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THE DIGGING SEASON

MPB @ ROOK LANE is showcasing‘The Digging Season‘, which is the first part of Jesse Alexander’s larger exploration of the Somerset Levels. Using topographic photography, still life, drawing and planting, the project examines the intersections of archaeology, ecology and the peat industry on the Somerset Levels.

Jesse is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in the Mendips where he has been making work for over a decade. His practice examines the representation of space and place, the discourse of landscape art and how it occupies our culture. He has contributed criticism and commentary on photography and visual culture to publications including Hotshoe, Source, 1000 Words Photography, Photomonitor and is the author of Perspectives on Place: Theory & Practice in Landscape Photography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015). Jesse is currently Course Leader for MA Photography (online) at Falmouth University.

Rook Lane Chapel | Bath Street, BA11 1DN

10:00–16:00 Saturday 24 June to Wednesday 12 July

Presented by MPB, the leading platform for photographers and videographers to trade equipment. St Cuthbert’s Mill have also supported Jesse’s exhibition by providing the paper for printing. Jesse is also grateful for the support of South West Heritage Trust.

Exhibition is FREE to visit.

The Digging Season, by Jesse Alexander.

The Somerset Levels and Moors are the UK’s largest wetland; fed principally by rainfall from the Mendip and Quantock Hills, overlooked by Glastonbury Tor and drain into the Bristol Channel via the River Parrett.[1] The Levels occupies an area of around 250 square miles and is separated on a north / south axis by the Polden Ridge, which juts in from the East creating an almost horseshoe-shaped impression on this basin. North of the Poldens is the Brue Valley, south of the Ridge is Sedgemoor. Since the end of the last Ice Age the water level between what is today’s coastline and the base of the Polden Ridge has oscillated between various states of saturation – from brackish, tidal saltmarsh to the drier pastures witnessed at present. The Somerset Levels and Moors might be considered a relatively ‘young’ landscape, subjected to intense environmental pressures as well as massive engineering interventions, and embodies fundamental questions around our contemporary relationship to the land.

The first marshes in the Levels established upon marine clay when the sea level stabilised around 5,000 years ago and were initially dominated by fast-spreading Phragmites reeds.[2] As each year passed and fresh growth succeed the previous year’s vegetation, plant remains settled in the water, only partially decomposing due to the absence of oxygen. As the saltmarshes were gradually desalinated by rainfall flowing in from the surrounding hills (a catchment area four times the size of the Levels themselves[3]) other species, notably sedges and Sphagnummosses, took hold. The perpetually wet conditions prevented plants from rotting to soil humus, instead, compacting into a raised peat bog.[4] Where the bog became drier and alkaline conditions developed, fen and carr woodland succeeded. But where conditions remained wet and acidic, raised Sphagnum bogs regenerated with peat accumulating at a rate of one metre per millennium. There were also shifting areas of permanently open water and biodiversity on a scale incomparable to today.

The abundance of fish and waterfowl is believed to be the main reason for some of the first know farmers to settle on the drier ‘islands’ around the Levels, from around 4,000 BC.[5] Laboriously, they built raised wooden trackways to traverse the marsh, to connect and trade with other communities, to hunt, and – as demonstrated by the presence of precious objects and votive offerings – as an act of reverence. The ‘Sweet Track’, which joined the Polden Ridge to Westhay, is the earliest known structure linked to a religious function in the UK.[6] We are aware of the lives of Somerset’s Neolithic ancestors because the anaerobic conditions of the bog preserved artefacts and wooden remains within layers of peat. Radiocarbon dating and tree-ring analysis has been used, with staggering specificity, to define the year and season in which a particular track timber was felled and when maintenance was carried out.[7]  From 1,500 ~ 700 BC a period of climate change brought even wetter conditions to the Levels and trackways were replaced by canoes as the method of choice to navigate the marshes.[8] Collections of roundhouses were established at Meare and Glastonbury and acted as trading posts and settlements – archaeological digs and analysis of the latter provides the most complete body of evidence to support our understanding of Iron Age life in Britain.[9]

Peat has been cut from the Somerset Levels since the Roman occupation, and we have been documenting what we have found within it for around 200 years. As in other moorland landscapes with relatively limited firewood, peat – or ‘turf’ – has traditionally been the main source of fuel for heating and cooking, as well as a range of other uses.[10] Cutting peat was a seasonal activity restricted to the summer months. During the ‘digging season’ the surface soil and scrub from a turbary was peeled-back – a process known as unridding – to reveal the harvestable peat underneath. 13Kg wet mumps were sliced out in rows, lifted from below ground level and split into turves. The repetitive work of laying these out, turning them periodically to drain, and stacking into beehive-like ricks (or ‘ruckles’) to dry further, tended to be completed by women and younger members of the family – the whole process involving numerous generations. The depth that could be excavated was dictated by the water table and the extent to which a turbary could be drained by ditches or lecked-out by hand. When peat became too wet and unstable to be lifted by the peat scythe, the pit was retired – left for grasses to recolonise the surface or, if it stayed wet enough, allowed to begin the slow process of regenerating the bog.[11]

