The hidden heritage of watery landscapes: flooding and the Somerset Levels

A few sunny days in early March and it seems easy to forget about all the storms and flooding that has hit us in recent months. The storm damage that broke the railway at Dawlish is being made good – ahead of schedule, and this week sees the re-opening of the train link across the Somerset Levels between Taunton and Bristol. It will take a while longer before the flood waters in Somerset to subside completely, and so, of course, it is now that the arguing will really begin – about what to do and who will pick up the tab. I feel some reflection on the hidden (and not-so-hidden) heritage of the Somerset Level is required.

Thus far, much of the public debate has been channelled through an EITHER/OR scenario: EITHER we choose large scale (and expensive) engineering: dredging the water channels so as to prevent flooding; raising road and rail levels to that present practices can be maintained; increasing the height of dykes so that livings and lifestyles can be protected. OR we proverbially ‘walk away’, move people out where necessary and let the birds get on with it. What are the lessons from taking a heritage perspective?

Issues of climate change and environmental protection appear to have a lot of resonance with notions of heritage: both seem to be concerned with stopping change and with preserving physical artefacts and landscapes. A slightly broader outlook, however, reveals that both climate change and heritage are really all about engaging with and managing on-going processes in the present and with an eye to the future: stability is always an illusion – or at least dynamism is the only constant.

On the Somerset Levels, the village of Muchelney has been described as being completely ‘cut off’ for weeks – without any hint of irony that this act of natural disaster-induced isolation is being reported on national news networks each evening. Many reporters have noted that the name Muchelney literally means ‘big island’, suggesting that the condition of this patch of land being ‘cut off’ has a pedigree of some historical depth. Is this a ‘heritage message’ for how we should deal with the issue of flooding on the Somerset Levels: simply to accept that Muchelney ought to be a ‘big island’ and deal with it? Well – YES and NO!

On the one hand, such a statement underlines the dynamic nature of these landscapes, and reminds us that we should never seek to impose a sense of permanent stability. Many heritage-related institutions, such as English Heritage and the National Trust are developing their policies in line with an ideal that we must accept that change is inevitable; it can be good; and processes of adaptation must be followed for the purposes of long-term sustainability. Just this week, the National Trust released a report that identified a number of coastal locations around the UK where a policy of ‘managed retreat’ might be beneficial (see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26511229). But does this mean we should somehow just ‘write off’ the Somerset Levels?

I would argue that these events should prompt us to delve deeper into aspects of hidden heritage in areas such as the Somerset Levels. Such environmental hazards as flooding are not new, and there is a deeply embedded heritage of skills and practices that have formed the basis of human-environment relations in Somerset for centuries. Practices of dredging might be a part of this, but must also include a wide range of other water management skills, techniques and know-how, alongside a range of adaptations and acceptances of an intimacy between humans, water and landscape that is unusual for life in 21st Century Britain. After all, it is this intimacy that forms part of the distinctiveness of the Levels. And it is this distinctiveness – which goes far beyond the physical ‘look’ of the landscape – that is at the heart of understanding the heritage of the Levels.

According to the Government Agency Natural England, the ‘Somerset Levels and Moors’ is National Landscape Character Area 142 (see: http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/publications/nca/somerset_levels_and_moors.aspx). In their report, they list the further draining of waterways, lack of upkeep of field ditches and the growing of certain crops – particularly maize – as providing a threat to this landscape. Growing maize leaves the soil bare for many months, leading to increased sediment runoff, which then fills the water courses with mud, thereby requiring more dredging. It strikes me that while dredging might be part of the management solution, so too must a careful reflection over cropping regimes more broadly. Perhaps we should look towards traditional local industries such as reed growing, thatching and wicker basket making, and perhaps move away from arable cropping (especially with autumn ploughing) alongside perhaps accepting that Muchelney will occasionally be a ‘big island’. These are not easy options, and would require a good deal of financial and other modes of support – but it might be cheaper than ‘big engineering’ and perhaps might also maintain what is important about the ‘heritage of the Somerset Levels’ as a living and meaningful landscape.

I feel that whatever the solution that will be reached in Somerset, an ‘either/or’ scenario is not helpful. Rather than asking whether we EITHER ‘protect and preserve with expensive engineering schemes’, OR ‘walk away, move the local population out and leave the Levels to the birds’, we should be exploring alternative heritage narratives, which accept and celebrate that what makes the Levels ‘special’ is the intimate relationship between humans, and water; animals and landscape.

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