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Monday, 8 October 2012


And wet.
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…


  1. You make that area sound so inviting! Great post - I shall look forward to reading more when I get round to it!

  2. Hah! Yes, I know exactly what you mean by the flatlands. I live in the fens and we have a love/hate thing going on. On the love side, the fens are wilderness, on a grey, rainy Sunday afternoon there are no other hikers about, no one at all about really, just the silver river/lode/drain and endless black earth. It can be wonderful.