Somerset Levels – Somerset
The Somerset Levels, a flat, low-lying wetland dominated by mysterious Glastonbury Tor, extends east from the Mendips to Taunton. This fertile landscape, criss-crossed by dykes known as ‘rhynes’, is rich in birdlife and ancient cider orchards – perfect for exploring by bike or canoe.
Somerset, literally ‘land of the summer people’, once was an area inundated in winter and accessible for farming only during the summer. Yet the neolithic community who settled here around 6,000 years ago constructed a complex system of raised sand and wooden trackways for fishing, hunting and foraging in the wetter months. One of the oldest existing trackways, The Sweet Track dating from about 3800 BC, can still be explored.
Wildlife is abundant in the levels and there are several nature reserves, including Shapwick and Westhay. Habitats range from secluded fenland to lush wildflower meadows and a mosaic of lakes, fringed with rustling reedbeds and busy with otters. In the magical winter landscape, the great skies come alive with huge flocks of starlings that create extraordinary, spiralling patterns agains the vast horizons
One of the most popular attractions in this part of Somerset is Glastonbury Tor, but there are other, quieter holy places, such as the ruined church up on Burrow Mump, or the two hills on each side of Compton Dundon –home to a revered, aged yew tree. You might also like to seek out Gog and Magog, two ancient oaks thought to be the only survivors from a 2,000-year-old avenue that once stretched from Glastonbury to King Arthur’s hill fort at Cadbury.
And no visit to this part of Somerset, the home of traditonal scrumpy, would be complete without a trip to one of the old cider orchards, beautiful when laden with blossom in spring or with ripening fruit in summer and autumn. Stock up with supplies of still or sparkling cider from the cider-brandy distillery at Burrow Hill, near Kingsbury Episcopi, or at one of the traditional cider-making farms. Add delicious local cheeses, smoked fish, bread and salad, and enjoy a lazy picnic lunch by the river Parrett.