As well as cutting and gathering for personal use, these tasks were also part of the portfolio of ‘piecework’ that would sustain many living on the Levels, often remunerated in part or wholly with cider.  Industrialisation widened the consumption of peat from the Levels, with railways reaching further than the range of a horse and cart and used by all classes. But industrialisation also meant that coal (which peat will become, given enough heat, pressure and time, and is far more calorific) was imported and burned in homes on the Levels.

Peat extraction increased during the Second World War as demand rose for fossil fuels. During this time the potential of peat as a growing medium was realised. Not only was compost necessary for the ‘dig for victory’ but peat was also used for seeding fast-growing runways for RAF airfields. Workers at the Eclipse peat works at Shapwick Heath, which had a contract with the Ministry of Defence, were exempt from military service, and even dug alongside German and Italian prisoners of war.[12]  The war also led to a significant alteration to the Brue Valley with the creation of the Huntspill Cut or ‘River’ in 1940, diverting water away from the River Brue and directly into the River Parrett and Bridgwater Bay. This cleaved a five-mile channel through moorland, as straight as the valley is flat, to supply the new munitions factory at Puriton, near Bridgewater, with the 4.5 million gallons of water per day that was needed to manufacture high-explosives. The inevitable drainage that resulted from digging the Huntspill Cut affected the water table across 45,000 surrounding acres allowing year-round agriculture on ‘improved’ land, 4,000 acres of which flooded regularly.[13]

Since the Second World War peat from the Levels has been used predominantly in the horticultural industry as a growing medium. Smaller turbaries were gradually acquired by larger companies and those with major corporations, such as Fisons who took over Eclipse in 1961. Post-war engineering developments included dramatic mechanisation, with a single machine completing in a day the equivalent workload of 3 or 4 men in a week.[14] The introduction of polythene bags, a quarter of the price of reusable hessian sacks, also had an impact on market reach and profit margins.[15] Arguably the most dramatic impact on the land was the introduction of high flow diesel pumps to remove water from turbaries. These were deployed in advance of cutting, enabling excavation to much greater depths than had been possible before: peat pits were stripped to the marine clay that was laid down 7 to 10,000 years ago – back to the very quick of land. Turbaries that had previously been considered unworkable were re-opened, sucked dry and scoured. Turf cutting was no longer a seasonal activity for those involved, but a year-round occupation. Like the man-made ditches, rhynes and drains that transect the Levels, diesel pumps have significantly lowered the water table, altering neighbouring habitats and contributing to the widespread dehydration of the land and increase of aerobic decomposition beneath the surface, thereby releasing once sequestered carbon as CO2.[16] [17]

Post-war peat mining has profoundly, and negatively, impacted the topography of the Brue Valley and the environment more generally, yet it has also created opportunities for new habitats and ecosystems. (And it should be noted that, at the time of writing, peat continues to be dug on the Levels.) Exhausted peat workings, the marine clay bases of which can be several metres below the current sea level, rapidly transform from naked pits into ponds and are almost immediately colonised by reeds. These post-industrial sites approximate the land as it would have been from around 2 ~ 7,000 years ago. The new open bodies of water and the labyrinthine geometric networks of channels that were once strips of peat cutting, dense with reeds and other covering vegetation, are refuges for permanent and migrating wildfowl, flocks of murmurating starlings, Atlantic-voyaging eels, otters, and many other species from across the kingdoms. Much of the Brue Valley, as well as sites in Sedgemoor, have been nature reserves since the 1980s, owned and managed by several different organisations. In May 2022 the Somerset Wetlands National Nature Reserve was established – dubbed one of three ‘super’ reserves in England – joining up the disparate parcels of land from the saltmarshes in the shadow of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station to the swamps at Shapwick Heath near Glastonbury.[18]

This wet, marshy, ‘Neolithic’, Levels landscape, dominated by towering reeds and populated by waterfowl is a prevailing trope of the popular image of habitat conservation in the Levels. But efforts to restore areas of the reserve back to raised bog conditions are underway. In early 2023 a method of plugging leaks to bogs called ‘deep trench bunding’ was commissioned by Natural England. This waffle-like site of several acres near Shapwick Heath consists of a system of sunken, soggy cells defined by raised ‘bunds’, and is the first deployment of this technique in the Southwest of England.

