It might surprise some people to learn that one of my favourite areas of the West Country is the Somerset Levels – that flat, wet landscape between the Mendip, Blackdown and Quantock Hills which people tend to ignore on their way to somewhere else.
Come to think of it, that’s probably one of the reasons I like it so much, but there’s more to it than that. Metaphorically speaking, the more you dig under its surface, the more you’re likely to discover – not just about the life and history of the Somerset Levels – but more about yourself as well. It’s a land that time has largely passed by and the perfect antidote to today’s modern stressful living: It’s also a land that is full of character and characters, myths & legends and somewhere that is completely at one with nature.
So how have the Somerset Levels and Moors (to give it the proper name) developed into the place it has: The answer is water – or rather, the control of it.
The general height of the land is just 3-4 metres (10-12 ft) above mean sea level, which when you consider that tides in Bridgwater Bay have peaked at over 25 ft, you can imagine what sort of problems can be created if they’re not managed properly.
After the last ice age this landscape was covered by the sea most of the time and punctuated by the odd island here and there: Glastonbury Tor is the most famous, but there are others such as Burrow Mump and Brent Knoll: In the drier months when the water subsided, the fertile grasslands were accessed from these islands on wooden tracks by people to an area the Saxons referred to as Sumorsaete, or “Land of the Summer People”.
Located in the mouth of the Firth of Forth, about 5 miles and a 45-minute boat ride from Anstruther, is the uninhabited Isle of May. I say uninhabited, but that’s not strictly true because it’s home to a fantastic collection of seabirds.
If you think that this is yet another lovely peaceful Scottish island, you’d be wrong because the first thing that will hit you when you arrive on this 1½ mile long island is the deafening noise made by around 200,000 birds.
Admittedly, it was breeding season when we came, and apart from bringing some ear plugs, I would also recommend wearing a hat, preferably a white one.
A half-hour train journey from Waverley along the East Lothian coast will bring you to the smashing little seaside town of North Berwick.
The first time I came here I immediately fell in love with it. Little did I know at the time that it was one of the most expensive seaside towns to live in Scotland.
It doesn’t have an outward appearance of wealth or anything like that, in fact it’s quite an unassuming sort of place in many ways.
It doesn’t have much in the way of seaside attractions in the conventional sense, but more in the way of natural attractions. A conical volcanic hill known as North Berwick Law overlooks the town, its beaches and small harbour, but its location overlooking a handful of small islands in the Firth of Forth is what makes it a bit special.
I can still remember seeing the joy on Ken Livingstone’s face when London won the selection to host the 2012 Olympic Games, so why wasn’t I jumping up and down for joy with him?
Call me an old cynic if you like, but the legacy of the 2004 Athens Games is a stark reminder of how emotions can change from joy to despair in such a relatively short space of time. The debt that Greece accrued for putting on the world’s greatest sports event was a heavy enough price to pay without the knowledge that the sporting venues quickly fell into disrepair as well.
I’m pretty sure that Ken wasn’t thinking about the sporting side of things when, as Mayor of London at the time, he put the bid in: in fact, I don’t think he even expected to win it. The reason behind his thinking was that the event would focus minds on giving a much-needed boost to rejuvenating a part of East London that was in desperate need of some extra cash, so I think his wide smile was for a different reason to those involved in sport.
I’m also pretty sure that the powers that be were only too aware of what happened in Athens and would have been determined that London’s legacy would be different.
With all this in mind a 500-acre site at Stratford was given the go-ahead as the home of the Olympic Park, the main venue for both the Summer Olympics and the Paralympics.
Just as it’s impossible to see the whole of Kew Gardens in one visit, the same thing applies to writing about it, and so I’ve decided to begin with an overview of how the gardens evolved and the main areas of interest.
To give you an indication of the magnitude of the place, it boasts that it has the “largest and most diverse botanical and mycological (fungi) collections in the world” with more than 30,000 different kinds of plants, an Herbarium with over 7 million specimens, a library with 750,000 books, and more than 175,000 prints and drawings. To that you can add five Grade I listed buildings, and (including its sister botanical garden at Wakehurst in West Sussex) currently employs around 800 staff. It even has its own police force. No wonder it’s on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Prior to the creation of William Jessop’s Floating Harbour in 1809, the River Avon flowed through where Underfall Yard now stands.
The construction of Cumberland Basin and the New Cut meant that an island was formed between where the river was diverted, to Bathurst Basin at Redcliffe. This island became known as Spike Island.
Jessop’s plan included an ‘Overfall’ Dam to allow excess water in the Floating Harbour to flow over into the New Cut, but by the 1830s the harbour was becoming badly silted up.
Although Jessop had included sluices with his Overfall Dam, the main method of clearing the silt out was to drain the harbour and remove it by hand, which was less than ideal to say the least.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was brought in to make improvements to both Cumberland Basin and the Overfall Dam, and for the Overfall Dam he recommended developing Jessop’s sluices further and using dredger boats to remove the silt.
He devised an Underfall system where three shallow sluices could be used in a way that would control the harbour water level according to the tide and weather conditions, and a fourth ‘deep scouring’ sluice which could be opened at low tide when a powerful undertow (undercurrent) would suck the silt into the New Cut to be carried away by the next tide.
This Underfall system is still in use today, although a more modern system of dredging is used.
I’ve left The Core to last because it’ll be the place that probably takes up the least amount of your time at Eden. It’s tempting to say that it wouldn’t matter too much if you missed it out altogether, but that would mean missing something which is at the heart (or core) of the whole Eden Project – education.
Eden likes to describe The Core as its “Education, Arts and Events Hub”, which means that it’s more than just a place where school parties come.
