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”.
‘The Levels’ are bisected by the Polden Hills, but as the highest point (at Walton Hill) is only 80 metres (260 ft) above mean sea level, they hardly register as a notable feature: This 10-mile long ridge does deserve a mention though because the characteristics of the area north of it are different to those of the south, and if nothing else, it must have also been a convenient way for our ancestors to cross the soggy landscape without getting their feet wet.
Three main rivers help to drain the land into the Bristol Channel – the largest, the River Parret, drains the land south of the Polden Hills, and the Rivers Axe and Brue do likewise to the north: All of them though need a helping hand from man-made drains and ditches called rhynes (pronounced reens) which create natural field boundaries for the pastureland, and have done so ever since drainage was introduced.
It appears that the Romans were the first to have a go at draining the land, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when the Abbots of Glastonbury, Muchelney and Athelney got involved that there was some degree of control.
The 19th century saw mechanical water pumps introduced such as the one at Westonzoyland, but there has always been some flooding on a regular basis, particularly during the winter months.
The floods in the winter of 2013/14 were particularly bad which locals predicted would happen, thanks to government funding cuts preventing adequate dredging of the watercourses. All it needed was excessive rainfall for the system to fail, and that’s exactly what happened – flooding around 17,000 acres of land and cutting off entire villages for weeks on end.
Believe it or not, there are benefits for local people too. The Avalon Marshes are a rich source of peat which has been extracted for hundreds of years, mainly as a form of fuel, but in more recent times for the horticultural industry. I always used to look at this activity as a blot on the landscape (which I still think it was), but now that production is on the decline, it’s reassuring to see how nature can reclaim the land for itself, and with a bit of help from environmental organisations, the marshes are now an absolute haven for wildlife, and birdlife in particular.
Peat is also the archaeologist’s friend thanks to its ability in being able to preserve the ancient wooden tracks and ‘lake villages’ that were inhabited during the Iron Age.
These lake villages would have been constructed from materials such as reeds and willow – a tree which is afforded something of a cult status in these parts.
Travelling around The Levels, it’s impossible to miss the willow trees that seem to be growing alongside the rhynes everywhere. The branches of these pollarded trees are called withies and used in the traditional craft of basketmaking which is still thriving. The best example I can think of which people might recognise is the ‘Willow Man’ which stands alongside the M5 near Bridgwater.
I said at the beginning of this post that the more you dig below the surface the more you’ll discover – and I haven’t even scratched the surface yet.
My association with the Levels goes back a long way, but I need to go back again because most of the photographs in my collection are from the pre-digital age, and many have disappeared altogether.
One that I can’t find is of me and an old boy who I used to drop in and see in his old shed on the banks of the River Tone near Athelney. Bill was a true character who used to make his own cider that was not only green, but turned me green as well: He made his own traps out of withies that he used to catch eels with that he skinned alive while drinking cider from the saucepan that he was warming up on the brazier. It’s enough to make anyone turn green.
This short introduction to the Somerset Levels will hopefully whet your appetite for future posts I intend to write, but in the meantime, if you want to get a birds-eye view of the land where early morning mists rise up from the Avalon Marshes, where King Alfred hid from the Vikings and where Bill told me tales and made me turn green, then make the climb up Glastonbury Tor. How anyone can think that this ‘flat, wet landscape’ can be boring is beyond me.