I was in north Wales earlier in the month for a really enjoyable long weekend. We got out in the mountains and did several walks, some familiar and one new.
As my ‘horde’ of fans will know, much of what I write is set in our Celtic past. Often this is in north Wales – an area I know well. I’ve never really thought about how my characters get about, but this month’s break set me thinking about the problems of moving from place to place.
I suppose I’ve always taken travel for granted in my historical fiction, largely because I’m so used to jumping in a car or walking prepared paths. I also come from the south of England, where the ground is often well drained, and travel on gentle hills straightforward. It’s never been an issue I’ve had to think about.
This time, we did the stunning Roman road between Capel Curig and Llyn Ogwyn. The picture on the left doesn’t really do it justice because it doesn’t show the mountains rising on both sides.
(As an aside, the archaeologist hiding inside me was chuffed to spot the physical features that marked the path as a Roman road - and not just its straightness – before I found out it was Roman.)
Sadly, though, it wasn’t a straightforward walk. Although the path usually avoided marshes and crags, in places the route was barely passable – as you can see in the picture to the left.
That set me thinking about how difficult travel must have been in north Wales, especially where there aren’t good paths. The ground is peat that keeps moisture and forms treacherous bogs. It would have been very difficult for much of the year. Travel above the valley floors isn’t a viable alternative because the mountains are rugged and difficult. Strangers would need either luck or guides to get them along a valley. Movement at night would be almost impossible.
I also appreciated how easy it must have been to set ambushes, and how terrifying it must have been to be ambushed. With off-road travel not an option for an attacking army, the locals must have been at an enormous advantage. Movement on foot would have been difficult enough, but an army bringing wagons and provisions - like the medieval English did - would have been very exposed. Anyone escaping an ambush would have been easy pickings as they struggled through the bogs and crags.
My characters will certainly be more careful in getting around the country in future!