As someone who knows a bit about hydrology and not a lot (only what was in the press) about the Somerset Levels this project was quite an eye opener. The geographical situation of the region is interesting; it is certainly a perfect case study for land which is naturally susceptible to flooding and how human intervention/management doesn’t always pan out as planned. However far more exciting for me (having come from a more geography/engineering background) was researching the history of the region and how that has shaped the land today.
The most striking aspect of its history is the cyclical nature. This follows the rough pattern of:
- Investment, excitement and improvement of engineering/drainage works.
- Forgetting the bad times, lack of maintenance and slowly falling into disrepair.
- Severe events, economic and social depression.
- Acknowledgement of problems and the cycle begins again.
While exhausting to read over and over again, we should not be so surprised at this since it is commonly acknowledged that this is how investment into flood defence occurs. 1000 years of flood management history in the Levels displays this cycle occurring over many combined periods. There are century long cycles which follow the performance of the national economy and shorter, more local cycles which move within this, dependent on the actions of individuals.
The most entertaining of these local cycles was the interplay between drainers (engineers), King Charles (who owned the land) and the people who lived there in the first half of the C17th. It was at a time where investment on royal land could only be made by royal agents. The drainers had the agents so convinced that the drainage of the land was achievable that they considered it a done thing and turned against each other to vie for royal favour to get the best deal. All the while the unrest of the people grew, ignored, in the Commons. When attempts at drainage were finally proposed or made they all failed, rejected and opposed by the people. Interestingly in the Great Fens a similar sale of marshland (and thus livelihoods) for drainage on a larger scale by King Charles was occurring in parallel, this is cited for one of the triggers for the Civil War!