One of the wonderful things about living in Glastonbury is going to visit somewhere else, especially when that somewhere else is a complete contrast to the Town, and is only a 10 minute cycle away. It does sometimes amaze me that people spend a small fortune going on a workshop to find peace and serenity when they could just get on a bike and find it on the Avalon Marshes – the bit of the Somerset Levels closest to Town.
So, here are some suggestions for places you might visit on the Marshes. I’m not going to recommend a route, it’s more fun exploring. It is possible to get lost, and although you will almost certainly be able to see Glastonbury Tor in the distance to guide you home, it is seldom possible to get there in a straight line due to the lakes and rhynes. A visit to the Levels is worth it just to see the Tor from a distance, to appreciate why Glastonbury became known as The Isle of Avalon.
Crossing the Marshes
You’ll find thousands of years of history here. Hidden away on the Shapwick Nature Reserve is a reconstruction of the Sweet Track, constructed around 3806 BC and one of several trackways that enabled Neolithic farmers to traverse the boggy wetlands. It is difficult to imagine what life was like for these shaggy-haired people dressed in skins, making their way across the bog to warmth and shelter in their primitive dwellings, Glastonbury Tor in the distance. That is unless you went to Glastonbury Festival this year in which case you’ve probably got a fair idea.
For signs of more recent history you’ll find the Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath Nature reserves follow the old disused railway track, part of the Somerset and Dorset line – locally known as the “Slow and Dirty”, that once led to the town. There’s a rather lovely old film of poet laureate Sir John Betjeman taking the train here, it’s worth listening to for his voice alone, and around 8 minutes in you’ll see the old Glastonbury and Street station and the Tor.
Starlings and Mosquitoes and other Wildlife
There is an abundance of wildlife on the Marshes, on one Autumn evening’s wander I encountered deer, foxes, an owl, glow worms and hundreds of waterfowl in the space of an hour. I’m not a great bird watcher – the first time I heard the booming call of a bittern I honestly thought it was someone sitting in the reed bed blowing across the top of a milk bottle. If you go to one of the popular viewing spots you’ll see hundreds of (mostly) men clad in those waistcoats with about 100 pockets, with huge shiny lenses and binoculars and even tripods. You could be mistaken for thinking that bird watching was about the equipment rather than the birds, I can’t imagine they all work for BBC nature programmes. I presume it’s one of those things particular to middle-aged men where hobbies have to involve spending lots of money and talking endlessly about kit. The only bit of kit I ever take on to the Levels is a modest camera, with which I’ve taken thousands of landscapes in all seasons. I tend to avoid the humans and stick to the paths around the lakes where I actually see the wildlife close up that they are viewing through their long lenses.
If you are in Glastonbury in the Winter months make sure you go to the Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath Nature reserves at dusk to watch the massed flocks of starlings. For 3 winters I lived in a caravan nearby. Almost every evening I would go to the Reserve and watch the starlings flying in to roost on the reed beds at dusk, as they do every night from Autumn to February. I avoided the massed crowds of twitchers on the old railway line next to the canal and kept to the rougher ground around the lakes. From here it was often possible to be right next to the reed bed on which the starlings would descend, in huge flocks of tens of thousands of birds, all moving as one – take a look at this video. With only a short stretch of water between me and their reed bed for the night, the birds would be flying in low, only just above my head. The noise of tens of thousands of beating wings was phenomenal. As the reed beds filled they become black with the bodies of the massed birds. At a loud noise, the birds would rise as one black wave, their chatter reaching a deafening crescendo, then they would settle again.
As the flocks come over it is difficult, with your head bent back, to remember not to have your mouth wide open in wonder at the spectacle. A friend, who did forget, tells me starling shit is the most disgusting thing he has ever tasted. As a child, I remember being told that a bird shitting on you was lucky. I often felt, as I watched this nightly spectacle in awe, that it was a blessing of starlings, fortunately, I never seemed to get splattered in droppings, so I felt doubly blessed.
One Summer evening I learned to love the mosquito. Like most people who lived on the Levels, I viewed them as a great aggravation. But then I bumped into my mate Dave. Dave is a chef, a fly fisherman and a nature lover. It was a rare hot, humid evening and every inch of air was vibrating with insects. Dave got massively excited, explaining that these were the larvae on which the fish fed, and in turn, of course, the fisherman. He explained (in a very Glastonbury way) that a simple change of attitude, where one decided to love rather than hate the mosquito, would result in fewer mosquito bites. His enthusiasm was infectious (like malaria), I vowed that from that day forward I would love mosquitoes and their kind. I have found I’m not quite so prone to being bitten by them now. (Oh this is hilarious, I’m actually sat here at dusk writing this on the laptop in my campervan on Westhay Moor Nature Reserve and I’m getting absolutely mobbed by hundreds of the little buzzing bastards). My next mission is to learn to love the deer tick, they too inhabit the Levels in their thousands, and all too frequently hitchhike back to Glastonbury on my belly or the backs of my knees. So far, no one has given me a reason to love them.
Cycling – Men in Lycra pants
Being flat the Somerset Levels are of course popular amongst cyclists. See here for a guide to cycling on the Marshes. This is another hobby that seems to encourage middle-aged (and elderly but sprightly) men to buy lots of flashy kit, plus they don peculiar Lycra uniforms that show off their bits in a startling fashion. Swarms of them descend on Glastonbury cafes, the funny flat bits down the back of their pants and weird pointy helmets making them look positively insectoid. I wonder, with them wearing so many artificial fabrics, whether if they were to get in a huddle and rub themselves together they might form a useful new power source. Mind, in those revealing pants this might not be wise.
Again, I don’t see the need to buy the expensive kit or the clothes, but then I am the kind of cyclist who regards 10 miles as a long ride and gets a bit puffed out riding up the gentle slope of Benedict Street.
For Peat’s Sake
Sweets Tea Rooms is a popular spot for cyclists and is conveniently close to Westhay Nature Reserve. It’s an appealingly rustic place with no airs and graces but good cake. The Sweet family have been involved in peat digging for generations and here you can find “Sweets Science and Peat Museum”
Peat has been extracted from the Levels since they were drained, in the 1950s the process became industrialized and a major market in horticultural peat developed, the resulting reduction in water levels put local ecosystems at risk, so although peat extraction continues today it is much reduced. Once an area has finished being worked, it is environmentally restored, and then either resold to the original farmer, or conservationists or private buyers.This has led to the creation of the Nature Reserves and other Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
A couple of years ago the road that runs past Sweets was partially closed, the diversion took you several miles out of your way, however, Sweets offered a shortcut – straight through their field for a quid. I admired their money making ingenuity (reminiscent of the Grundys in the Archers!) and was pleased by the opportunity to show off my superior driving on mud skills to the man I was giving a lift to (who was clearly impressed as he is now my partner).
You have to visit Roger Wilkins Cider Farm in Mudgley. Roger Wilkins is a local legend and brews a proper pint of flat, cloudy Scrumpy cider, which .you can sample in his barn, along with some homemade cheese. You won’t get more of an authentic Somerset experience than this. There’s a hilarious video – a ‘musical’ tribute to Roger and his cider here.
In nearby Godney you’ll find the Sheppey Inn, a quirky and original pub which sells a range of local ciders (and even a beer for dogs). More about that, and some pictures, in my post ‘The Sheppey – a good pub, nearly in Glastonbury’.
I could go on, there really is a lot to see and do on the Avalon Marshes and the Somerset Levels generally, and it surprises me that so many people who live in Glastonbury don’t visit more. I hope you don’t all come at once though – I like the peace and quiet.
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