By Vernon Harwood
Stretching from the Mendip Hills down to the Vale of Taunton, the Somerset Levels and Moors is a low-lying landscape; it’s a beautiful corner of the West Country but in the cold, wet winter months it can be bleak and desolate.
Not far from the coast of the Bristol Channel it’s dotted with pretty villages and criss-crossed by rivers, artificial drains and man-made rhynes. There’s a long history of human attempts to control flooding in this part of the county; a history that stretches back to the days of the Roman occupation.
So people here are used to overflowing river banks and lapping waters. But nothing prepared them for the devastation of the last two months. The cross country route, the A361, flooded on New Year’s Eve and over the following weeks the situation seemed to worsen day by day.
These personal stories come direct from those at the heart of the floods:
The dairy farmers
For many people the plight of Moorland farmer James Winslade and his wife Jenny, sums up the sense of loss on the Somerset Levels. As the waters threatened to swamp their cattle sheds, the Winslades had a choice; either leave their 500 head herd to their fate or organise a mammoth evacuation. With lives and livelihoods at stake they called on friends and fellow farmers to transport the animals to safety. It was a dramatic and at times desperate operation. A convoy of tractors and trailers snaked slowly through the murky water from the Winslade’s farm to the safety of the Sedgemoor Auction Centre beside the M5. A few days later when some of those animals were sold, the strength of local feeling was so great that when bidding had finished a clearly emotional James received a spontaneous round of applause.
Bryony Sadler loves rearing rare breed chickens. She keeps around 70 birds and her Plymouth Rocks, Brahmas and Legbars are very special to her. But now she’s had to abandon her home, the collection has been split up amongst friends and family members; Bryony has been forced to arrange the sale of her prized flock. After nearly 12 years on the Levels she’s left with no alternative; she can’t keep the birds at her temporary accommodation when she doesn’t know how long she’ll be out of her home. Yet despite her losses, she’s quick to praise people throughout the UK who’ve come to the aid of the community: “we’re bewildered, surprised and delighted by people’s kindness. Everyone from Young Farmers supplying forage to people offering cars to ferry food and clothes, the help we’re getting means we’re still smiling.”
There’s nothing like a good acronym to get your message across and FLAG have certainly been noticed this winter. Formally known as ‘Flooding on the Somerset Levels Action Group’ its members blame the rising waters on the state of the local waterways. Rebecca Horsington has been involved in the relief efforts and helping run a high profile, and apparently successful, campaign for dredging of the Rivers Parrett and Tone. She told BBC Radio 4: “When this flooding event occurred it happened very quickly and with the best will in the world the authorities were quite slow to react. We started with a Facebook group, putting up FLAG shout outs for help and people were responding in a very organic manner.” Now the emphasis has moved from organic to organised as the Action Group hands it’s sandbagging and evacuation work over to Somerset County Council as part of “a more coordinated approach”.
The boat crewman
It’s easy to accuse the national media of being London centric. It’s often an unfair assumption but in this case it’s generally thought that Fleet Street failed to wake up to the seriousness of the Somerset floods until rescue boats were called in to the village of Muchelney. Cut off by flood water the locals relied on the crew of the Burnham Area Rescue Boat (BARB) to ferry people and supplies in and out of the village. Roger Flower has been a crew member for a decade and has been making up to ten trips a day in to Muchelney: “there’s a tremendous Blitz mentality amongst the villagers and the local community has been galvanised by this.” Typically, Roger is keen to stress that while BARB has been praised for its work, he’s been more impressed by the generosity of the flood victims: “it’s humbling when the first thought of rescued home-owners is making sure that the crew have hot drinks while others fetch sandwiches or biscuits for us.”