By topic: 160
Unknown source, undated
In book: 42, 43a
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The Roman steps, Ardudwy, Wales (E. Vale)



The great legacy of monuments left to us by ancient Rome not infrequently serve utilitarian purposes even to this very day. Here and there we still bathe in Roman baths and drink from the rock-hewn basins that receive chalybeate waters and drive many a hundred miles on a modernised surface over roads made by the Southern conquerors. But of all the wonderful things still remaining to us from the fifth century perhaps the most curious is the Roman Steps in the mountains of Ardudwy. Familiar as we are, in our present state of enlightenment, with things done on an enormous scale, the idea of a staircase some four or five miles long mounting up an otherwise impassable gorge in the fastnesses of a precipitous range of hills, and descending to the plain on the other side, somewhat tickles the fancy.

I do not presume to discuss the history of the Roman Steps except to hint that they may have connected the Roman colony of Heriri Mons with that mysterious land that now lies under the sea called generally the Hundred of Gwaelod. My humbler purpose is merely to treat of the Roman Steps as they are to-day.

The present wonder of the Roman Steps is not so much their archaic origin as their artistic aspect. No doubt when this great stairway over the hills was first made it was not an object of beauty; more than likely the æsthetic souls of the time complained that it vulgarised the hills. But now that it has weathered a millennium and a half and been worn day in, day out by the passing to and fro of men and horses, of flocks and herds, the old arrow-straight direction is much modified and the Roman path often forsaken for the winding, roundabout way of the Middle Ages. The result is that to-day the Roman Steps wear the appearance of the work of the Japanese landscape gardener rather than that of the Roman engineer. For the thing that is at once noticeable in a Japanese garden is the stress laid on the artistic significance of flat stones placed in a certain way among growing plants and the power of simplicity that is developed in paved and winding ways, in stone steps and stone bridges. It is this feature, enhanced by the allurements of ancient tradition, that make the Roman Steps a unique place of pilgrimage, even for the casual sight-seer.

The visitor should leave the train at Llanbedr station, which is situate between Harlech and Barmouth on the Cambrian system and in the county of Merioneth. He will drive some six miles up country and then find himself in the valley of Cwm Bychan. This is a great cup-shaped hollow in the hills. A long lake and green pastures lie at the bottom and thence the rocks spring steeply up from thickets of oak and birch. The rock is of a warm grey colour, and so formed geologically as to appear a series of enormous bastions and breastworks whose precipitous sweeps, cleft and turreted, are terraced by horizontal ledges and parapets. Here, as the eye rests on tier after tier lifting around, it perceives no undue wilderness in the rugged contours before it, but a hanging garden of heather and bilberry and aspiring mountain ash, with somewhat of a gap to the south wherethrough appears the cairn-topped bulk of Rhinog Fawr, the principal tower of this great natural fortress.

In this arena-valley there is one farm only. Like a patriarchal settlement, it has its boundaries geographically defined. Standing outside his front door the farmer’s eye, by travelling over the hillcrests all around him, surveys the outline of his two thousand acres. Here in a patriarchal way his family dispenses hospitality to wayfarers who have toiled up from the lowlands to visit the Roman Steps. Certainly there is a fixed but moderate rate of pay for entertainment, but it is entertainment of the old school, and not of the modern beauty-spot hospice that caters for English visitors. It is the hospitality of the mountains that succours the night-foundered traveller if need be, and treats all comers on the footing of friendship rather than gain.

From this farm the path takes its course, and, winding upwards by the ruins of an ancient habitation, passes steeply up through a thick wood of oak and ash and birch where, in the gloom and stillness, a waterfall is heard to hiss and the torrent to rumble somewhere near at hand. Here, our mind receiving the solemn seal befitting the contemplation of the relics of a bygone age, we suddenly leave all luxuriant vegitation behind and pass out into the sunlight on to a small moorland plateau and tread the pavement of the old Roman way. Here and there little flights of steps lead us gradually upwards. Now on a little causeway we cross a tiny quaking bog, and now on a flat stone bridge we pass dryshod over the fury of a mountain brook. But presently the real business of the stairs begins. And now the scene takes on an aspect more fantastic than anything imagined by Gustav Doré, that fertile conceiver of cragland imagery, and as the way winds about, round every turn there is a fresh surprise. So many scenic beauties are focussed, as it were, into parcels for the mind’s delight, and each comprehensive in its own setting, that it is perpetually difficult to get away from the idea of Japanese landscape gardener. Every feature of Nature seems to be used to the best advantage on a small scale. The cascade softly falling from the moss-lipped ledge; the torrent, with its virile brawl, foaming from the thunder-riven rock and disappearing like magic beneath our feet; the harmonious accompaniment of the little blue scabious, the foxglove with its merry red pagoda, the bilberry, the bracken, the heather, with the soft greys and russets of the Roman Steps, is of the stuff that children’s dreams are made of; it cannot be described. But soon comes another transformation. The gorge itself appears, and we mount up through a narrow defile where, save for hoary lichen, the rocks and crevices are bald and barren, the sun hides his face from us, and the spirit of fear broods over the Roman Steps.

And then another transformation. We emerge from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and, with our feet treading a level balcony on the naked face of the rock, we suddenly confront a line of blue hills and far below, lying between us and them—the great green rolling plain of Trawsfynedd, as quiet and pastoral as what we have left behind was rugged and fantastic.
Edmund Vale.