The Somerset Levels is a vast, flat watery landscape that covers 170,000 acres. It reaches from Clevedon near Bristol in the north, to Ilchester in the south. Its western boundary is formed from Bridgwater Bay and the Bristol Channel beyond. The landscape is magical and evocative of ancient times. It is against this backdrop that Alfred the Great (AD 849-99), King of Wessex was forced to flee westwards when the Viking King Guthrum’s army attacked. King Alfred took refuge on the island of Athelney in the Levels at Sedgemoor, (at the time Athelney was a low isolated island) and when he defeated Guthrum months later Alfred founded Athelney Abbey.
The area of the Levels that I visited recently was in South Somerset, in Langport on the banks of the river Parrett. To find this walk (you will need wellies!) drive through the town towards the A378 and cross the river Parrett. You can park at the Westover Trading Estate. My route took me through the historic Hanging Chapel made of the characteristic grey stone that you’ll see in the beautiful village, yes you can drive through the Hanging Chapel although I did hesitate!
The walk with my lovely friend Ali, started off at the Bridge Bakery café where Ali kindly treated me to a huge almond croissant and flat white – highly recommended and much needed sustenance! We crossed the bridge and then walked along the flooded footpaths in our wellies. Although you can do a walk heading away from the bridge down through the industrial estate but on that day it seemed more like a lake! In my book the best sort of walks are the meandering ones and ours had the feeling of an adventure with a hint of peril as we navigated the most watery parts!
I absolutely loved wading through the watery landscapes (wading because some of the paths were flooded). It is a very peaceful, flat scene, popular with walkers and meanders and bird life. It was quite a gloomy day but very still and all those greys and silvers have a mysterious quality as the sunlight shines through.
The rivers and wetlands of the Levels today are artificially drained, irrigated and modified to allow productive farming. But thousands of years ago the area was covered by Sea. The rivers of the Levels are the Axe, Sheppey and Brue in the north and the Cary, Yeo, Tone and Parrett in the south.
Throughout history people have been determined to survive life on the Levels. During the Neolithic era (6,000 years ago) settlements hugged the raised land in the marshes and these were connected by timber trackways, the most well-known was the Sweet Track in the nearby Glastonbury area.
Iron Age settlements have been discovered, including the Glastonbury Lake Village and two villages at Meare Pool, the Glastonbury site was abandoned due to rising water levels. In Roman times ditches were dug and flood defences built, however rising water defeated their hopes, symbolised by the abandonment of a Roman settlement at Alstone near Highbridge.
In the 17th century Dutch farmers arrived to drain the land and since then it has been managed by farmers.