The landscape of the Somerset Levels was created 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. Then, the whole area was under water, but gradually layers of peat built up until the land became the wetlands that we know today. Even now, the area is only about 25 feet above sea level and water management has always been a key issue for those involved in its management. The early settlers soon developed ways of diverting the water in a series of ditches. But today, it's not just a matter of pumps and drainage - the Levels are internationally renowned as a wildlife haven and plans have to take into account the need not only to protect the traditional landscape but also nature conservation and the needs of the local people who live and work there.
Richard begins his visit at the Shapwick Nature Reserve with archaeologist Richard Brunning. The local hills and ridges have been settled since prehistoric times, and traditionally linked across the wetlands by timber trackways. This includes the 'Sweet Track' which is believed to be the oldest man-made trackway in the world. Richard learns that the early Neolithic and Iron Age people were nomadic, moving down into the wetlands during the summer when the water levels were low. This practice gave rise to the name Sumorsaete - 'Land of the Summer People' from which Somerset gets its name. It also adds credence to the idea of Avalon at Glastonbury - an island in an ancient and forgotten sea. And strange and potent artifacts have been found in the marshes …
Bill Oddie Goes Wild in Somerset
Growing willow and making baskets are traditional to the area. - and the Musgrove family has been growing willow for several generations. Leslie's father started the business and now his son Michael and his wife are continuing the tradition and now the family manages around 50 acres. The family do all the planting, harvesting and processing themselves. They don't make baskets or finished goods but supply other weavers, artists and gardeners with willow. The three varieties they grow are all Salix Triandra …. the "Black Maul" with strong growth and brown stems … "Norfolk" which has very dark brown stems … and "Petite Grisette" a French variety with green stems. When harvested, the willow is treated in different ways to produce a different finish. Once cut it may be steamed/boiled with the bark on to produce a black finish, with the bark removed for a brown finish and stripped but uncooked for a white finish.
Somerset Levels Basket & Craft Centre Ltd
Serena de la Hey website
In rural areas like the Somerset Levels, transport is often a problem. If you don't own a car, then you have to rely on increasingly sporadic public transport. But in the village of Woolavington, Richard meets Margaret Stanley, co-ordinator for a new scheme called Village Wheels. A team of around seven volunteers act as drivers and bookings are co-ordinated by Margaret. Local residents ring a central number (with answerphone when unmanned) and Margaret will get a rota'd driver to respond. The scheme is open to any resident for journeys that can't be done any other way. Typical trips involve going to the shops, doctors' surgeries and local hostelries. The scheme is non profit making - passengers pay a nominal fee which covers petrol and administration costs. There is a social aspect to the journeys and many of the older users enjoy having a familiar face at the wheel. Richard meets a frequent user of the scheme, Joan Farrington, who explains that she wouldn't be able to visit her family without Village Wheels.
To finish his trip to the West Country, Richard goes down to the coast. Here he meets Brendon Sellick - at 68, he's the last of the original Somerset shrimp fishermen who sift through the vast stretches of sand. He uses the traditional "mud horse" … a kind of sledge with wooden cross beams. The fishermen load the sledge with their catch, and then lean on the crossbars, scooting the mud horse over the flats that would otherwise drag them down. In the past there would have been dozens of such fisherman along the coast and Brendon's family have done it for four generations. His son Adrian is also working the beach but it's a precarious living and catches are getting smaller. The catch can consist of eels, cod or sprat but is mainly shrimp and these are sold from Brendon's cottage on the beach.
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