National Character Area 142

Somerset Levels and Moors - Description

The Somerset Levels and Moors today

The Levels and Moors is a flat landscape much influenced by the underlying geodiversity and water. Expansive views, with the surrounding, often wooded higher ground as a backdrop, contrast with local enclosure and small-scale features such as pollard trees, ditches, flood banks and expanses of winter floodwater.

The Moors to the west of the area lie within inland basins formed by the Mid Somerset Hills. While some parts are largely treeless, others are more enclosed by overgrown hedgerows and pollard willows. The open middles of the Moors are dominated by the strong rectilinear pattern of rhynes (larger ditches) linking field ditches to major rivers. Several rivers, including the Axe, Brue and Parrett, flow through the Levels and Moors to Bridgwater Bay. The watercourses in the area are notable for the fish populations they support, particularly eels, although eel numbers have declined significantly in recent years. The watercourses have been substantially reshaped, straightened and embanked by drainage operations, which also created new waterbodies such as the Huntspill River. The sense of a transformed landscape created over many hundreds of years of management, often in a piecemeal unplanned way responding to prevailing problems and requirements, is all pervading. The history of the area is characterised by periods of decline and flooding, followed by bursts of intense drainage improvements.

Near the islands and ridges of the Mid Somerset Hills, and particularly northwards from the Poldens, there is more tree and shrub cover, notably of pollard willow, with a slow transition to a landscape of hedgerows, farmsteads, villages and orchards as the land rises. Species-rich, sometimes colourful meadows remain on several Moors, containing characteristic wetland plants such as marsh marigold, purple loosestrife, ragged robin and meadowsweet.

Peat extraction has also changed the landscape of the Moors. The deepest deposits and most extensive workings are in the Brue Valley. Here, shelterbelts, drifts or scrub and the long strips of the excavations result in a more complex pattern than the simple chequer-board of much of the agricultural landscape. Nature reserves give further variety in texture. Former peat workings now managed for wildlife complement the wetland landscape with reedbeds, scrub and patches of open water and fen.

Low hills or ‘burtles’ (the ‘fossilised’ sand banks of marine deposits) punctuate the area of Moors east of Bridgwater. It is mainly on these, providing some protection from flooding, that the few modest-sized old settlements such as Chedzoy and Burtle are based. Otherwise there are few buildings; these are mainly 19th-century farms of brick or occasionally Blue Lias limestone, with clay pantile roofs and occasional thatch. There are also a few more recent buildings.

The Levels is a low belt of marine clay which runs parallel to the coast. It holds back the water draining from the surrounding hills, and this has resulted in the formation of the Moors. With its intermittent areas of irregular fields and sinuous lanes, the Levels is an older landscape than the reclaimed Moors, and more densely populated.

The Levels abuts a coastline of extensive mudflats, rich in wildlife, around the Parrett estuary and the edge of Bridgwater Bay. Sand dunes extend northwards to Brean Down. Coastal tourism has resulted in a strip of caravan parks and camp sites centred on Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super-Mare. From a number of vantage points there are views across the Bristol Channel to the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm and the coast of south Wales.

It is a pastoral landscape. Dairy and beef farming are the economic mainstay of the population, and the primary land use pattern is one of summer grazing with hay or silage production. There is an outstanding expanse of two primary habitats: lowland wet grassland and species-rich flood plain meadows and pastures.

The Somerset Levels and Moors NCA comprises a unique manmade wetland landscape of international importance for nature and archaeology. At its heart is the largest lowland grazing marsh system in Britain which is, consequently, of outstanding environmental interest. An important number and range of birds overwinter or breed in the area. Bittern breed in ever increasing numbers, and cranes have been reintroduced. On autumn evenings, vast flocks of starlings provide a glorious spectacle as they wheel over the flat landscape to their roosting sites.

Particularly within the Brue Valley and associated with the complex of wetland sites found in its numerous reserves, specialist wetland animals and insects can be seen in significant numbers, for example otter, water vole, bats and grass snake, many species of fly, beetle and dragonfly, and rarer species such as the lesser silver diving beetle, argent and sable moth and raft spider. Many predators, such as the hobby, also benefit from this rich, lush landscape. Similarly, both rare and common aquatic and wetland plant life, such as the greater water parsnip, can be found. The reedbed, fen and swamp habitats in this area evoke an ancient, wild landscape.

