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. 



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 (which can be enlarged in a separate window by clicking onto it), the Somerset Levels can be divided into three areas, which are most easily described by way of Somerset’s coastal regions.

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.


About Adrian Lewis
Photographer - using mono, colour and combinations of the two - many types of subject, including Minimalism, landscapes, abstracts, soft colour, people, movement, nature - I like to be adventurous, trying new ideas, working in multiple genres. And I've a weakness for Full English Breakfasts and Duvel golden ale, though not necessarily together.

13 Responses to THE SOMERSET LEVELS (1)

  1. bluebrightly says:

    Thanks for nudging me to see this post…I went down the wormhole, reading a Wikipedia article about the Sweet Track…amazing, and I can see how the ancient life in this area informs you (I think I can anyway). When we cross a bridge over a channel to leave Fidalgo Island we enter flat agricultural land, some of which is also reclaimed, not so much from the sea as from the rivers, with dikes. In winter it floods beautifully and plays host to tens of thousands of Snow geese and Trumpeter swans, as well as Mallards, Canada geese, other ducks, and plenty of birds of prey, like eagles, hawks and owls. I wish these farms had droves so I could drive or walk into the fields. We have to be content with the county roads.
    The upside-down pollarded willows are great fun!


  2. The upside down version is more appealing to me. Not really sure why. I noticed the date here. And that I ‘liked’ the post. Have I known you for this long?
    The Levels still remain my favorite of your photos. Maybe it’s the openness. The vastness. The freedom feeling it gives. Oh yes. And the cows. 🤍🖤
    XXXATPXXX 1/27/21 😱


    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Yes, I suppose so, nearly 10 years – which is quite striking. The only other possibility would be that you Liked the post sometime after it had been posted. Either way, its good to know you!

      Glad you like the Levels pics: the archive is going to be large. Oh, and I’m getting my covid jab on Saturday, which is just as well, as the UK appears to have the worst death rate per head of population in the world! ATP xxxXXX!!!


      • I’m glad to hear you’re getting the shot. I’m not eligible. Need to be 70 here in South Carolina so I miss by a year. Although that could change possibly in March so fingers crossed.
        I thought the same thing about my ‘like’ timeline but I really do think it’s been that long, and certainly glad to know you too.
        Stay safe, bud
        ❤️ XXXATPXXX ❤️


        • Adrian Lewis says:

          I’m surprised and sorry to hear that, Gem – let’s hope March changes things. A legacy of Trump??? Here, they’ve gone first for over 80s and frontline health workers; I’d thought they’d go next for over 75s, but it would seem to be over 70s.

          Yes, certainly glad to know you too. ATP xxxXXX!!!


  3. That was very interesting!

    The “Hound of the Levels “ might have made an interesting Holmes story.


    • Adrian Lewis says:

      Thanks, Steve, its an interesting area. Yes, the “Hound of the Levels” – two thoughts on that. The actual Hound of the Baskervilles Holmes case took place on Dartmoor, which is just down in Devon, not far away from here – and a very favourite book of mine.

      The other thing is that I’ve heard from several local people, including farmers, that there are one or more escaped big cats out on the Levels; probably people have them as youngsters and then let them go when they’re too big to handle. I was a birder for decades and so am used to spotting wildlife; I’ve always kept a look out, especially in the early mornings, but no luck so far.


  4. 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.


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