We cycled through deep flooding for about half an hour and during this time we passed swans and geese and cormorants and weird kinds of ducks, Shovelers and tufted things and flocks of this and that.
I’ve lived in Wales for some time now, but I originally grew up in a small village on the Somerset levels, about 8 miles from Glastonbury. Every now and then, my old friends have a get together. This Christmas, even as the Met Office issued more flood warnings, we trundled and splashed from outposts as far away as London and Presteigne, to a small house in Glastonbury.
In ancient times, Somerset was known as the land of the summer people and that’s because the Somerset “levels,” which lie roughly at sea level, used to be waterlogged all winter and only accessible in the summer. So in winter, people had to row boats or build raised tracks to get from one lake village or island to the next and the most famous of all was the Isle of Glass … better known today as Glastonbury. The levels were first drained by the Romans. The crisscross lattice of drainage channels dried up new swathes of land, making them available for peat extraction and for farming. The land was fertile and Somerset prospered. I spent my childhood on the Somerset levels. We rode bikes, then ponies … dated peat diggers, then weird arty types … lerned to spell, climbed trees, wrote love letters, dabbled in vegetarianism.
A red brick house on the lower slopes of Glastonbury is still home to a couple of my pals. There is a shrine to their cat, who was called Octimocti, an editing studio (Stephen makes films for a living) and an outdoor shower made from a blue bucket with holes drilled in it. Next door there’s a lock up stuffed full of firewood and bicycles. On Christmas Eve, we cycled to the exceedingly small City of Wells and back. Somerset is much less hilly than the Marches and the landscape is starkly different. Even the mud smells different. We took the back route, which was flooded, but by cycling quite fast and sticking your feet up as you go through the water, you can stay quite dry. It’s important not to get too carried away, however, especially if you have stashed Christmas shopping in the panniers and then forgotten about it.
Anyone who doesn’t accept climate science has some explaining to do this year. In the last twelve months, Arctic summer ice hit an all time low, then Australia was obliged to invent a new weather colour for even hotter and in-between, New York got a hurricane. Closer to home, 2012 was all about floods … summer floods, autumn floods, and finally, winter floods.
The cycle path between Godney and Shapwick Heath, to the west of Glastonbury, takes you past the old peat works and lakes which have formed where the peat was dug out, to a nature reserve. The track was wet but not too wet when we set off on boxing day, but beyond a thicket of trees, the situation changed and I found myself pedaling underwater. There was actually a swan diving for fish just to my left. I slowed down.
“Don’t stop” advised Stephen, “you’ll get wet”
So I continued, pedalling underwater. We cycled through deep flooding for about half an hour and during this time we passed swans and geese and cormorants and weird kinds of ducks, Shovelers and tufted things and flocks of this and that. Things birdwatchers dream about, I should think. Which just goes to show what you see if you ditch the air conditioned fossil fuel powered car and get out on your bike.
Anyway, we finally emerged from the floods near Shapwick Heath and stopped to empty out our trainers and wring out socks and pretty much all of our clothes actually, when a tree exploded.
Starlings. Possibly millions of starlings actually. The explosion was actually starlings all taking off from the same tree. They were joined by other flocks and there followed the most skilled display of synchronized flying you could wish to see. Just before roosting, they flew so close I could feel the uplift of their wings … and then they were gone.
Out on the levels nature is king. Caught up in part of nature’s evening ritual we were, for a moment, a part of it and stunned to silence.