One sunny day in Gwynedd, a young house painter, sprucing up the front of a cottage, asked us whether we’d ever visited the Roman Steps. He described this area as having vast views dotted with wildflowers, sheep, and possibly wild goats. It sounded like a fiercely romantic place known only to stargazing shepherds.
Ever willing to answer the call of the (nearby) wild, I decided my husband and I should visit this place where -- at least in my mind -- we might find the descendants of Roman troops gazing over endless hills fragrant with flower while roasting goat on a spit.
At Llanbedr, off of the A496, the road to the Roman Steps began east of the Queen Victoria inn. This road was narrow, but well paved. A fast talking brook, the Artro, flowed on one side and tall greens grew on the other. Farther along, old stone walls narrowed the road leaving room for barely a breath between rearview mirrors and the steep hire car deductible.
This road divided, and each of its two separate branches reduced to half the width of the mother branch. Either lane, which seemed just wide enough for two legionaries marching abreast, led to the Roman Steps. We chose the left, since our map indicated paved road that way. Similar to other country roads in Wales, there was no shoulder. So, if you met a car coming opposite, one of you needed to back up into the entrance of the nearest available farmer’s track or into a lay by. When we met our first contender, the gentleman neatly inserted his car into a track, and we passed waving thanks. We were emboldened thinking this must have been our only challenge for the day. How many cars can possibly come to an area so remote? Besides, there were plenty of little paths to tuck into should another vehicle appear. We celebrated the end of our worries by watching a herd of sheep in a valley below tumble like sea foam across a little humped stone bridge into their weary pen. From this vantage we saw across miles of gorse-embroidered sunny fields, through which wove a labyrinth of low stone walls and lanes as thin as thread. The clock was forgotten, and the air was blessedly quiet except for the Parliamentarian mocking of the sheep and lambs. The previous day’s rain had battered the insects into silence. Somehow the orderly emptiness of the scene, even in the broad sunshine, gave the view an air of melancholy.
About a mile farther, our chunky brown farmland lane abruptly ended. Suddenly, all was green. Small boulders lay strewn about blanketed in lichen. Some stones had a discernable backbone of feathery moss or ferns, making them look like curled and slumbering baby stegosauri. Many of these boulders were caught beneath the talon-like roots of trees. The boughs of these trees laced tightly together overhead, like entrapping fingers. The air was refreshingly cool. Once our Jaguar’s engine was turned off, there was not a sound. In this lonely lushness it was easy to imagine we had been transported back to primordial times.
Abruptly, this fairyland’s ribbon of road ended at a gate, and a rough and dry trail uncoiled. The sky was colorless; the landscape hissed with scrub and small stones. Although we thought we might turn back, there was no place to turn around. It was as if we’d driven into a minnow trap.
I won’t go into the details of how many times (three) we had to back down sections of twisting, crumbling, pack horse trail into Lilliputtan lay bys to allow other cars to pass. In sparsely populated rural North Wales, where all these people came from and why they showed total unfamiliarity with the necessary skill of reversing their own vehicles is a mystery. Had two of these unfortunates met head to head, they might well be there to this day and ever after! Travelers heed this priceless tip: if you’re coming to explore deepest North Wales, be well versed in the art of reversing your wheels on thin strips of trail strewn with loose stones, and lined on either side with deep, rough furrows.
Finally, nearing sunset, we reached the official Roman Steps parking lot. Yes, at the end of a packhorse trail there was a lot big enough for at least 20 cars and an honor box. But where were the Steps? High on a hill I could see an orderly formation of rocks. Could these be the steps? Or were these the manmade boundaries between the kingdoms of the domesticated sheep and the wild goats? The wind blew gently, just enough to flutter a Roman standard. There ¾ in the distance. Was I seeing things? I found myself reviewing phrases from the Roman Mass in the back of my mind just in case I needed to have a word with one of the centurions, whom I felt certain had materialized. Before I needed to render any Latin, the fleeting mirage disappeared.
Anyone who has visited North Wales can, at the very least, admit to a feeling of enchantment hovering just beyond the reach of her senses. I remain convinced that here, if anywhere on planet earth, time can wrinkle and the past ebb and flow onto or off of the landscape of the present. And flow it did on this day. Who is to say that the seventh day of creation didn’t renew itself in the endless, ripe fields we saw? Who knows what time it was, or even what era, in that green elemental fairyland through which we passed? Finally, didn’t we sense the presence of the ancient Romans, who at least left their name, if not really their Steps, in this place?
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