Situated between the Mendip and Blackdown Hills, there is an area of rare beauty and even rarer habitats. The watery land is full of history and mystery. The ghosts of Arthur and Alfred rest here, and at Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea’s staff miraculously took root, and created a place of popular pilgrimage.
The Somerset Levels and Moors are approximately 650 square kms of precious, swampy wetland, bi-sected by the gentle Polden Hills and criss-crossed by workaday rhynes. Settled by ancient people who made trackways through the marsh and lived together on the slightly higher ground, most of the land is barely above sea level. It is a place reclaimed and shaped by man; the great monasteries at Muchelney and Glastonbury first started to manage and drain it. Today the water levels are controlled with a complex system of sluices, drains and dykes. In the winter, fields become shining lakes as the water is held, collected and redirected.
The Levels are vitally important for many species of wildlife and are the site of one of Britain’s unmissable wildlife spectacles: the starling murmurations. At dusk, in winter, hundreds of thousands of them swirl above the reeds in shape shifting flocks. They gather in small strands until the heaving mass is roiling overhead. They move in mysterious harmony before dropping to roost in a chattering single motion.
The RSPB controls my favourite places on the Levels. I love the tiny, intimate reserves, such as Greylake, where a short boardwalk leads to a perfect hide. Harriers hunt above the reeds and swans sit tight on their shabby nests as the soft light leaves the day behind. The sedgy fenland, where peat has been cut for centuries, is a safe stronghold for otters and breeding, booming bitterns. The flooded pastures attract important flocks of waterfowl in winter and spring brings migrating hobby hawks who feast on dragonflies before finishing their journeys to the North. In 2010, the Common Crane was reintroduced, after an absence of 400 years. These tall, fairytale birds are learning the secret places of the reeds, their unmistakeable cries and wheeling flight are once again joining the storybox of the land.
It feels like a land to belong to, it is worth exploring. The narrow lanes are sunken and shrouded with hedgerow, or arrow straight above a causeway. Either way they pull you deeper in. Across the flat, flat land, the spires and towers rise up: a solid church in every village. Pollard willows with short trunks and spiky hair, march along the waterways. The withy stems are used to make fine baskets, woven furniture and trendy willow coffins; it is a traditional Somerset craft and not yet a lost art. Old apple orchards line the roads, their gnarly branches full of mistletoe globes. We buy farm cider, sharp and strong and cloudy, from ancient barrels in old barns. It tastes of pith and pip; it tastes of the land.