Conservation and restoration of wetlands and bogs matters because they are the most carbon-rich ecosystems on the planet, with the potential to sequester carbon on a colossal scale. Globally, there is more carbon locked away beneath wetlands than there is in tropical rainforests. At least 10% of the UK’s surface is bog, making it our single most important terrestrial carbon store[19] with around 11 million tons of carbon is still in the Levels.[20] Less than a quarter of these wetlands have escaped human efforts to exploit, drain or otherwise manipulate its natural and self-regenerating condition. When dehydrated, for agriculture, settlement, or peat cutting, oxidisation releases CO2 and methane into the atmosphere. Rather than the precious carbon sinks that they are when untouched, desiccated peatlands are a dangerous liability: it is estimated that, globally, wetlands are in such poor conditions that they are net producers of CO2 emitting up to 2 billion tons of CO2 annually. [21] The UK’s withering peatlands are releasing 3.7 million tons of CO2 every year into the atmosphere[22] – 300,000 tons of this is from the Somerset Levels and Moors.[23]

We are crawling – slowly through the proverbial mire – into an era when, in the UK and small number of other countries at least, the ecological value of peat and wetlands is being fully appreciated. Sale of peat compost in the retail sector will be banned by the end of 2023. But there will not be a complete ban on peat in the professional horticulture sector or in agriculture until 2030.[24] Gardeners’ and horticulturalists’ partiality for peat is not without reason: As per the sponge-like quality of living moss, peat has excellent moisture retention qualities, reducing how frequently potted plants, seedlings and lawns need to be watered whilst keeping roots aerated. Peat is inert in comparison to freshly composted material that can contain a plethora of unwanted seeds, fungi and microbes that are at best a nuisance to gardeners and at worst, may be pathogenic to the plants they are trying to cultivate. The calibre of ‘peat-free’ moisture-retentive alternatives within horticultural compost are vehemently contested. Coconut coir is one such material, requiring large volumes of water and chemical treatment and has other environmental impacts, including local pollution and transportation from distant processing facilities in South Asia.[25]

Peat has a remarkable relationship with society, culture and heritage, acting as a custodian or keeper of ancient artefacts and relics. Irrespective of one’s views of the peat industry, we are indebted to the peat cutters who discovered prehistoric artefacts and for the knowledge of the lives of our ancestors that these objects have contributed towards. Whilst it is likely that many items will, inadvertently or callously, have been pulverised by scythe and excavator bucket, many workers and companies downed shovels and called-in the archaeologists as soon as there were signs of unusual objects in the peat.[26]

This uneasy symbiosis reflects other ways in which the Somerset Levels and Moors have had a persistently strained relationship with Man, who has insisted on submitting the Levels ever further to conditions that suit human settlement and needs. This place is intensely engineered – a ‘landscape’ in the truest sense of the word – with the leavings of its earlier tenants embroidered into the fibres of the earth. If the Levels are to remain inhabitable, efforts will need to accelerate to mitigate rising sea levels and the increased rainfall due to climate change that we are already affected by. Perhaps counter-intuitively, rewetting the bogs can be part of this – not just to absorb carbon but to soak up water that would otherwise cause flooding. If we fail to extend a fraction of the reverence and respect that the first farmers had for this place then, sooner than we might imagine, the Somerset Levels we experience today will re-submerge and revert to the watery archipelago once was and, perhaps, it would feel less encumbered being.

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[1] ACREMAN, Mike. n.d. ‘Valuing the nature of the Somerset Levels and Moors for the future’. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. [online]. Available at:  https://www.ceh.ac.uk/news-and-media/blogs/valuing-nature-somerset-levels-and-moors-future [accessed 09.05.2023]

[2] HARDY, Peter. 2017. The Geology of Somerset. Bradford-on-Avon: Ex Libris Press. pp.185-197

[3] NATURAL ENGLAND. 2013. National Character Area Profile: 142: Somerset Levels and Moors. [online]. Available at: https://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/12320274#:~:text=The%20Somerset%20Levels%20and%20Moors,and%20Langport%20in%20the%20south. [accessed 19.05.2023]

[4] STORER, Bernard. 1972. The Natural History of the Somerset Levels. Wimborne: Dovecote Press. pp.13-17.

[5] 1928 remains of five bodies were discovered during quarrying for sand at Greylake. These were later dated to c.8,300 BC and represent the first non-cave early Mesolithic cemetery in the UK, rethinking understanding of how human remains were treated during this period.

[6] BRUNNING, Richard. 2017. Avalon Marshes Archaeology: a journey into a lost landscape. Norton Fitzwarren: South West Heritage Trust. p.9.

[7] COLES, J.M. & B.J. 1989. Prehistory of the Somerset Levels. Thorverton: The Somerset Levels Project. p.20.

