A History of Somerset

A History of Somerset

Introduction

The ancient county of Somerset, some 70 miles from east to west and 50 from north to south, lies on the southern shore of the Bristol Channel. A rough semi-circle of hills, old hard sandstones and slates form the heights of Exmoor and the Brendons in the far west; younger greensands, gault clays and gravels of the Cretaceous rocks of the Blackdowns mark the boundary with Devon; then a great sweep of limestone, beginning with the ridge of golden Ham stone and Yeovil sands in the south and continuing in the abrupt hills of the south-east; then the foothills of Salisbury Plain in the east, and finally the southern reaches of the Cotswolds. These hills stand guard over a delectable land.

They guard a county of astonishing variety: within their arc are three roughly parallel ridges—the Quantocks rising, a sandstone bastion to the west, the Mendips forming a commanding scarp of carboniferous limestone, dipping north-east towards Bristol in pockets of marl, coal measures and sandstone. In between are the Poldens, insignificant in any other country, but rising noticeably because they lie in some of the lowest and flattest land in England, the Somerset Levels.

And between these ridges and across these flat lands flow rivers—the Parrett with its tributaries, the southern Yeo, the Tone and the Isle; the Cary, the Brue, the Axe and the northern Yeo—now often running in man-created courses. Eight thousand years ago their waters flowed into a basin some 90 feet or more below the present level. Within some 2,000 years this basin was flooded by a significant rise in the level of the sea, and fingers of salt water reached deep into the countryside. The sea brought with it mud and silt which hardened to blue-grey has, and then receded slightly. In the mud left behind in the basin reeds and sedge began to grow, producing over generations a landscape first of muddy pools and meandering rivers with willow and alder, and later of ash, oak and elm; and then with an increase in rainfall an acid soil supporting only heath and moss, forming as season followed season a rising peat bog filling the central basin, protected from all but the highest tides by a band of estuarine mud. There, in the heart of the county, are preserved most of the earliest traces of Somerset folk.

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In the peat of the Levels and the caves of Mendip are also to be found the earliest traces of the county’s flora and fauna. Fossils, bones and pollen reveal the earliest pattern of animal life and vegetation, a pattern whose development came to be closely related not only to changes in natural circumstances, but also to the relentless struggle of man to exploit the countryside, first for subsistence and then for profit. Climatic change and pollution are the main factors responsible for the disappearance of many plants which have grown in the country for thousands of years, making rare species such as the Somerset Hairgrass, the Cheddar Pink, or the Bath Asparagus, whose names are so clearly related to the county. Steepholm, less subject to human pressure than most places, has nevertheless almost lost the Wild Leek, which has grown there at least since the early 17th century (and which made the island’s rabbits inedible), and the Peony, the latter nearly driven out by wind-sown sycamore. Industrial change now confines the Fuller’s Teazel to small areas at Fivehead and Curry Rivel.

 

Unknown pressures in the past have undoubtedly deprived the county of animals common enough even in historic times: wolves, which may have given their name, for instance, to Woolminstone in Crewkerne, otters to the river Otter, and Otterford. Eighteenth-century parish accounts record payments of bounties to villagers in many parts of the county for the destruction of animals and birds considered pests, and large numbers of sparrows, hedgehogs and foxes were killed with evident enthusiasm. In the same accounts polecats and marten also appear and clearly did not survive the onslaught. And yet new plants, at any rate, take the place of old. Many species occupy temporary homes near docks, railways and mills, and do not survive for long, but the Giant Hogweed from south-east Asia has made itself at home in a few places, and the Pineapple Weed from North America is now almost a native, introduced with shipments of corn to Portishead at the turn of the century and spread rapidly from the 1920s onwards, sticking to motor tyres with the aid of West Country mud, and now to be found in farmyards, gateways and roadsides.

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The natural history of the landscape is a less conventional part of the history of man in the countryside, and yet serves as an introduction to a more traditional story told through archaeological remains and written records. It is a story which begins with the earliest traces of human activity after the end of the Ice Age and continues as each day something is created and something is destroyed.