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”.
Edinburgh has two football teams – Hibernian and Heart of Midlothian (Hearts for short) and outside St. Giles’ Cathedral
there is a heart of stone set into the pavement known as the Heart of Midlothian.
If you happen to be walking past and catch somebody spitting on it don’t assume that it’s a Hibernian (Hibs) fan venting his feelings because the custom of spitting on this spot goes back a long time.
Not to be confused with today’s council area of the same name, Edinburgh used to be at the heart of the old historic county of Midlothian, and the area around St. Giles was where the Scottish parliament and administrative offices were located. The original Tolbooth was also situated here which during its time was a court house, prison and place of execution. It was demolished in 1817 but had stood for over 400 years.
The position of the heart is where the entrance to the prison would have been and where the executions took place, and so it’s not difficult to see where the connection between the heart and the custom of spitting on it comes from.
These days it’s said that the tradition continues more for good luck than anything else. Whether that would apply to a Glasgow Rangers or Celtic fan I’m not so sure.
November can be one of the most miserable months of the year but around the third week into the month Truro’s ‘City of Lights’ festival lifts the gloom with a parade of glowing lanterns made out of tissue and withies.
Usually coinciding with the switch-on of the Christmas lights this small city comes alive with dance and music from local groups and bands. It’s a real community spirit with many schools taking part, not just from Truro but also from many villages around. Hundreds of school kids bring their lanterns and join up with the professionals who make some much larger creations.
This procession is not a competition to see who can build the biggest and best lanterns – just a simple and effective way for people of all ages to take part in the build up to the festive season – and leave the gloom behind. Wonderful!
The tradition of making a garland for the Tudor Hall at Cotehele House only started in the 1950s, but has since become a firm annual favourite at Christmastime.
People come from miles around to see this 18 metre (60 foot) long decoration that starts its life in the Cut Flower Garden at Cotehele. The seeds are sown in February, the flowers cut in the summer, and then hung in the potting shed to dry until the Autumn.
The aim is to get around 30,000 stems, but it will depend on the conditions which can vary from year to year.
In early November a 12mm diameter rope is laid out on the floor where bunches of evergreen pittosporum are attached and then hoisted up to the ceiling where it is hung in swags.
The flowers are then cut, sorted, and placed individually amongst the evergreen.
Apparently, the process from planting the seeds to the last flower being attached involves staff and volunteers working an equivalent number of hours to one full time employee a year.
The garland is usually on display from around the middle of November until the 12th night (Jan 6th), except Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
The UK has the highest per capita consumption of cider in the world and although there are other areas of the UK such as East Anglia that have a tradition of producing fine cider it’s generally regarded that the counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the West Midlands and the West Country in general are the areas with which it is most associated.
Devon has a long history of cider making, and although there are no large commercial businesses down here these days, there are still a fair number of smaller producers dotted about – including Paignton.
Hunts, of Higher Yalberton Farm is a good example, and I’ve been fortunate to be able to have a look around and see how their cider is made.