Friday 16 January 2015

Floods in Somerset - some reflections: Sue Purkiss

A few years ago, I wrote a book about Alfred the Great, called Warrior King. The Vikings launched a surprise attack on Alfred, on Twelfth Night, 878. His army had been stood down for the winter: he had no choice but to flee. He headed for Somerset, for the marshes - he knew the country well because he had hunted there. With him (in my story) was his daughter, Aethelflaed...

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

However, last year was different. This is what I saw. And this was before the water had risen high enough to flood whole villages.

This is normally a field.

So's this.

The water here was almost over the road, but so far, not quite.

This is Burrow Mump, a small hill with a ruined church on top. Close by is the King Alfred Inn, which became a centre for community action when local people decided that the authorities weren't going to give them the help they needed, so they'd better help themselves.

This was the view from the top of Burrow Mump. The water is almost into the village, but so far, not quite.
So - the levels were very watery in Alfred's time - flooding is not a new phenomenon. The area is below sea level, so it's not surprising that it floods. It has been drained to some extent since the Middle Ages - the monasteries at Athelney, Muchelney and Glastonbury led the way. Then last century, much bigger drainage channels were constructed.

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


Gavin McL said...

The decisions made by the Environment Agency about dredging were driven by the treasury requirements about return from investment in flood risk reduction. Because few people live in the area and agricultural land is not valued as much as it perhaps should be the money spent on dredging does not generate sufficient "return". The treasury equations force investment on areas with high populations and a lot industry. Despite the massive of amount of rain none of the major towns in the area of the flooded- which is just what the treasury equations demand of the EA. Difficult for the people in the levels but that's what we all "voted" for even if we didn't realise it

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for providing a different perspective, Gavin.

Joan Lennon said...

It seems flippant to say when the problem is so important, but those are great photos - thanks for posting about this.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, Joan! The floods did make for an amazing landscape.

Susan Price said...

So Government listened to money talking again.
Not what people need, but what money needs.
As Gavin says, this is what the majority (of those who voted) voted for.