THE SOMERSET LEVELS (1)

W E L C O M E   T O   T H E   S O M E R S E T   L E V E L S !

I regard the Somerset Levels with enormous affection.  For one thing, I was brought up amongst them and they have made me a creature of wide open spaces and huge skies – space to breathe! – who feels distinctly “shut in” when amongst thick forests or deep valleys.  Also, I rate them very highly because of their great natural beauty and (Minimalism raises its head again!) simplicity, and because of their very rich wildlife.

Furthermore – and no small point – the Levels have staked out very solid places in history – they hold some of the oldest known trackways in the world for example, including the Sweet Track, which was constructed in 3807 or 3806 BC.  And it was  in the Levels’ dense and marshy fastnesses that Alfred The Great (king 871-899 AD) hid from the invading Danes – the Vikings – before emerging to defeat them at the battle of Edington in 878 AD, and to set in train a series of later kings and events which resulted in the creation of England. 

So, I love these flatlands – and this is most probably going to be the first in a long line of Levels posts.   Using F11 to view at fullscreen?  Right, let’s go.

.

WHAT ARE THE SOMERSET LEVELS?   AND WHERE ARE THEY?

The Somerset Levels are reclaimed wetlands that occupy the central part of the old county of Somerset (i.e. the county in its pre-1974 boundaries). They constitute the second most extensive area of reclaimed flatlands in the UK after those around The Wash, in East Anglia. Looking at the embarassingly crude sketch map below, the Somerset Levels can be divided into three areas, which are most easily described by way of Somerset’s coastal regions.  (As well as this “map”, maybe you’d better use something more accurate – www.multimap.com  www.streetmap.com )

The northern areas of the Levels extend southwestwards from Clevedon towards Weston-super-Mare, where they are separated from those Levels further to the south by the line of Mendip Hills, which run down westwards to the Bristol Channel (aka Severn Estuary) coast at Brean Down.

A second and larger area of the Levels extends inland from the coast between Brean Down and Burnham-On-Sea, between the Mendip Hills in the north and the Polden Hills in the south, to Glastonbury. This area includes the higher ground of Brent Knoll, the Wedmore ridge and many smaller, isolated hillocks >>> and the part of the Levels that I visit most often extends south from the Wedmore ridge, across the valley of the River Brue to the Polden Hills in the south.  This area  is roughly outlined in blue on the map, but overall I’ll actually be covering the area from the coast at Burnham-On-Sea inland to Glastonbury and Wells.  I talk of the Brue’s “valley”, but here this river flows slowly through flat countryside – passing north of Glastonbury and on down to the coast just south of Burnham – and there is no actual river valley to be seen.

The third area of the Levels is known overall as Sedgemoor. It extends from the coast at Stolford, and from Bridgwater and the Parrett Estuary, running inland to the south of the Polden Hills, to Ilchester, a few miles from Yeovil.

Typical Levels winter scene: pollarded Willows (see below) and flooded fields – the Levels can really be summed up as flat country with water everywhere!  These are floods on Tealham Moor, not far south of Wedmore; 20 Jan 2008.    Nikon F6 with Sigma 12mm-24mm zoom at 12mm; Fuji Provia 400X slide film, rated at 800 ISO.

The Somerset Levels were originally dense and often impenetrable areas of  lagoons, bog and thicket, often inundated by the sea. In the past, seagoing ships could penetrate through this watery landscape as far in as Glastonbury. But drainage schemes started by the monks of Glastonbury Abbey or in even earlier times and advancing apace since the 1700s have reclaimed the vast majority of the ground, which is now agricultural.

Much of this flatland is at or below mean sea level, however, and only protected from the huge tides in the Bristol Channel (which has the second highest tidal range in the world) by intricate systems of coastal flood defences and inland drainage channels, and also by clyses, which are the sluices that now protect all of the local rivers except the Parrett. When the high tides flow into the mouths of the rivers, the gates of the clyses close, so preventing ingress of salt water far inland. When the tide recedes, the clyse gates open due to the weight of river water that has built up behind them, and this fresh water is discharged into the sea.

In times of tight finances, coastal land is already being relinquished to the sea at Steart, near Bridgwater. Such economies, together with rising sea levels that may be due to global warming, may see other parts of the Levels being relinquished to their original marshy state in the future.

Along Yeap’s Drove, south of Bleadney; 20 May 2006.  A typical Levels scene in spring: flat country, lots of cows, and the air thick with the scent of Hawthorn blossom.  Nikon F6 with Sigma 15mm fullframe fisheye; Fuji Velvia 100 slides.

Much of the Levels were originally wild, wet ground – an intriguing map from the year 1782, shown in The Somerset Wetlands (see post with Levels booklist), has tracks running north from the villages of Shapwick and Catcott simply petering out and disappearing – in an area where there are now many tracks, tarmac roads, bridges and farms.  From around 1790, more and more of this wilderness was reclaimed and, following acts of parliament, the former common land (i.e. land where local people had rights such as collecting firewood, grazing livestock, or grass cutting for hay) was enclosed – it was made into fields, etc. in the hands of private landowners.  This draining and enclosure gave the Levels a distinctive landscape of droves, rhynes, drains and pollarded Willows, much of which can still be seen today.

