The Somerset Levels
The area known as the Somerset Levels lies between the Mendip and Blackdown Hills in central Somerset. It extends from Clevedon in North Somerset to Ilchester and Kingsbury Episcopi in the south. It runs inland from the Severn Estuary as far as Nailsea, Congresbury, Glastonbury and even Langport.
Officially known as the 'Somerset Levels and Moors', the area covers about 160,000 acres or 650 squre kilometres, yet with a low population density. The main characteristic of the Levels is that they are a relatively level, low lying plain, with an average height of just 20 feet (6 metres) above sea level. Prone to flooding, especially in winter, the Levels may even have given their name to the county - Sumorsaete - 'the land of the Summer people'. The land only settled in summer due to the frequent inundations of sea water. The levels are predominantly grassland and are sparsely wooded. Just the odd Willow tree here and there grown mainly for basket making.
The Somerset Levels have been drained by generations of inhabitants. There are records indicating that small scale drainage was attempted by the Romans and was taking place before the arrival of the Normans in the late 11th century. Later the main monasteries of the area such as Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney caused large areas to be drained. Pillrow Cut was constructed in the Middle Ages designed to join the Rivers Axe and Brue.
The Somerset Levels are drained today by six main rivers: River Axe, River Brue, River Kenn, River Parrett, River Tone and the Yeo and the two man-made channels of the King's Sedgemoor Drain and the Huntspill River (created during WW2).
The Somerset Levels are underlain by Triassic mudstones about 240 million years old. Overlying this are quite extensive alluvial deposits laid down during the frequent floods of the inter-glacial and post-glacial perriods of the Quaternary. These deposits are mainly marine clays and peats pierced by the more erosion resistant rock hills and knolls of Brent Knoll and Burrow Mump. Near to Middlezoy village lie a number of fossil-rich shell, sand and gravel beds, known as the Burtle Beds. These indicate that the area was underwater for some time as the deposits would only be formed during a period of high sea level. The peats have been radiocarbon dated to about 6500BC, whilst bones of Rhinoceros and the ancient ox-like Auroch have also been found.
The Somerset Levels can therefore be characterised as an area that was formerly submerged and has now been reclaimed, drained and utilised by man.
Currently not heavily populated, the area exhibits traces of human habitation as far back as the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age). Later wooden trackways such as the Sweet Track and the Post Track were constructed as well as the Iron Age lake villages at Glastonbury and Meare. Above the low lying land stood a number of Bronze Age and Iron Age hill forts and later the Romans used settlements of the Polden Hills to process sea salt. At this time, Brent Knoll was an island known as the 'Isle of Frogs' - with a number of Bronze Age finds discovered here.
Moving on into Saxon times, the land was parcelled up into estates and towns were granted charters to trade and hold markets. Some areas existed as islands standing above the flooded plains. One such island was the Isle of Athelney, fortified by King Alfred the Great prior to the battle of Ethandun against the Danes in May 878. Ten years later King Alfred arranged for the building of Athelney Abbey, a monastery that stood for over six hundred years until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 under the orders of King Henry VIII.
The Somerset Levels were traditionally an area of orchards and grassland used for grazing, such as at Pawlett Hams, Steart and Stolford. The small farms producing their own cider or scrumpy. However in the last 50 years, almost two-thirds of these orchards have been lost, with the production of apples now occupying less than half of one percent of the land.