A great white egret – surely the most elegant of all Europe’s waterbirds – stands stock-still, waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting fish. Overhead, a hobby – that streamlined and aerobatic falcon – grabs a dragonfly out of the clear spring air. An otter dives beneath the glassy surface of the water; and deep in the reedbeds, an unseen bittern booms its bass courtship song in answer to a rival male.
As the sun beats down and the heat-haze shimmers, we could be in the Camargue of southern France. But that distant tower-topped hill looks eerily familiar, and the voices around us are English. Despite the exotic species, this is not some far-flung wildlife haven: the hill is Glastonbury Tor, and this is the Somerset Levels.
Legend has it that this is the magical land of Avalon, where King Arthur is said to have been buried after receiving mortal wounds at the battle of Camlann. Avalon is thought to mean ‘isle of the apples’, a fruit that still grows in abundance in the region and so gives the myth some sort of root. Glastonbury is the heart of Arthurian Somerset – it’s an acquired taste, and I grown to enjoy the mysticism, the curious nooks and crannies – and ancient taverns.
Mythology aside, this is where a later and very real king, Alfred the Great, took refuge from the Danes after he had narrowly escaped their clutches during the sack of his royal residence at Chippenham, further east. It was here, so another legend tells, while in hiding in a poor cottage, he burned the cakes he was supposed to be looking after – he was too preoccupied with how to win his kingdom back.
Even today, was you walk or drive down the lanes of the Levels, with rivers, streams, lagoons and marshes all round you, you can imagine it would have been very difficult to winkle the king from his miry hideout.
Even further back, 4,000 years before the birth of Christ, this is where an unknown labourer began to build the Sweet Track, the oldest known pathway in Europe, to enable people to travel across the marshes. You can walk it today within Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve and imagine the life the willow weavers and fisher folk must have led.
For water has always been the defining characteristic of the Somerset Levels. The name ‘Somerset’ means ‘land of the summer people’, a reference to the age-old custom of moving down from the hills each spring and summer to graze livestock on the lowlands, where pastures had been reinvigorated by winter flooding.
Even today, the main human settlements are on higher ground, such as the low spine of the Polden Hills, while landmarks such as Glastonbury Tor, Brent Knoll and Burrow Mump peer out over this flat landscape.
As well as farming (mainly sheep and dairy cattle), local people still make a living from two classic crops: the withies produced by the numerous willow trees, and of course the dark peat that makes up much of the low-lying ground.
For peat’s sake
Until recently the Somerset Levels was one of the best-kept secrets in Britain – lying forgotten between Wells and Yeovil in the east and the coastal resort of Burnham-on-Sea to the west. The area was known, if anything, as a place where dark, thick lumps of peat were dug from the ground, willow was grown for weaving baskets, and strong, cloudy cider.
It is the peat that has been the key to the region’s turnaround. For when peat is dug, you are left with huge holes that rapidly fill with water. The land cannot be farmed or built on; but with careful management it can be restored for nature.
Within a decade or two – with a considerable amount of effort from conservation bodies, their staff and willing volunteers – those scars on the landscape have been transformed into open pools surrounded by vast reedbeds, the perfect habitat for a range of wetland wildlife.
No sooner had the reeds started to take hold than dragonflies and damselflies began to colonise this new habitat. They were swiftly followed by a range of wetland birds, including garganey, little egret and marsh harrier. The otter – once driven virtually to extinction in England – is also thriving, and Noah’s Lake within Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve (NNR) is one of the best places in England to catch sight of this elusive mammal.
It is very easy to explore the Levels on foot. And perhaps the best single route to take follows the old Somerset and Dorset railway line through the RSPB’s Ham Wall reserve, towards the Natural England reserves of Shapwick and Meare Heaths. Beyond these, you can follow easy, broad paths into Somerset Wildlife Trust reserves at Westhay Moor and Catcott Lows, and the RSPB reserve at Greylake.
Wildlife doesn’t care about boundaries, so the same species range over the whole of the area. As I walk along the path on a fine spring morning, my ears resound to birdsong. On a good day, I can hear up to eight different warblers: Cetti’s warbler and whitethroat in the scrub, sedge and reed warblers in the reeds, and willow warbler, chiffchaff, garden warbler and blackcap in the surrounding wet woodland.
As I reach the open water, I am always on the lookout for waders – black-tailed godwits are regular – and ducks, including the shy and beautiful garganey. Low-flying marsh harriers float over the reedbeds, while passing ospreys regularly turn up, stopping to fish on nearby Noah’s Lake.
But without doubt, the stars of the show are the herons. It is incredible to think that in 2006 only two species – grey heron and little egret – were breeding in the county. Less than a decade later, six species have bred, including the bittern, little bittern, cattle and great white egrets.
When you add the occasional glossy ibis and white stork, the odd purple heron and the resident cranes, that makes a round 10 species of long-legged waterbird.
Birds are the most obvious attraction, but other groups of wildlife are doing well, too. The hairy dragonfly – a scarce and localised species – is usually the first to emerge in late April, soon followed by other dragons and damsels, including a recent colonist, the scarce chaser.
Butterflies are thriving too: on one summer’s day, accompanied by an expert guide, I saw 18 species here, including the beautiful white admiral, purple hairstreak and silver-washed fritillary, all of which can be found in the wet woodlands around the newly restored Sweet Track.
Later in the season the Polden Hills – more of a small ridge really – are home to one of our rarest butterflies, the large blue. This delicate and beautiful insect became extinct in the late 1970s, but thanks to a successful reintroduction project, it can now easily be seen on sunny days in late June and early July, at the National Trust reserve at Collard Hill, just south of Street.
Beyond the Poldens, and in southern half of the levels, lies the RSPB’s vast West Sedgemoor reserve. Around the fringes of this reserve, look for the reintroduced flock of more than 30 common cranes – best located by listening for their characteristic honking calls. I particularly love this reserve for the sense of wide open expanses of marshland, peaceful except for the thrilling calls of wild birds.
Rare fish house
Humans have long made a living here, too, though even today settlements feel few and far between. In the central Levels area in particular, you’ll find ruins and other evidence of monastic houses that exploited the Levels’ natural resources. The 14th-century Abbot’s Fish House at Meare is England’s only surviving building relating to a freshwater fishery. Eels, pike and bream would have been dried and salted here to be served to the abbot and his friends at Glastonbury.
Well worth a detour further south is Muchelney Abbey. This Benedictine stronghold is almost totally ruined aside from the impressive Abbot’s House, but its riverside setting and attached legends make it enchanting. From here you can walk along the River Parrett (look out for pike!) to the vibrant town of Langport, which, as its name suggests, used to be an important trading centre when the Parrett was navigable. It still has a vibrant, upbeat feel and a couple of excellent pubs.
For more of the human story of the region, you must not miss the city of Wells – actually no bigger than a small market town. Wells is dominated by its cathedral, famous school and the Bishop’s Palace. It’s not uncommon to see lines of smartly uniformed pupils snaking their ways through the cathedral close – giving it a slightly Hogwartian feel: homely, yet from another time. Wells is also packed to the gunnels with interesting shops, quirky corners as well as excellent restaurants and pubs. Or, if you fancy something similar but on a smaller scale, try charming, upmarket Wedmore to the west, typically perched on a rare ridge of high ground.
But if you’re like me, you’ll soon be drawn back into the wild marshes to immerse yourself in nature once more. What is most impressive about this region, is that, for the first time in my life, we have managed to recreate a vast wetland habitat, where birds and other wildlife don’t just survive, but thrive. Go see it!