When she awoke, the snow had stopped again, and veils of wispy dark cloud were flung out against a sky that flared with bands of gold and orange and scarlet. Oddly, the ground seemed at first to be the same colour as the sky, till she blinked and realised that she was in fact looking at a great sheet of water... Treetops stood out above the water, and the surface bristled with spiky dark patches, which she supposed must be reeds.
"This is the summer country," explained Alfred. "Somerset. In the summer, it's land. But it's very low lying, and in the winter, it floods and the hills turn into islands. Mostly you need a boat, but there are a few ways through on foot, and I know them."
He knew them, but the Vikings didn't - and so he was safe. One of those islands was Athelney (the Isle of Princes), which was his refuge; another is the small hill now called Burrow Mump.
This time last year, the news was dominated by images of the flooded Levels. I went down there not long after Christmas - it's about twenty miles from where I live - and took some pictures. There is very often water lying on the fields - it's not unusual not to be able to get to Athelney. For instance, I took this picture several years ago, when I was there researching Alfred's country; this level of inundation is routine.
|Water lying near Athelney|
|This is normally a field.|
|The water here was almost over the road, but so far, not quite.|
|This was the view from the top of Burrow Mump. The water is almost into the village, but so far, not quite.|
The two main rivers are the Parrett and the Tone, Towards the end of the last century, the management of the rivers and rhynes was rejigged, and they stopped dredging the rivers. The local people were not happy; the new regime seemed to go against what common sense, and years of experience working this very unusual landscape, suggested.
Last year, a system of land management which had apparently worked well for so many years failed. Although the moors had always flooded previously, people's homes had not. There were exceptional factors; unusually high tides forced water up the Parrett till it had to overflow, and there had been so much rain in previous months that the ground was sodden and could not absorb all the excess water. But the people insisted that, had the waterways been properly dredged, the water would have flowed more easily and the disaster would not have occurred. At first the authorities demurred, but now they seem to have changed their minds, and dredging has begun again.
Some of the people who were forced out of their homes have only just been able to return. A few, in despair, sold up at rock-bottom prices. Most didn't. Livelihoods were affected: it's been a very hard year.
I'm no expert, obviously. But it just strikes me that, particularly where you have a difficult and unusual environment which has been worked for centuries - then you really should listen to the people who live there and in particular, those who work the land. They are the keepers. They're in tune with the land, and they know what they're talking about.
Pictures: copyright Sue Purkiss