RA Kearton/Getty Pictures
And so, the legends say, it was Elen who precipitated the “Roman” roads to be constructed. The concept of a girl – a princess of previous Wales – constructing this outstanding street was, for me, as a lot of a draw because the spectacular surroundings it traverses.
I started my stroll on the Pont-y-Pair bridge (Bridge of the Cauldron) in Betws-y-Coed, heading upstream alongside the trail on the right-hand aspect of the River Llugwy for simply over a mile, then crossing the slender, picket and steeply angled Miners’ bridge. Throughout the A5, by a gate and on to the slender street in entrance of the cottages. There, the place the tarmacked street peters out right into a observe, I lastly set foot on Sarn Elen.

A room on the Landmark Belief’s Ty Capel, Rhiwddolion.

The traditional floor was cobbled and uneven; I stepped fastidiously, acutely aware, as with all pilgrim paths, that I used to be simply one of many numerous guests to have trodden this observe down the centuries. The best way climbed steeply by the forest, which was as soon as full of nice oaks.
Now, after centuries of felling and managed forestry, it incorporates largely conifers, however lately there’s been a resurgence within the planting of native broadleaf species. Principally, the expansion is sort of open, so infrequently there have been spectacular views over the valleys and as much as the mountains of the Glyderau, the Carneddau and Yr Wyddfa.
I navigated a footbridge, crossed a forest street or two, handed an remoted farmhouse and got here into the guts of the previous village. Rhiwddolion was as soon as a quarrying group of 150 inhabitants, with its personal faculty and chapel, lodging for quarrymen, and some small farms. When the quarrying trade collapsed within the early 20th century, it was deserted – although two cottages (Ty Uchaf and Ty Coch), and the previous chapel and lecture room (Ty Capel) have been renovated and at the moment are vacation lets, managed by the Landmark Belief.

Llyn Elsi within the Gwydir Forest. {Photograph}: Simon Stapley/Alamy
I explored the destroy of the schoolmaster’s home, the stays of cramped terraced cottages, and the previous chapel/faculty, earlier than finally discovering the observe as much as Llyn Elsi, a reservoir that gives water for Betws-y-Coed. There’s a path round it, and a number of other totally different tracks could be taken again all the way down to the village, although you actually need to have an excellent map – and a pair of spectacles – if you happen to don’t wish to be wandering the byways of this enchanted forest without end. However I wished to retrace my steps, strolling again slowly, following for some time once more the legendary street that Elen made.
Again in Betws-y-Coed it was starting to get darkish, and I used to be within the temper for a comfy pub. I headed into the Pont-y-Pair Inn, a dog-friendly institution with ales, together with Purple Moose brewery’s Snowdonia and Welsh Delight, and an unpretentious meals menu. I ate fish and chips, and raised a chilly glass to the reminiscence of Elen of the Methods.
• Sharon Blackie’s assortment of quick tales, Foxfire, Wolfskin and different Tales of Shapeshifting Ladies, is out now (£14.99, September Publishing); to order a duplicate for £13.19 go to the Guardian Bookshop
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