The Somerset Levels and the Shapwick Project

Until a couple of years ago, for quite a few summers I would spend a fortnight or so camping in Somerset with my children – one at a time, so I could individually tailor what we did to suit the person. We would camp at Rodney Stoke, which is on the main route near the foot of the southerly slope of the Mendips, east from Axbridge, through Cheddar and Wells, to Shepton Mallet.

The campsite faces southwest across the Somerset Levels and Moors, and there were some marvellous evenings when you could sit and watch the weather rolling in from the Bristol Channel. The site is on the lower slope of the Mendips (it can be hard to get the tent pegs in as the limestone is only covered with a few centimetres of turf) looking out across what was once seasonally flooded peat fenlands. The limestone protudes here and there to produce small hills (erstwhile islands), including the nearby Nyland, and prominent is the more distant Glastonbury Tor. The Levels are criss-crossed with drainage channels (known as rhynes) which also form the field boundaries, and across to the southwest is the higher ground of the Isle of Wedmore, with an ancient settlement which was part of the heartlands of the kings of Wessex – the Peace of Wedmore of 878 was an agreement between King Alfred and Guthrum the Danish king, and there are C7th charters showing that Wedmore was part of the royal estate at that time.

On occasion we would head south across the Levels, driving down typically windy and hedged lanes until we came off the limestone and on to the peat, where the road levels out and heads in straight lines with angled, not curved, changes of direction. It’s very similar to the Fens of East Anglia (but on a smaller scale, and framed by the surrounding hills); the narrow roads have deep drainage ditches to the side, and the peat has shrunk back in the fields leaving the road at a slightly higher level. The roads are dead straight, one can see a long way ahead, and the tendency is for the car to slowly gather speed, until, much like in the Fens, you come to a section of tarmac where the peat has unevenly wasted below the road, the surface has become corrugated, and the car starts to bounce until you slow down.

pillboxThe Levels have some interesting World War II defences still visible – not right here, but not far away some of the rhynes were widened as part of a stop line, and many of the bridges still have pillboxes adjacent, in varying stages of decay.

Wedmore ChurchWedmore is an interesting place with a layout badly suited to modern traffic, particularly larger vehicles: the Borough was laid out in the late C12 or early C13th, and the street layout hasn’t changed tremendously. The church is enormous.

From Wedmore the roads go west to Highbridge, east along the limestone ridge to Wells, but we would almost invariably head south back onto the Levels, through Westhay to Shapwick. This is Lake Village and timber prehistoric trackway country, and the road passes the Peat Moors Centre, an excellent museum with archaeological reconstructions, Peat Moors bedPeat Moors roundhousewhich was run by Somerset County Council’s Historic Environment Service; sadly it was closed last autumn as a cost-cutting exercise, and in fact the last time I visited, which must have been 2006, it was starting to have a slightly run-down feel, as if it had been given up Peat Moors roundhouseon already. Here are a few pictures of it from 2006 to show what this piece of cultural vandalism has lost to us.

And then we’d come off the fen, over the Nidons (low limestone ‘hills’ that are so low I wasn’t aware they were there until I read about them), and onto the limestone Polden ridge; the road goes through Shapwick, which, although not a particularly picturesque village, always struck me as interesting. I was vaguely aware at the time of the Shapwick Project, which was ‘an investigation into the archaeology, history and topography of a single parish’, co-directed by Christopher Gerrards and Mick Aston (who is probably best-known for his appearances on Time Team).

Shapwick ProjectThe fieldwork was mainly undertaken between 1989 and 1999, and there was a further five years of analysis and report writing. One of the results was The Shapwick Project, Somerset: a Rural Landscape Explored, The Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph 25. This is over a thousand pages (plus CD-ROM), and weighs over 3kg. And it’s fascinating stuff, although I must admit to skimming through some sections.

The project used just about every archaeological technique going, within their slender budget, including fieldwalking, excavation (full trench, test-pits, and shovel-pits), geophysics, soil analyses, aerial photography, documentary records, and architectural surveying; old records, field names and maps were used to recreate the possible landscape layout at earlier times using a method called regressive map analysis.

Apart from a small amount of prehistoric finds, there is the site of a Roman villa, and the earlier church site at a short distance removed from the village. There were at least four sudden reorganisations of the landscape: in the later Iron Age when land-use and settlement becomes more intensive; in the later Roman period when a villa-linked economy appeared; in the early medieval period the village nucleated, or was manorialised, in a very short space of time, and the loose, spread-out farms were brought together into the centre, with a new open field system being laid out at the same time; and in the C18th & 19th when the outlying farms were built and the open and common fields were enclosed. These can be seen as dislocations, rather than gradual processes.

There are still some interesting buildings standing, including the two old manor houses – one is now a hotel, the other a school – and evidence of emparking, where part of the village was removed and garden features laid out as part of the C18/19 developments.

One of the interesting features of the project was the amount of community involvement, and in this it has some similarities with Michael Wood’s Kibworth project; the whole village (or rather, as many of the villagers as were interested or could be bothered) was involved, including excavating their gardens or boring wood cores out of their houses ancient timbers. Mick Aston would give an annual lecture in the village hall, and the project would have a presence at the village fete, where more people could be persuaded to join in. As funds for the historic environment and archaeology get squeezed in the forthcoming cuts, this sort of community project may prove to be the way forward for the future of archaeology.

The Report is listing at some extremely high prices on Amazon and other websites, but it is still in print and available to buy direct, currently at £50 including UK postage, which  works out good value at only about 4p/page. If you would like an insight into the development of a settlement over the millennia, this must be one of the best ways to find it. The various parts are written by various people, and some parts are more readable than others, and some parts, indeed, are lists – but this is a book in which you can immerse yourself into a village’s past.

Oh, and on those holidays, after we had driven through Shapwick we might go east along the Polden Hills with the old windmill and wonderful views across to Glastonbury and Wells, then down to Street (so-named as it’s on a Roman road) and the cider farm; or south

Muchelney Abbey

Muchelney Abbey

across King’s Sedgemoor; or past Burrow Mump (a sort of mini Glastonbury Tor) and King Alfred’s Isle of Athelney, to visit somewhere like the Willows and Wetlands Centre, Muchelney Abbey, Barrington Court, or further afield to the West Somerset Railway, Lyme Regis, or the beautiful gardens at Hestercombe. I haven’t been to the Levels since 2008, I want to go back to this part of the world and revisit some of these wonderful places; the next time I will stop in Shapwick and have a long wander round.

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