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10 May 2020
There are several different moors in Somerset, stretching from Clevedon (the Northmarsh) all the way south to the A303, and today they provide wonderful habitats for birds and other rare creatures, as well as a level plain for easy walking and cycling, with prospects bounded by the encircling distant hills.
This low-lying land was at the mercy of changes in sea level, which rises and falls as polar ice sheets melt. Sea level rose about 8000 years ago, and again about 2000 years ago, turning a fertile marshland into an inland sea, and hills into islands.
Each time the sea receded, and this variety of habitats was invaluable to our ancestors, who flocked to Somerset. During the Bronze and Iron ages, a period of intense population growth, they lived in lake villages built by creating solid foundations in the midst of the marshes.
The Sweet Track, a causeway of long planks supported on timber piles, was laid out nearly 6000 years ago on the site of an earlier route to join two lake villages at Westhay and Shapwick.
There were other such causeways, part of a sophisticated transport system. Today the Iron Age Glastonbury Lake Village near Godney is the best known.
King Alfred, the first really English king, used the islands of the Levels in his fight with the invading Danes for supremacy of Wessex. Burrow Mump and Athelney were his strongholds (where he may have burned the cakes), he had a palace at Cheddar, and eventually signed the Peace of Wedmore after defeating the Viking king Guthrum in AD 878. The Alfred Jewel was lost in marshland near North Petherton about this time, and eventually rediscovered by a farm labourer.
It was left to the medieval monks of Glastonbury Abbey to tame the marshes by improving drainage, diverting the courses of some rivers, and establishing man-made drains and rhynes (pronounced ‘reens’) with sluice gates and run-offs. Later, government took a hand, and the Levels became viable for farming. There was even a canal with a porous peat bed!
Water running off the surrounding hills means flooding is still a challenge, and in the 19th century pumping engines, like the one at Westonzoyland, were added. Villages safely established on the hills each included a big tract of lowland within their parish boundaries, with summer grazing villages known as burtles. As well as fishing, especially for eels, the wetlands lent themselves to the cultivation of willow, one of the most characteristic Somerset industries, producing basketwork, charcoal and cricket bats, as well as peat extraction, teasel growing (used to comb out wool fibres) and brick and tile making.
The island villages, often cut off in winter, nourished fiercely independent communities, which today welcome visitors to the many craft workshops and popular nature reserves. If you like birds, be sure not to miss the incredible starling murmurations in late autumn.
For more on Somerset's incredible history and heritage go to our interactive E Book.
No.26 Somerset Fascinating Facts - IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT TO FIND ANY PART OF BRITAIN WITH A MORE VARIED HISTORY THAN THE SOMERSET LEVELS, OR THE MOORS, AS SOME CALL THEM.