More of Somerset's Fascinating Facts

25 Jul 2020

The ancient Celts of Wessex found themselves benefiting from the natural barrier of the marshes as invaders such as the Saxons tried to press into Devon and Cornwall. The only causeway across was built by the Romans at Langport, two miles from Curry Rivel, and the Celts managed to defend it. It is hard to imagine, as one stands by the meandering river at Langport, that this spot witnessed great violence. In AD 530 King Arthur is said to have fought the Saxons there, and in AD 787 the Saxons tried to fight off the Danes, who sacked and burnt Langport. Mulcheney-Abbey.jpg

Langport was indeed a port, and an important market, until roads took over from the river. The English King Alfred and the spread of Christianity calmed the struggles with the Saxons and Danes, and relative peace descended until 1066, when the Normans invaded.

William the Conqueror understood that land and religion were the keys to power and took decisive action. All across England, Norman soldiers were given land and became the new aristocracy. Sir Richard Rivell became Lord of the Manor and of the lands around here early in the 13th century, and it is at this point that Curry Rivel became an entity. He lived at Midelney, where an Elizabethan manor stands today.

Villagers lost their freedom, and endured an orderly but punishing regime under the Norman feudal system, working hard on land they could never hope to own. The fine church of St Andrews that stands behind the village green is a happier legacy of these years. Both the church and commerce gradually became more organised, and the abbeys  of Glastonbury, Wells, Athelney and Muchelney wanted to make more of the enormous areas of land they had acquired. During the 13th century monks had the inclination and manpower to drain the area, and so the characteristic grid of water channels, or rhynes, began to take shape.

At the time, the abbey at Muchelney, just three miles away, would have been the most powerful influence over Curry Rivel. The abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII’s Reformation, but its foundations and the Abbot’s House remain. Glastonbury Abbey Museum has a fascinating display that tells the story of the monks’ reclamation of glasto-(1).jpgthe land.   

There is much evidence of successful trade in the area, and of an early bank in Langport, with wool and cloth being traded and transported on the river. These developments were destined for further interruptions, however, as the Civil War tore local families apart as it did across England, and in 1645 the Battle of Langport took place, the last battle of the war. In 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis to challenge King James II and their forces met at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Men from Curry Rivel would have been among the casualties.

The history that seems most tangible today is that of the continued struggle with floodwater. Farmers and the Environment Agency have learned to co-operate in establishing a balance to preserve the natural and unique ecosystem of the Levels, while not preventing landowners from making a living. Water levels are controlled by a network of pumping stations.  Levels-(1).jpg

The use of the land in and around Curry Rivel has always been dictated by its susceptibility to flooding. Throughout history landowners would work around fields becoming flooded and remaining under water for weeks during the winter. It is said that in areas prone to regular flooding there are two different ecosystems on the same piece of land during dry and wet periods, and farmers (and wildlife) have learned how to make the most of these. Higher ground was used for apple orchards, cattle or sheep, or crops, and until fresh water was available farm workers used to drink two pints of cider a day.

Wet conditions are ideal for growing withies, which are still planted as willow shoots for an annual crop. They are still picked ‘green’ or ‘black’ depending on the flexibility and colour required for their intended use, and also treated and stored in different ways.

Until the last generation, large numbers of local men would have been employed in the annual withy harvest, and stacks of withies could be seen drying. The pollarded willow is a typical feature of the landscape, as is the gate that appears to stand alone in the middle of a field. The rhynes act as hedges dividing the fields, and the gates secure a bridge of land between them.

Today, making a living from the local land is still challenging, for different reasons. However, withy growing has seen a modest revival, and traditional farming sits comfortably alongside more modern developments such as campsites, bed and breakfasts, farm holidays, and cycle holidays that make the most of our flat landscape.

Many talented craftspeople can also be found, such as the world-famous potter John Leach and other makers of pottery, furniture and specialist produce such as smoked eels, cider and cider brandy, all helping to keep traditional skills alive.

Ashen Faggot Ceremony

Burning the Ashen Faggot is an ancient custom kept alive in Curry Rivel, and is part of a more general wassailing event which takes place on Old Christmas Eve, January 5th. The wassailers tour the village singing the wassail song before arriving at the King William where the faggot, made from a bundle of ash twigs bound together by willow and fastened with a knot known as a ‘rose’, is burnt. Sidney Richards is placing the faggot on the fire.

More of Somerset's Fascinating Facts
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