The Somerset Levels are a unique wetland environment covering some 160,000 acres of very low lying land, averaging 3 to 4 meters above sea level. I recall back in 2013/14 the Levels getting extensive media coverage because they were badly flooded after extensive rainfall and many hundreds of houses, villages and farms being marooned for weeks. But of course such low lying land is always at risk and interestingly because the terrain has extensive peat bogs the history of the area is available to researchers (because acidic peat preserves artifacts).
To be honest we didn’t know anything of this; we were encouraged to go take a walk because there are several beautiful nature reserves in the area. And indeed there are. The Shapwick reserve is about 500 hectares (1235 acres) covering the Avalon Marshes in which we are encouraged to spot Bittern, Egret, Marsh Harrier, Otter etc.
The trails are, well flat! Just about as flat as is possible. And there’s a lot of water around; drains, canals, dykes and ditches. The habitats are wildflower meadows full of golden irises, dark fens, wet fern woods and open water, fringed with rustling reed-beds and full of water lilies. From the hide we watched swans nesting, egrets and herons hunting but sadly no harriers or bitterns that day.
The highlight of the walk is to traverse a reconstruction of the Sweet Track – so named after Ray Sweet who discovered the path while ditch cleaning. Evidently the area was in neolithic times criss-crossed with wooden tracks, evidencing considerable activity in the area in those times and many were discovered by turf cutters in the 1960s (who were encouraged to find them by having one named after them). The Sweet Track just so happens to be the oldest one found, and is dated as being 5815 years old. How so accurate? Tree ring dating (dendrochronology) is of course accurate to the year, accompanied by dating of (embedded) pollen.
The Sweet Track was an amazing construction considering the builders had no saws, iron axes or chisels, just stone axes and wooden wedges. It was constructed by driving sharpened poles obliquely into the peat to form a V into which planks were fixed. These planks were then stabilized by driving long pegs through holes in the planks and down into the peat and clay beneath.
Fascinating walk on many levels (sic). About 90 minutes excluding time in hide and on photography.