I think it’s fair to say that its primary objective though is to educate our future generations in understanding how important it is for them to look after our planet, and in return it will look after them. That said, we can all learn from this sort of information and I’m full of admiration for the way the building has been put together to show us how things should be done in a sustainable way.
The Outdoor Biome has everything from plants that make beer, dyes, medicines, food and fuel, to sculptures and things to amuse the kids. Covering over 20 acres, it’s not about what there is to see, but more about what you’re going to have to leave out.
As with the other two biomes, the outdoor gardens are not about how pretty they can look, but more about how plants are used to create things and make our world the place it is.
Consequently, the time you spend here will depend on how interested you are in all the different ways plants are used. As a guideline, Eden suggests that you’ll probably need a couple of hours here, but it’s probably likely that it’ll depend more on your own personal timetable and what interests you the most.
It’s pointless trying to explain everything that the Outdoor Biome covers because there is so much. It’s one of those places that the more you look, the more you see. I’ve been here several times and at different times of the year and I still find it difficult to take everything in. It might not appear like that at first glance, but believe me, there’s been a lot of thought that’s gone into this place – and it’s ongoing – funds permitting.
The good thing about the Mediterranean Biome is that it’s nowhere near as humid as the Rainforest Biome and much more comfortable to wander around. It’s not as big either and you won’t need any longer than about an hour in here.
Although it’s called the Mediterranean Biome there’s also a couple of areas representing South Africa and California, but it’s the Mediterranean feel that prevails. Olive trees, citrus fruits and vines are the order of the day as well as more colourful plants associated with a warm temperate climate.
Whereas the Rainforest was a challenge, this is a delight, and you almost feel as though you’re on holiday in Spain or Greece.
When you’ve taken in all the sights and smells why not stop for lunch at the Med Terrace Restaurant. I reckon you’d be hard pushed to resist the paella cooking away and it’s a great place to take a break. The food’s lovely and all based on Mediterranean ingredients, although whether you can call pizzas a part of a Mediterranean Diet, I’m not sure.
When you go into the Rainforest Biome there’s one thing you need to take with you – a drink – and one thing that you don’t – your coat.
There’s a place you can hang your coat nearby (but not bags) and there are several places you can get a drink. Whether you take my advice or not you’ll probably still come back out feeling as though you’ve just been in a sauna, so it’s no co-incidence that there’s an ice-cream parlour near the exit. The good people at Eden maybe ethical – but they’re not stupid either.
It’s a simple question with a not so simple answer, so the best thing to do is quote the official guidebook. It describes itself as “An educational charity that creates gardens, exhibitions, art, events, experiences and projects that explore how people can work together and with nature to change things for the better”.
To put it even more simply the concept is about trying to educate people to use our planet in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way – so how did this project materialise?
The answer to this question is somewhat easier. Although other people were involved, the whole idea was the vision of one man – Tim Smit, or Sir Tim Smit, as he is now officially known. This remarkable man gained notoriety after helping to bring the nearby ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ back to life in the 1990s.
At Eden his idea was for a millennium project to turn a disused former clay pit at Bodelva into something that nobody had ever seen before. This 60m deep sided clay pit with no soil and 15 m below the water table was to be transformed into life by creating giant conservatories, or biomes as they are now called, full of exotic plants planted in 83,000 tons of soil made from re-cycled waste and watered by natural rainfall.
Looe Island is just a mile offshore, but the short boat journey from the quayside at East Looe will transport you into what seems like a totally different time and place.
The island is owned and managed by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and access is usually only permitted by using the authorised boat that runs from Buller’s Quay. The boat runs from Easter to September, two to three hours either side of high tide, and of course, weather conditions permitting.
The boat trip costs £7 return per adult and there’s also a landing fee of £4 per adult (July 2018).
Goodrington was another village, like Preston, that was swallowed up by Paignton, and covers the coastal area from Roundham Head to Broadsands, but just like its counterpart across the other side of town, has grown inland as well.
It has to be said that there’s not much for the ardent historian to seek out here because Goodrington primarily attracts families who just want to enjoy the beach, park and water flumes. That said, it also manages to juggle the appeal of family fun with some important conservation as well.
As I pointed out in Old Paignton, this used to be a wet, marshy area, and it’s not difficult to see why it was looked upon in years gone by as an area that needed to be tamed, but these days we treat nature with a bit more respect (sometimes) and work with nature rather than against it.
It’s possible to walk the whole of this route, but it’s not a circular trail and includes a certain amount of road walking, so driving to each point of interest is an option definitely worth considering.
Between Meadfoot Beach and Babbacombe is one of Torquay’s most exclusive areas. Centred on Thatcher Avenue, the area is known locally as Millionaire’s Row, but you don’t need to be a millionaire to enjoy what is arguably the most interesting part of the Torquay coastline.
This area of Torbay is as good as anywhere to understand why the English Riviera was given status as a UNESCO Global Geopark, one of only seven locations in the UK.
The best place to begin discovering what all this means is Kent’s Cavern, but as I’ll be writing a separate post about it, I’ll just give a brief explanation as to why the area was deemed important enough to be added to the list.
Anyone who read my post Golden Cap and Fossil Hunting at Charmouth will be well aware that the Jurassic Coast is a great place to study geology and early life on earth, but the rocks around Torbay are much older.
The Jurassic Coast covers rocks formed over a period from 65 to 250 million years ago, but the geology around Torbay covers a period from 360 to 419 million years ago – give or take a few million years.
This different time period was discovered by geologists Adam Sedgwick and Roderick Murchison and endorsed by William Lonsdale, another geologist, who recognised that coral fossils found along the Torquay coastline were from the same era.
Although there was a lot of debate at the time, by 1840 it was generally agreed that there was indeed a new geological era between the already recognised Carboniferous and Silurian periods. Due to the studies made here this new era became known as the Devonian Period.