Droves?   To avoid crossing other peoples’ land when accessing their own, the farmers constructed a series of tracks, known as droves, between the fields. Some of these droves are now metalled roads and many persist as open tracks – all of which allow wonderfully open access to this countryside.

Looking westwards along Westhay Moor Drove, just north of Lower Godney; 24 May 2009.  This drove is now a tarmac road, but most droves persist as the  rough tracks that they originally were.   Nikon D700 with short end of 70mm-300mm VR Nikkor; 800 ISO.

Rhynes?  The fields are bounded by water-filled ditches – which both drain the ground and act as stock barriers. Hence strange landscapes – where fields appear quite unbounded, except for a gate with a short length of fencing on either side of it, where a bridge crosses the water-filled boundary ditch to provide access the field.  These small wet ditches communicate with larger rhynes (“reen” as in Doreen), which in turn flow into larger drains, e.g. the North and South Drains in the Brue Valley. All of these waterways are manmade and, by intricate series of pumping stations and flood gates, all of them have their water levels controlled by local farmers, internal drainage boards or the Environment Agency.

A field gate with short spans of fencing on either side, standing up above floods covering Tealham and Tadham Moors; the remainder of the field, invisible now under the floods, is bounded only by water-filled ditches;  20 Jan 2008.  Tealham and Tadham Moors are situated to the south of Wedmore and, lacking any definite boundary, they merge into each other.  Tealham and Tadham are the wildest and most open part of this area of the Brue Valley – and my favourite part of this whole area.  Nikon F6 with short end of 24mm-85mm Nikkor, fitted with a polariser; Fuji Provia 400X slides, rated at 800 ISO.

Field gateway on Westhay Moor; 1 May 2005.  One of the ‘wet fences’ (i.e. water-filled ditches) that form all the boundaries of this field is just visible at the centre left margin of the frame.   Surrounded as it is by water,  access to this pasture is over this small bridge, on the far side of which the gate to the field stands alone, bereft of any fencing.  Nikon F6 with short end of Sigma 12mm-24mm zoom; Fuji Provia 400 slides, rated at 800 ISO.  Use of this extremely wide telephoto allowed me to stand on the bridge and still get all of the bridge and the gate into the shot –  but distortion at this extremely small focal length makes the gate appear to be toppling towards me.

Pollarded Willows?  The banks of the rhynes were often planted with Willow trees, both to help strengthen the banks and also to show the courses of roads and tracks during floods. These Willows are often pollarded, i.e. their upper branches are cut off, which results in distinctively broad and dense heads to the trees. Pollarding keeps trees to a required height, while ensuring a steady supply of wood – more important in the past than now – for fires, thatching spars, fencing and so on.

Pollarded Willow at Swanshard Bridge, North Moor, just north of Polsham; 21 Dec 2007.  The branches cut from this and neighbouring trees are piled up around its shorn stump, and the whole looks a sorry sight – but as I write this, in May 2011, this tree has once more a broad, healthy crown of bushy growth.  Nikon F6 with short end of 70mm-300mm VR Nikkor; Fuji Provia 400X slides, rated at 1600 ISO.

The photo above this one is a record shot: its clearly shows its subject – the pollarded tree and its shorn branches – and its useful in amplifying my description of pollards – “picture worth a thousand words” and so on.  The two hillsides in the background do lead the eye down into the pollarded top of the tree but that’s just good fortune – I wasn’t conscious of that when I took the shot.  Now, in the picture above this caption – still with those shorn pollards at Swanshard Bridge on 21 Dec 2007, here is something more eye-catching.  The camera looks down at the snow-patched grass at my feet, which occupies the lower right half of the frame.  Above this, the pale, still water of the rhyne holds upside down reflections of more of these pollarded stumps and some other vegetation, above which is the far bank of the rhyne, which is fairly uniformly dark.  This picture is more attractive than the one above it: I like the green, snowy bank in the foreground with its mass of yellowish stems, the colour of the rhyne’s surface is pleasant, and the reflections of the short stumps add some interest.  But now, see picture below, let’s turn this photo upside down >>>

To me, this is more eye-catching still, if only because I spend more time looking at it, struggling to make sense of what I see.  The far bank of the rhyne seems to be the ground I’m standing on, and the pollarded Willows are rising quite normally and rationally into a bluish sky which is cut by faintly seen electricity cables – but above this the top left half of the frame still looks attractive with its whites and greens – but makes no sense whatsoever.  Suddenly, although I know what I’m looking at, I am in a realm of abstract creation – I like this version of the shot, and this is the version I use in slideshows (remember them?) about the Levels.

CTRL + HOME TAKES YOU BACK TO THE TOP OF THIS PAGE

About Adrian Lewis
Photographer working in monochrome, colour and combinations of the two - with a great liking for many types of subject, including Minimalism, landscapes, abstracts, soft colour, people, movement, nature - I like to be adventurous in my photography, trying new ideas and working in many genres. And I'm fond of Full English Breakfasts and Duvel golden ale, though not necessarily together.

4 Responses to THE SOMERSET LEVELS (1)

  1. Robert Jones says:

    Thank you I thoroughly enjoyed reading and looking at your photographs from this part of England that I’m only recently learning about.

    Like

This blog has two pleasures for me - creating the images and hearing from you - so get your thoughts out to the world!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: