7 Jul 2014

Evidence plus Inspiration (in the field)

Professor Poole - wild man of the marshes
"Concern over climate change and rising sea level, coupled with recent extensive flooding across Europe, reminds us that wetlands, ranging from extensive coastal marshes to inland river floodplains, still dominate the landscape of many regions. In an era of intensive settlement and agriculture we often see water in such landscapes as a problem and complex drainage and flood defence systems have been constructed to control their watertables. In the past, however, water was perceived more as a resource..." 
Water and wetlands in medieval estate management: Glastonbury Abbey, Meare and the Somerset Levels in South West England, Stephen Rippon, 2005

"... Glastonbury Abbey canalised a number of other rivers, and these artificial waterways served several functions. The water levels within them were often higher than the ground through which they passed and so cannot have played a part in the drainage of these areas, though by carrying freshwater across them they helped to prevent flooding from upstream. These channels were, however primarily designed to improve Glastonbury's communications... Just to the east of Pilton lies Doulting, from which fine quality stone was quarried for use not only at Glastonbury Abbey and Wells Cathedral, but also further afield (e.g. in Chepstow Castle): it was logically shipped along the canalised Sheppey or Hartlake rivers, hence along the Brue and across the Severn Estuary"

In the spirit of such journeys, and perhaps even to get some sense of the liminal existence of the pre-christian occupants of the Meare Lake Village, the current Submerged-Drowned Lands team recently set off on yet another of our Levels+Moors kayak explorations - but this time upstream along the River Brue and up the Decoy Rhyne, heading for the recorded site of the Meare Decoy Pool (one of many such features in Somerset). Partly this was prompted by its appearance in the 1817 OS map of the area (below), and also by the descriptions (and fascinating illustrations) to be found in The book of duck decoys, their construction, management, and history (1886)

"Meare was the only place within the jurisdiction of Glastonbury Abbey to have a heronry at the time of the Dissolution and the survey of 1539 includes rights to swans, herons, and pheasants...The rich ecological mosaic of the Brue Valley backfens would also have offered a wide range of plant resources including alder trees for building timber, brushwood and sedges for fuel, and reeds for thatch . The 'Liney' in Lineacre implies the cultivation of flax on the moors. This was often grown on essentially unimproved marshlands due to the need for an abundance of water for retting... The association of each of the 'islands' and a number of promontories with early christian sites suggests that this was a landscape
which possessed, or was given, great symbolic significance. This too was exploited and managed by the monastic community..."

Sifting through layers of time, here are some illustrations from the book of Duck Decoys, showing the elaborate land-forming designs that were put in place. "All writers agree—and there is no question—that the word Decoy came from Holland, where Decoys originated. It is an abbreviation of " ende-kooy," i.e., in Dutch, "the Duck Cage,... A Decoy is a cunning and clever combination of water, nets, and screens, by means of which wildfowl, such as Wigeon, Mallard, and Teal, are caught alive...The chief object of a Decoy is to have its pipes so that they will suit every wind... In Somerset, especially about the vast morasses of Glastonbury, Decoys have long existed—a dozen or more.". 

Suffice to say, after some initial hesitancy and doubt, we were in the end confident we had located the precise site of the former decoy structure - despite the only surviving evidence being an arrangement of very low ridges and dips. Later viewing on satellite imagery is reassuring too in this regard:

"Shallow ditches and low banks forming the remains of a six pipe duck decoy against the S side of Decoy Rhyne. The decoy enclosure rhyne is also visible"
The Long View: Past, Present and Future
And the reason for such ramblings, delvings and turning-over of stones in the land? 
Yes - on one level these are interesting facets of an age-old shifting conversation between the land and the water. However, one of the motives for involving historical voices, narratives and practices so prominently in this project is to explore whether some of these may emerge to be useful pointers for the future. Going back over the centuries in this manner, one realises that this land provided sustenance in a rich plethora of ways. If - as seems likely - over the coming decades, parts of this area are subject to increased inundation, then imaginative and experimental approaches may be required to maintain a sustaining landscape. 

Resilience and Adaptation
A great deal of 'alternative thinking' is to be found already. The withy beds and willow-weaving industry is inherently adaptive to increased flooding, and is also innovative. Wicker-willow coffins are now a successful product of the Levels, as are 'Environmental Ground Rolls' - for ground protection and bank stabilisation. Over the past few months, I have also had conversations with people on the Levels about alternative wet-tolerant commercial crops such as nettles (for fibre/cloth) and flax....and of course the prospect of revived fish-ponds (we will visit the nearby Abbots Fish House soon). Also, it is clear from the records that woad-growing and wet-tolerant woodland was once extensive over this landscape. On a 'climate-change farm' in Devon, pecans have been successfully grown and these are known to be tolerant of wet soils, as are walnuts:
"Orchards in modern parlance suggest only fruit trees, but in the seventeenth century contemporaries would have expected to find nut trees as well, for they valued filberts, almonds, chestnuts, and walnuts....many [walnut trees] were planted in Gloucestershire (especially at Arlingham) and in Herefordshire, where they were still a valued crop in the early nineteenth century.."
This quote is from a book on the history of 'alternative agriculture' in Britain, loaned to me in the course of my linked project on the Severn Estuary by one of my hosts, Professor Janet Dwyer. What is clear is that there are ebbs and flows in the choices of non-mainstream crops (and other sustenance) and the historical perspective is vital for success. As the author, Joan Thirsk, says:
"We have the chance to learn some lessons from hard-won experience; we may even be reminded of more alternative choices, and we can certainly be forewarned about the long-term consequences. The alternative would be to blunder into the unknown and learn everything the hard way."

Via Avalon Marshes -  to pick up copies of Richard Brunning's excellent books on archaeological heritage narratives of the Levels and Moors - our wanderings next take us to the vantage point of Burrow Mump. Here we met a visiting Dutch flood-defence strategist Marnix de Vriend, who is planning to organise a series of Dutch-UK 'conversation' events in the Autumn. The River Parrett dredging activity, which we'd previously observed at close hand on our river trips, is now in full swing below the hill. We invited Marnix to see a local heritage gem - the Athelney Tithe Barn, in West Lyng, where we were shown around by the delightful Ann Lloyd Jones of Lyng Court Farm. This is a location for our emerging exhibition/ installation - now planned for Spring 2015 (a harmonisation of local voices, science-based themes and imaginative solutions/options/possibilities). In the interim, nobody knows what next winter's combo of weather and tides will bring to this landscape. As is frequently the case in this locality, our conversation with Ann turned to flooding and farming. She is sited on an 'island' here, but large tracts of her farmland were under water for much of this past winter - the worst situation she's ever observed.

From yesterday's Sunday Telegraph newspaper (I'm decidedly not a regular reader...) comes a special business supplement on flooding, including a feature on Dutch connections, as well as a lot of coverage of the Somerset floods. A neat confluence of Dutch and Decoys occurred whilst I was very recently on the Wadden Sea island of Terschelling (part of a Sense-of-Place event). There, at the site of a campsite called 'de Koii' (Decoy), I encountered the strong local tradition of decoy-pools. 

In parallel with our Somerset+Water+Land Project ('A Long View'), there is a new Langport- and River Parrett-based creative project addressing some similar themes and contexts. This is called Some:When, "celebrating cohesion through the watery heritage of the Somerset Levels and Moors"by fellow Bristol creatives Jethro Brice and Seila Fernandez Arconada. More on this very soon, as we're planning to discuss combining our efforts for a group exhibition in Bristol early next year.