Somerset Levels

From Academic Kids

The Somerset Levels (or Somerset Levels and Moors as they are less commonly but more correctly called) is a sparsely populated wetland area of central Somerset between the Quantock and Mendip hills, consisting of marine clay "levels" along the coast, and the inland (often peat based) "moors".

The total area of the levels amounts to approximately 160,000 acres (650 km²) and broadly corresponds to the administrative district of Sedgemoor but also includes southeast Mendip.

Contents

Drainage

The moors and levels formed from a submerged and reclaimed landscape. Much of the area is at, or only slightly above, sea level, so until it was drained in the 17th century it was a marsh that was frequently flooded by the sea, a problem that was not fully resolved until the sea defences were enhanced at Bridgwater in the early 20th century. Early attempts to control the water levels date from the 13th century but were not widespread.

The levels are now mechanically drained by a network of drainage channels, known locally as "rhynes" (pronounced "reens"). Water levels are carefully managed and the levels are not as intensively drained or farmed as the East Anglian fens (historically a similar area of low marsh). They are still liable to widespread fresh water flooding in winter.

Flowing through the Levels are the rivers Axe, Brue, Huntspill, Kenn, Parrett, Tone and Yeo, together with the King’s Sedgemoor Drain.

Human habitation

In prehistory it is thought that, due to winter flooding, humans restricted their use of the levels to the summer, a practice that gave rise to name of the county of Somerset (derived from Sumorsaete, meaning land of the summer people).

The area was settled by the Bronze Age, with the population supporting themselves largely by hunting and fishing in the surrounding marsh, living on artificial islands connected by wooden causeways on wooden piles. These included the Sweet Track, currently the world's oldest known engineered roadway dating from the 3800s BC.

Several towns were also built on the natural 'islands' of slightly raised land, including Brent Knoll, Glastonbury, and the low range of the Polden Hills. It's easy to see why the area acquired a number of legends, particularly of King Arthur and his followers, who some believe based his court at the hill fort at South Cadbury.

Alfred the Great famously burnt cakes when hiding in the marshes of Athelney, after the Danish invasion in 875.

Land use

The area has few trees and is dominated by grassland, mostly used as pasture for dairy farming.

Since they were first drained the Moors have been used for peat extraction and, although the practice is now much reduced, at least one large firm still operates on the levels and peat lorries remain a common feature of the back roads.

The River Parrett provides a source of eels (Anguilla anguilla) and elvers during January through to May.

Other local industries that once thrived on the Levels, such as thatching and basket making, are now in serious decline. Combined with the recent drop in farm incomes, this poses a potential threat to the 'traditional' nature of the area as a whole.

Willow

Willow has been cut and used on the Levels since humans moved into the area. Fragments of willow basket were found near the Glastonbury Lake Village, and it was also used in the construction of several Iron Age causeways.

During the 1930s over 9,000 acres (36 km²) of willow were being grown commercially on the Levels. Largely due to the displacement of baskets with plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the industry has severely declined since the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century only around 350 acres (1.5 km²) were grown commercially, near the villages of Burrowbridge, Westonzoyland and North Curry. The Somerset Levels is now the only area in the UK where basket willow is grown commercially. For weaving the species Salix triandra (Almond Willow, Black Maul) is grown, while Salix viminalis (Common Osier) is ideal for handles, bases, and the structural members in furniture and hurdles.

Products including baskets, eel traps, lobster pots and furniture were widely made from willow throughout the area in the recent past. Among the more unusual products still made are passenger baskets for hot air balloons, the frames inside the bearskin hats worn by the regiments of the Household Cavalry, and an increasing number of willow coffins.

The industry is celebrated in the form of the Willow Man (sometimes known as the Angel of the South), a 12 m (40 foot) tall willow sculture by artist Serena de la Hey that can be seen from the railway and the M5 motorway to the north of Bridgwater.

Biodiversity and conservation

As a result of the unimproved wetland nature of the Levels, the area contains a rich biodiversity of national and international importance. They support a vast variety of plant species, as well as common plants such as marsh marigold, meadowsweet and ragged robin. The area is an important feeding ground for birds including Bewick’s swan, curlew, redshank, skylark, snipe, teal, wigeon and whimbrel, as well as birds of prey including the marsh harrier and peregrine falcon. A wide range of insect species is also present including rare invertebrates, particularly beetles including the lesser silver water beetle, Bagous nodulosus, Hydrophilus piceus, Odontomyia angulata, Oulema erichsoni and Valvata macrostoma. In addition, the area supports an important otter population (now a rare species in the British Isles).

The Levels and Moors include 32 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (12 of them also Special Protection Areas), the Bridgwater Bay National Nature Reserve, the Somerset Levels and Moors Ramsar Site covering about 86,000 acres (350 km²), the Levels and Moors National Nature Reserve, Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve, and numerous Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

In addition, some 72,000 acres (290 km²) of the Levels are recognised as an Environmentally Sensitive Area, while other portions are designated as Areas of High Archaeological Potential. Despite this, there is currently no single conservation designation covering the entire area of the Levels and Moors.

Tourism

Being largely flat, the Levels are well suited to bicycles, and a number of cycle routes exist including the Withy Way Cycle Route (22 miles, 35 km), Avalon Marshes Cycle Route (28 miles, 45 km), Peat Moors Cycle Route (24 miles, 39 km) and the Isle Valley Cycle Route (28 miles, 45 km).

The River Parrett Trail (http://www.riverparrett-trail.org.uk/) (47 miles / 75km) long-distance footpath is also within the area.

There are currently four visitors' centres that aim to convey various aspects of the Levels.

  • The Peat Moors Centre (http://www.somerset.gov.uk/somerset/cultureheritage/heritage/pmc/) to the west of Glastonbury is dedicated to the archaeology, history and geology of the area. It also includes reconstructions of some of the archeological discoveries, including a number of Iron Age round houses and the world's oldest engineered highway, the Sweet Track. From time to time the centre offers courses in a number of ancient technologies in subjects including textiles, clothing and basket making, as well as staging various open days, displays and demonstrations.
  • In Glastonbury itself is The Tribunal (http://www.somerset.gov.uk/somerset/cultureheritage/heritage/pmc/), a medieval merchant's house containing possessions and works of art from the Glastonbury Lake Village which were preserved in almost perfect condition in the peat after the village was abandoned.

In addition, Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum (http://www.wzlet.org/), located near the town on the River Parrett, is housed in one of the earliest steam-powered pumping stations on the Levels, dating from the 1830s. The station was closed in the 1950s. Featuring several steam engines, some built locally, the museum holds a number of live steam days each year.

See also

External links

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