The wealth and importance of wildlife and habitats found in the area are reflected in the fact that nearly 7,000 ha, or 10 per cent, are covered by international nature conservation designations and protection as SSSI; a further 3 per cent of the area beyond the international designations is also protected as SSSI; and a total of six NNRs extend over nearly 1,500 ha.

Remarkable archaeological finds have been made in the peat deposits of the Moors, telling us much about their past management and the interactions between people and the environment. The sediments contain a record of ancient landscapes and climates with the peat containing ancient tracks, preserved for thousands of years – the lake villages at Glastonbury and Meare dating from the first millennium BC are perhaps the best-known examples.

The extension of settlement has been linked to the construction of embankments and sea walls, and the digging of drainage ditches; for example, settlement extended to the coastal clay belt in the Romano-British period. The drained medieval field system of the Levels and Moors comprises one of the bestpreserved medieval enclosure landscapes in England. Areas of medieval and earlier enclosure are characterised by irregular patterns with raised droves and evidence of oval infields bordered or girdled by pioneer farmsteads.

Settlement is often sparse and historically much influenced by the avoidance of flood risk, being located on slightly raised ground. Highbridge, Burnham-on- Sea, Weston-super-Mare and Bridgwater are the main settlements. Residential and industrial development now extends across the open landscape to the M5 motorway.

The wildlife and heritage, local food and sense of remoteness have now become significant attractions for increasing numbers of visitors and tourists. A sense of mysticism exists, much enhanced in the Brue Valley – the Avalon Marshes – by its proximity to Glastonbury. This is a landscape formed and sustained by the management of water: ‘paradoxically the landscape owes its wild and desolate atmosphere to an environment that is almost entirely man-made’.

The landscape through time

The Quaternary muds, sands and peats of the Levels and Moors, formed over the preceding 11,500 years, are underlain by the Mesozoic Central Somerset Basin comprised of Jurassic and Triassic strata. At times during the Quaternary, it is possible that the Bristol Channel was blocked by ice, forming a large lake over much of the area. During warmer, interglacial periods the area was dominated by rivers depositing terrace sediments and flood plain alluvium, as well as higher sea levels depositing estuarine sediments. The surrounding hills are predominantly underlain by late Triassic and early Jurassic grey clays and limestones which overlie red Mercia Mudstone. Along the coast there are areas of sand dunes and storm gravel beaches which protect the hinterland from incursions by high tides.

The Levels and Moors originated as broad estuaries after the last ice age. A belt of slightly raised marine clay running parallel to the coast – the Levels – impeded the flow of water out of the area resulting from rising sea levels and, augmented by run-off due to high rainfall on the surrounding Mendip and Blackdown hills, formed inland areas of groundwater peat fen. The resulting peat moors – the Moors – have provided a variety of resources since prehistory: valuable common pasture between surrounding settlements; a source of peat; pollard willows; and material from osier beds for making fish traps and basketwork. The withy industry continues to produce baskets and artists’ charcoal.

The landscape of prehistory was one of swamp and mere. The ridges of the Mid Somerset Hills and the few knolls provided higher ground where Neolithic people could live during winter floods. During summer months they would move down on to the Moors and make use of the marsh resources. Tracks and causeways crossed the wetland, linking it to higher, drier land. The best known of these is the ‘Sweet Track’, rediscovered in 1970 and dating from 3,807 or 3,806 BC. Tracks continued to be built for millennia and, along with lake villages established during the Iron Age, such as those found at Glastonbury and Meare, were at the heart of the marshland economy.

Roman influence extended across the area, with settlement focused principally on Ilchester and the surrounding hills, with management and exploitation of the resources offered by the Levels and Moors such as good grazing, fish, fowl and, notably, salt. Evidence of numerous Roman saltings can be found in the coastal Levels between Brent Knoll and the Polden Hills.

