Barney, personal experience so far…

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:

  1. Investment, excitement and improvement of engineering/drainage works.
  2. Forgetting the bad times, lack of maintenance and slowly falling into disrepair.
  3. Severe events, economic and social depression.
  4. 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!

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Barnaby Dobson

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The Land of the Summer People’s project background

Five years of interest in the Somerset Levels and Moors and over a year of ideas and conversations about how to make the project happening is the background of The Land of the Summer People project.

During this time, I have been looking at the Levels and Moors from different perspectives researching around the historical archives including art, archaeology, geology, biology, hydrology, trying to empathy with the complex relationship of people, land and water in this area. While my interest in Somerset was growing, the last severe winter flooding occurred, which enforced even more what at that time was the conceptual base for this project.

River Parretfloods article

Then I started visiting more Somerset to be present in the conversations happening out there as well as experiencing the landscape which meanwhile ended up being transformed in an art project called some:when. This project is a public art project in collaboration with the artist Jethro Brice together with individuals and community groups affected by the floods which is currently happening.

It is important for me how The Land of the Summer People project ideas have been shifted by the learning about the area, how experience have shaped what is vital in the research of this project, specially even more considering this project as an art-science collaborative approach. Since the last winter flooding in 2014, actions have been taking place, making even more relevant the exchange of knowledge, specially looking at the relationship between archival history and living memory, are decisions in the area influenced by (living) memory? Would it be important to look at history in order to learn from previous local inhabitants and combine their methods with the way we live nowadays? Would it be important to change approaches in local people’s lives to be more resilience about future extreme weather events? Could art play a role in the discourse, thinking of art as a language that enables reflection and analysis?

river Parret

Seila Fernández Arconada