Over the past few weeks every television screen, train window and twitter bulletin has glittered with the tantalising glint of high water, and whenever possible between the conflicting claims of illness, family and multiple jobs I’ve headed out to Somerset or the Avon to wet my boots.
A wide loop by bicycle from Bridgwater to Langport, Shapwick Heath and back took me through some of the most dramatically flooded land. Anxious to see as much as possible I made a single exhaustive day of it, cycling through miles of submerged country with the Parrett often flowing beside me at eye level between its high banks. The sheer physicality of the water, raised at volume above the surrounding landscape, brought home to me in a new way the true extent of drainage practices on the Levels. My first conversation on arrival at the riverside was with a local resident beside one of the many temporary pumping stations; I quickly revealed my ignorance by asking if they were trying to lower the river level. My companion was kind, he treated my suggestion with more credit than it deserved, but concluded he’d stake his reputation they were pumping the water up off the moor. Once I’d climbed the high flood banks for myself this was unmistakably evident.
For the next stretch of my ride I was preoccupied with spatial projection, trying to visualise the implications of those flood banks – first imagining how those waters would be redistributed over the terrain in their absence, then appreciating that this was in part an artificial concentration of water, and that an undrained landscape would originally have retained water over a much larger area, gradually releasing it over a longer time scale. In an unimproved wetland environment the floods would therefore look quite different.
From Burrow Mump I got my first clear overview of the floods. The moors below were transformed, broad expanses of silver laced with submerged strands of tree and hedge. Lapwing, swans and an assortment of ducks were strung out along field edges and higher ground, thousands more dotted across the water where the expanse of the flood protected them from my taxonomic gaze. Later, I learned these were deliberately managed catchment zones – part of a pioneering network of strategic wildlife and flood management zones carried out by the RSPB together with the Environment Agency and local farmers and interest groups. Over the last few weeks these have held and stored millions of cubic metres of water to allow the drainage and protected of settled areas and other vulnerable locations elsewhere on the levels.
As the light failed I arrived at the nature reserve in Shapwick Heath. Again the terrain and its waterscape were oddly counter-intuitive, as these re-flooded peat works actually sit higher than much of the levels, and the surrounding peat and agricultural works were fairly dry. In the pink light of the sunset I huddled against the wind with a motley assortment of spectators to watch the starlings perform their spectacular murmurations over the readbeds, and was grateful to accept a lift home with my bicycle from a fellow Bristolian spectator.