Glastonbury’s history and legends must be seen in terms of its isolated within The Somerset Levels (or the Somerset Levels and Moors as they are called less commonly but more correctly). This is a sparsely populated coastal plain and wetland area of central Somerset, England, between the Quantock and Mendip hills, a must-see for all visitors to the area.
The Levels are a coastal sand and clay barrier about 6 metres (20 ft) above mean sea level whereas the inland Moors can be 6 metres (20 ft) below peak tides and have large areas of peat.
Formations protrude to form what would once have been islands – such as Athelney, Brent Knoll, Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor.
There was a port at Bleadney on the river Axe in the 8th century that enabled goods to be brought to within 3 miles (5 km) of Wells. In 1200 a wharf was constructed at Rackley near Axbridge. The Parrett was navigable up as far as Langport in 1600, with 15-20 ton barges. The Domesday Book recorded that drainage of the higher grounds was under way. In the Middle Ages the monasteries of Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney were responsible for much of the drainage. In 1129 the Abbot of Glastonbury was recorded as inspecting enclosed land at Lympsham.
It is thought that due to winter flooding, humans restricted their use of the levels to the summer months, a practice that gave rise to name of the county of Somerset (derived from Sumorsaete, meaning land of the summer people). A Palaeolithic flint tool found in West Sedgemoor is the earliest indication of human presence in the area. During the 7th millennium BC the sea level rose and flooded the valleys so the Mesolithic people occupied seasonal camps on the higher ground, indicated by scatters of flints. The Neolithic people continued to exploit the reedswamps for their natural resources and started to construct wooden track ways. These included the Sweet Track, currently the world’s oldest known engineered roadway dating from the 3800s BC.
The Levels were also the location of the Glastonbury Lake Village as well as two at Meare. Discovered in 1892 by Arthur Bulleid, the former remains the best-preserved prehistoric village in the United Kingdom and was at one time inhabited by around 200 people living in 14 roundhouses.
The area continued to be used in the Bronze Age, with the population supporting themselves largely by hunting and fishing in the surrounding marsh, living on artificial islands connected by wooden causeways on wooden piles. There have been many finds of metalwork during peat cutting, which may have been devotional offerings. In the Iron Age the first permanent settlement of the higher ground occurred.
A number of Saxon charters document the incorporation of areas of moor in estates, suggests that the area continued to be exploited. Several towns, villages and hill forts were also built on the natural “islands” of slightly raised land, including Brent Knoll, Glastonbury, and the low range of the Polden Hills. It’s easy to see why the area acquired a number of legends, particularly of King Arthur and his followers, who some believe based his court at the hill fort at South Cadbury.
Willow has been cut and used on the Levels since humans moved into the area. Fragments of willow basket were found near the Glastonbury Lake Village and it was also used in the construction of several Iron Age causeways. The willow was harvested using a traditional method of coppicing, where a tree would be cut back to the main stem. New shoots of willow, called “withies”, would grow out of the trunk and these would be cut periodically for use.
During the 1930s over 9,000 acres (36 km2) of willow were being grown commercially on the Levels. Largely due to the displacement of baskets with plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the industry has severely declined since the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century only around 350 acres (1.4 km2) were grown commercially, near the villages of Burrowbridge, Westonzoyland and North Curry. Products including baskets, eel traps, lobster pots and furniture were widely made from willow throughout the area in the recent past. Among the more unusual products still made are passenger baskets for hot air balloons, the frames inside the bearskin hats worn by the regiments of the Household Cavalry, and an increasing number of willow coffins.
See Wikipedia entry for the somerset Levels here.
Being largely flat, the Levels are well suited to cycling and a number of cycle routes exist including:
Withy Way Cycle Route (22 miles, 35 km),
Avalon Marshes Cycle Route (28 miles, 45 km),
Peat Moors Cycle Route (24 miles, 39 km) and the
Isle Valley Cycle Route (28 miles, 45 km).
The River Parrett Trail (47 miles, 75 km) and Monarch’s Way long-distance footpaths are also within the area.
The following visitor centres aim to convey various aspects of the Levels:
The Willows and Wetlands visitor centre
Located near Stoke St Gregory offers tours of the willow yards and basket workshops and explains the place of willow in the history of the Levels. The Somerset Willow Company also open the doors of their workshops to visitors.
The Peat Moors Centre
Located to the west of Glastonbury, this centre is dedicated to the archaeology, history and geology of the area. It also includes reconstructions of some of the archaeological discoveries, including a number of Iron Age round houses and the world’s oldest engineered highway, the Sweet Track. From time to time the centre offers courses in a number of ancient technologies in subjects including textiles, clothing and basket making, as well as staging various open days, displays and demonstrations. Natural England and the RSPB are seeking (2009) to fund a new interpretation centre on a neighbouring site. The owners of the Peat Moors Centre, however, Somerset County Council, have announced their intention of closing the Centre permanently from 31 October 2009; the subsequent future of the collection is uncertain, but efforts are being made to set up a charitable trust to maintain it and the Centre’s activities.
Lake Village Museum & Somerset Rural Life Museum
In Glastonbury itself is The Tribunal, a medieval merchant’s house containing possessions and works of art from the Glastonbury Lake Village which were preserved in almost perfect condition in the peat after the village was abandoned. Also in Glastonbury the Somerset Rural Life Museum contains information about crafts and folk traditions on the Levels, including willow growing.
The Langport & River Parrett Visitor Centre
Located at Langport details local life, history and wildlife.
Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum
Located near the town on the River Parrett is housed in one of the earliest steam-powered pumping stations on the Levels, dating from the 1830s. The station was closed in the 1950s. Featuring several steam engines, some built locally, the museum holds a number of live steam days each year.