Don’t tell everybody, but I think I’ve found a magical portal on the Somerset Levels.
On a Sunday afternoon, at the beginning of Summer, I went out alone for a long cycle ride, intending to see a bit of nature and get fit. I got as far as Ham Wall Nature Reserve, only a couple of miles from town, when I bumped into Pete, also cycling along the old canal path, who reminded me there was music and a barbeque at the Railway Inn. I decided not to deny myself the health-giving properties of a gin and tonic and a cheeseburger. Besides, the Railway is a great, quirky local pub, it was even used as the setting for a hilarious comedy horror film The Hatching, in which alligators inhabit the lakes of the Somerset Levels. That made it a cultural visit too, which meant I could definitely justify curtailing my planned afternoon of rigorous exercise.
I spent a happy hour and a half at the pub listening to music and chatting with some mates before heading on to the Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve over the road. There’s a wooden pagoda in the car park that leads onto a disabled access boardwalk over the marshes, made from recycled plastic. I locked up my bike at the pagoda and began walking through the green gloom of the overhanging trees.
I thought I’d try out the camera on my new phone with some landscape photography. I remembered there was an ‘artist’ function which I hadn’t yet fully explored and started snapping away. The artist function pulled out the texture and shape of the foliage and trees around me in a really interesting way. You don’t see what the finished picture will look like on the screen, the camera processes it for a couple of seconds and then you see what you’ve got. It reminded me of the old days of film cameras when you had to wait for your prints, only a million times quicker. I tried out all the different effects and was really quite excited by the results. I must have taken over 200 photographs, scroll on down to see a slideshow of my favourites.
Last time I was there I remembered the boardwalk ending abruptly in the middle of the lake, you had no option but to turn round and go back the way you had come. It was winter then and the whole area felt open and exposed. Now, with all the leaves on the trees and the lush undergrowth growing several feet high, I was walking through a tunnel of green. The boardwalk seems to carry on forever. Everywhere I looked there were twisting willows, rough bark and tall plants covered with a sticky white film of willow pollen.
After many twists and turns, and a sit down on a bench in a covered area overlooking the lake, I found myself back on a familiar path. I was only about 30 feet away from the pagoda where I started. It was getting chilly, I looked at the time to discover the I’d been in there for over two and a half hours. I couldn’t believe I’d covered such a short distance in such a long time. I’d seen no humans in the time I was there and encountered no animals, although I did hear rustling in the bushes. I guess if there were any otters nearby they were hiding from me as usual. I’d obviously entered some kind of cosmic time warp or an enchanted fairyland. As I often find when I spend time on my own in nature my mind had slowed down and everything was looking rather psychedelic, I found myself briefly entranced by the bright orange of discarded road cone.
A couple of weeks later, early June, and I’m there again. It’s been a scorchingly hot day and the Yorkshireman and I have waited until after 6pm to come out for a cycle ride. This time we ride over the boardwalk, enjoying the sensation of the wheels going over the undulating surface – like the world’s lamest rollercoaster. I am grateful for the Yorkshireman’s obsession with getting us both the best possible bike suspension as it enhances the experience considerably. The foliage is even more abundant now, we have to lift our bare legs out of the way of the occasional nettles and brambles growing into the path. The distance that took me two and a half hours before takes all of five minutes. Coming back to the old canalside we carry on to the ‘new’ bird hide on stilts (which I love so much I always imagine I live there). We sit and watch the ducks and the Canada geese and the swans, who don’t do much.
Turning back the way we came I head for the boardwalk again, the Yorkshireman has shot past the entrance so I take the opportunity to cycle very, very slowly and enjoy the stillness and the quiet. I manage to enter that meditative state once again that is so easily reached out here in nature, when I’m alone. Suddenly there’s a shout of ‘coming past!’, he is behind me, an alarmed heron squawks and rises up out of the marsh in a great flapping of wings, the Yorkshireman whizzes by, pulling a wheelie and exclaiming “Ehh, it’s like a rollercoaster!”. I ignore him and re-enter my Zen-like state of calm. After a few more twists of the path I’m coming up to the bit with the low overhanging branch, where we had to bend low over the handlebars to pass under earlier. I see a shape on the ground, my heart jumps into my mouth as I see the Yorkshireman spreadeagled and silent on the ground, his bike laying a few feet further on, one wheel still spinning.
Time slows down, the following thoughts seem to occur simultaneously:
I regret my squeamishness and the lack of attention I paid at First Aid class.
I think about whether my priority should be to grab my phone out of my bag and start dialling an ambulance immediately or try and assess the damage first.
I wonder whether the ambulance will follow coordinates, or how else I might describe our exact location.
I think he’s a bloody idiot.
I hope he’s not dead.
In the moment before I slam on the bikes and spring off the bike to run to him, I shout his name.
He springs up laughing. I am not amused. Amazing how Zen-like calm can so easily turn to incandescent rage.
He tries to persuade me that I can see the funny side, but looking at my expression starts apologizing instead. On the way back through the RSPB Ham Wall reserve, we are both spared further discussion as we are bombarded by swarms of midges and have to keep our lips clamped shut to avoid ingesting them. Denied entry to our mouths they congregate around our eyes, up our noses and buzz around inside our ears. There may not be alligators on the Somerset Levels but I feel like somebody’s dinner regardless.
I’ve written other pieces on the Levels do check out The Avalon Marshes – Flat and Wet like Proper Scrumpy Cider and Winter, Starlings and Snot.
I am very pleased with my Huawei Honor 9 (being
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