By the time the Saxons arrived, it is likely that all of the marshlands were being exploited by the surrounding populations. The numerous ton and ey settlements, mainly on the surrounding hills, but sometimes on the Levels and Moors themselves, are evidence of Saxon influence and consolidation. During the Viking incursions, Athelney, isolated in the centre of the marshes, became King Alfred’s refuge and is now marked by a memorial, although the monastery he founded has long since disappeared. The subsequent peace treaty with the Danes, agreed on the edge of the levels at Wedmore, marked the crowning of Alfred as the first King of England.

It was the abbots of Glastonbury Abbey – founded or re-founded by King Ine of Wessex around 700 AD – who were the driving force behind marshland reclamation in the 13th century when raised causeways were laid out across the wetland areas. A new course was cut for the River Brue and the land around the higher ground reclaimed. However, following floods and the population decline of the 14th century, reclamation activity declined and it was not until the 1770s that major reclamation recommenced. Work had been substantially completed by 1849. Severe flooding from both the sea and rivers was an ever-present danger well into the 20th century, much reduced by the creation of a new outfall for the Brue at Highbridge. An artificial river was created to link the Brue to this outfall. Much later, the Huntspill River was dug to connect the South Drain directly to the coast instead of draining into the Brue. Pumping stations were also installed at this time. The present water management regime depends on gravity drainage at low tide with pumps to remove excess and to drain agricultural land, since much of the Moors is below high tide level. Flooding remains an ever-present element of the area, and in the 21st century high summer rainfalls have resulted in perceived ‘unseasonal’ flooding; however, it is not unusual for flooding to occur in summer.

In 1685 the Battle of Sedgemoor saw the quelling of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion, a Jacobin uprising challenging the Hanoverian succession. The subsequent ‘bloody’ assizes overseen by Judge Jeffreys had a lasting legacy. The full-scale night time engagement was ultimately doomed to failure, in large part due to the wetland nature of the landscape. This was the last major battle to be fought on English soil. The battlefield and memorial remain an evocative place.

The highly modified nature of the Levels and Moors landscape is also evident in the towns and villages, which by the 11th century had emerged as the dominant element of the area’s settlement pattern. Langport, for instance, is laid out along a single street and many villages are surrounded by strip fields. Most of the inland towns and villages have grown only gradually in recent times, but Bridgwater, on the edge of the area, expanded rapidly as a coal port and industrial centre in the 19th century and continued to expand in the 20th century.

A number of Second World War defensive structures of note can be found around Bridgwater Bay and along the Parrett estuary in particular. The defences link to a string of pillboxes and other anti-invasion defences along the Bridgwater to Taunton canal, together making up a ‘stop line’, nationally significant for its degree of preservation, running along the edge of the Levels and several moors to the south.

Peat is known to have been extracted from the area since at least Roman times. In the 1950s, with the advent of plastic packaging which prevented the peat from rotting, and increased horticultural demands, the process was ‘industrialised’ and activity increased. Many of the former workings have been reclaimed as nature reserves and support internationally important habitats and wildlife. Peat continues to be extracted in commercial, but much reduced, volumes. Arable farming on peat has locally lowered land levels and ultimately made some areas unproductive for agriculture. Many of these areas are now nature reserves, for example West Sedgemoor, Catcott Lows and Greylake. Intensive agriculture and the drainage of peat soils has had an impact on their structure, value and land level and resulted in some very significant and ongoing changes across wide areas.

Most 20th-century development can be found on the coastal strip and alongside the M5 motorway. Bridgwater, Highbridge, Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super- Mare have all experienced substantial growth with housing and commercial and industrial units expanding further eastwards towards the motorway.

In 1987, a large proportion of the area (27,678 ha) was designated as an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA) in order to conserve and enhance landscape, wildlife and historic interests. This scheme closed in 2012.

Between 1990 and 1998, there were agricultural changes which led to modifications in the character of the area. Many of these changes were the result of lack of management of common elements, such as the pollarding of willows, and the management of woodlands and orchards. There was a marked loss of permanent grassland and increased cereal production. Maize production to support livestock numbers and a significant dairy industry have also resulted in a marked change in character. From 1999 to 2003, the characteristic elements in the farming landscape once again began to be maintained, although development pressure in some areas remains. The end of the ESA scheme for many farmers in 2012 has increased the pressure for intensification of farming practices in some parts of the Levels and Moors. At the same time, some fields have been neglected.