Very, very wet. Sodden, like a girt humungous sponge. The Somerset Levels – or moors – are a once submerged pudding-basin of sticky clay and dark peat, 99% water and 1% soil, that stretch inland from the Somerset coast as far as Wells, Glastonbury and Langport. They are cross-crossed by a network of rhynes (pronounced reens – drainage ditches, some dating back to the sixteenth century), slow-moving slug-like rivers and dotted with what were once islands: not only Glastonbury Tor but Burrow Mump and the almost onomatopoeically-named Westonzoyland.
|Somerset Levels porn. And if that doesn't get your lovejuices flowing, nothing will|
So what? Surely the Levels are small beer in comparison to the mighty fens of East Anglia, the setting for Graham Swift’s superlative work of flatlands fiction, Waterland.
Well, I’m a child of the Wessex landscape so you’d expect me to favour the West Country. The Fens have their own peculiar – and I do mean peculiar in both senses of the word – mythogeography, their own ethereal ambience. The Somerset Levels are the Fens younger sisters, smaller in extent, cuter but more feisty, the riot grrrls of the Wessex landscape.
I have to confess to a love-hate relationship with the Levels, but surely all intense relationships share a similar pattern. On Saturday I cursed the saturated fields and their viscous, flocculating clay and sought refuge on the long, straight roads. Then, up on Ditcheat Hill looking south-west across the moor to the distant Blackdown and Quantock Hills, we were lovers again, inseparable and infatuated.
Until the next time.
|Ditcheat Hill: where we kissed and made up ...|
No wonder the Levels are squat and juicy, they’re weighed down with myth and legend. They gave the county – Somerset, the Summer Country – its name. The earliest settlers – the Somersetæ – grazed their cattle on the fecund and fertile marshes during the summer, retreating to the higher ground in winter.
And then there’s Our Lady of the Orchards, a romantic, Mariological relation to the ‘Did Christ come to Britain?’ narrative. Here, Jesus and his uncle Joseph of Arimathea are crossing the moor during a storm and become bogged down in the mud and are rescued by a group of Somersetæ returning home with their catch of elvers. In return, the Somersetæ are gifted the orchards which the give country its characteristic landscape. An even more obscure tale – perhaps related to the concept of England as Our Lady’s Dowry (see The Wilson Diptych) – has the Virgin Mary herself appearing to a peasant woman on the Blackdown Hills at the height of the Reformation’s antic-Catholicism.
But that, as they say, is another story…