The Somerset Levels have been much in the UK news since the end of 2013. They have been suffering, for the second year running, from flooding to a depth and extent which is supposed to occur only once in a century. Farmers’ fields are under six or more feet of water, and villages have had to be evacuated or are completely cut off. Yesterday, the army was called in to assess and possibly assist in the major emergency.
Arguments rage, mostly between the local people and the Environment Agency, about how this has been allowed to happen. It is alleged that the rivers which drain the Levels into the sea have not been dredged for nearly twenty years, and as a result are so silted that they have less than half the capacity to drain water away than should be the case. A spokesman for the Agency points out that there has been a massive amount of rain (it’s the wettest January since records began a century ago, and the month isn’t even over yet), and thus nothing could have prevented the flooding, but it’s difficult to see the force of this argument. If the rivers were not so silted and could carry more water away, it might still flood, but perhaps not so disastrously?
The Levels have been inhabited from Palaeolithic times, though it looks as though, for a lot of the Stone Age, occupation was seasonal. However, from at least the Neolithic period, wooden trackways were constructed across the wetlands, and three lake villages are known, the famous one at Glastonbury and two others at Meare. There are numerous stories associating King Arthur with the area: South Cadbury is identified with Camelot, and the battle of Mount Badon is located by some (assuming that it happened at all) at Brent Knoll Camp.
The undoubtedly historical King Alfred the Great is alleged to have burnt the cakes while hiding out in the Levels, and certainly founded Athelney Abbey in gratitude at his victory over the Danes at the battle of Edington in 878. In the medieval period, monks at Athelney, Muchelney and Glastonbury organised drainage, and reclaimed land from the swamp. (Incidentally, the name ‘the Isle of Athelney’, as with ‘the Isle of Ely’ in East Anglia, is a hefty clue to the nature of the terrain.)
But the need for drainage in agriculture has been understood from the earliest times. The Roman Marcus Terentius Varro (116– 27 BCE) states that ‘A lowland farm that everywhere slopes regularly in one direction is better than one that is perfectly level, because the latter, having no outlet for the water, tends to become marshy … the trench is adequate only if it can hold all the rain water, or has a slope sufficient to enable it to drain the water off the land … Between the setting of the Pleiades and the winter solstice [i.e. autumn] … dig new ditches, clear old ones.’
Not exactly rocket science, and nor are the utterances of Thomas Tusser (c.1524–80), ‘the British Varro’, musician turned farmer turned poet, in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry. The summary for September has ‘Thresh and sow rye, sow white wheat, set children to fright away birds, mend banks.’ And in ‘September’s Abstract’:
Trench, hedge and furrow,/That water may thorough./Deep dike saves much,/From drovers, and such./Amend marsh wall/Crab holes and all.
(Farm equipment should include ‘skuppat and skavell’ (the scoop and peat-spade used by ‘marsh-men’) and ‘a didall and crome/For draining of ditches’ (didall = a triangular spade; crome = a rake for pulling vegetation out of ditches). I owe this erudition, needless to say, to William Fordyce Mavor’s helpful notes to his edition.)
‘September’s Husbandry’ advises:
Seed sown, draw a furrow, the water to drain,/And dyke up such ends, as in harm do remain;/ … St Michel [i.e. Michaelmas-tide] doth bid thee, amend the marsh wall,/The breck and the crab-hole, the foreland and all:/One noble [a coin worth 33p], in season, bestowed thereon,/May save thee a hundred, ere winter be gone.
Sadly, it is going to take rather more than a few nobles to make good the damage done in the inundations of the past two years. Tusser’s instructions for January, which including digging over gardens, planting bare-root roses and sowing ‘runcival’ [marrowfat] peas, are not of much use in Somerset in 2014.