[8] The first canoe was discovered in the early 1800s by Rev. W. Stradling. (BRUNNING. 2017:15)

[9] BRUNNING. 2017: 17

[10] Peat was used to boil brine in Roman saltworks found on the Levels. Peat has served various other uses, from wellness to flavouring malt whisky. The last peat-fuelled power station in Ireland, Lough Ree, was decommissioned in 2020.

[11] For an overview of practices, see: ROTHERHAM, Ian. 2009. Peat and Peat Cutting. Oxford: Shire Library.

[12] ASHWORTH, Nancy. 2004. Voices from the Peat: an oral history of the Avalon Marshes. Taunton: Somerset County Council. pp.31-39

[13] n.d. ‘Drainage of the Brue Valley’. Capture Highbridge. [online] Available at: https://capturehighbridge.wordpress.com/the-town/drainage-of-brue-valley/ [accessed: 19.05.2023]

[14] ASHWORTH. 2004: 69

[15] Eclipse was one of the first companies in the UK to sell the now ubiquitous all-in-one ‘grow bag’. (ASHWORTH. 2004: 69)

[16] This undermining of the water table is also responsible for the distinctly undulating tracks and subsided roads around peat cutting areas on the Levels. (ASHWORTH: 49)

[17] The Wildlife Trust. The Lowland Peat of Somerset. 2023.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYPMa-yiGN8 [Accessed 18.05.23]

[18] See: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-super-national-nature-reserve-created-to-protect-rare-wildlife [Accessed 19.05.23]

[19] O’REILLY, John et al. 2017. Field guide to Sphagnum mosses in bogs. Telford: Field Studies Council Publications.

[20] The Wildlife Trust. 2023. The Lowland Peat of Somerset. [online] Available at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYPMa-yiGN8 [Accessed 18.05.23]

[21] n.d. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. [online]. Available at:   https://www.ceh.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Peatland%20factsheet.pdf [Accessed 09.05.2023]

[22] O’REILLY, John et al. 2017.

[23] The Wildlife Trust. 2023.

[24]  DeFRA. 24.03.2023 ‘Media reporting on peat-ban for the professional Horticulture sector’. [online] Available at: https://deframedia.blog.gov.uk/2023/03/24/media-reporting-on-peat-ban-for-the-professional-horticulture-sector/ [Accessed 11.05.2023]

[25] DeFRA. 2012. ‘Coir in growing media: a sustainability assessment’. [online] Available at: https://randd.defra.gov.uk/ProjectDetails?ProjectId=18114 [Accessed 08.05.2023]

N.B. It has been suggested that reeds and rushes harvested from nature reserves in the Levels could be viable peat-free alternatives. (See: NATURAL ENGLAND. 2013.)

[26] Naming prehistoric trackways after individuals and companies who discovered them was a deliberate strategy of John Coles, lead archaeologist of The Somerset Levels Project, to raise awareness about the archaeological potential of the area and to encourage reporting. (ASHWORTH. 2004: 61)

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Further Reading:

ANDERSON, Tony & WILLOUGHBY, Chris. 2006. Life on the Levels: Voices from a Working World. Edinburgh: Birlinn.

BAGIAS, Caroline. 2003. Withy, Rush & Reed: a Somerset Levels legacy. Tiverton: Halsgrove.

BRUNNING, Richard. 2015. The lost Islands of Somerset: exploring a unique wetland. Norton Fitzwarren: Somerset Heritage Trust.

BRUNNING, Richard. 2013. Somerset’s Peatland Archaeology: managing and investigating a fragile resource. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

BUNNEY, Tessa. 2022. Made out of Orchards. Bristol: Martin Parr Foundation.

CHAPMAN, Chris. 1996. Secrets of the Levels. Tiverton: Somerset Books.

CROWDEN, James & WRIGHT, George. 1996. In Time of Floods: The Somerset Levels – The River Parrett. Yeovil: Parrett Trail Partnership

GODWIN, Harry. 1981. The Archives of Peat Bogs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCULLIN, Don. 1989. Open Skies. New York: Harmony Books.

PROULX, Annie. 2022. Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis. London: 4th Estate.

SUTHERLAND, Patrick & NICOLSON, Adam. 1986. Wetland: Life in the Somerset Levels. London: Michael Joseph.

WEBB, Paul. 2020. Picking, Packing and Processing of Peat: a brief history of the narrow gauge peat railways of the Somerset Levels. Disley: Moseley Railway Trust

WEBSTER, C.J. (Ed.) Somerset County Council. 2007. South West Archaeological Research Framework: Resource Assessment and Research Agenda. Taunton: Somerset Heritage Service. https://www.somersetheritage.org.uk/downloads/swarf/swarfweb.pdf

WILLIAMS, Michael. 1970. The Draining of the Somerset Levels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.