Summerlands 7: Flood

Flood: Mountainous Waters

Flooding is an abiding reality on the Somerset Levels. Water pours on to the levels from the sky and the surrounding hills. Once it reaches the Levels it tends to stay put on the horizontal surface – there is virtually no incline which would encourage the water to flow to the sea. This flooding  gives the area  its distinctive wetland character and is both a source of destruction and a bringer of fertility. Modern drainage and pumping systems both threaten the wetland heritage and provide fertile land for farming. This tension has been present for centuries but is becoming more prevalent in modern times. The locals make a distinction between clean rainwater and dirty water which flows from the hills, The latter is desired because it brings with it fertile soil from the hills, while the former is viewed as useless.

The threat of flooding from the sea is the potentially most catastophic type of flooding. The low altitude of the Levels of the Levels means that it is beneath the mean high water level of the spring tides in the Severn Estuary. Before the development of sea defenses, flooding from the sea was frequent, the saltwater leaving the soil salty and infertile.

This piece is inspired by the particularly catastrophic flood of 30th Jan 1607 when the sea flooded all the coasts around the Severn Estuary from Monmouthshire to Somerset. The flood waters reached Glastonbury Tor. Estimates of fatalities range from 2000 to 20,000 and the area was devastated. It is reckoned that waters were up to 6 metres high when the wave struck the Somerset coast at 9 am. and travelled  so fast that they overwhelmed people and animals before they had a chance to react.

It has been suggested by Edward Bryant and Simon Haslett that the flood was caused by a tidal wave caused by Tsunami (‘Was The AD 1607 Coastal Flooding Event In The Severn Estuary And Bristol Channel (UK) Due To A Tsunami?’, in Archaeology in the Severn Estuary, 13 2002, 163 – 167). Furthermore they argue that it is possible that the area could be vulnerable to such an event at any time in the future.

There are several contemporary accounts of the flood which interpret the event and make sense of it as a divine retributive punishment but also give a sense of the sheer existential terror which the event evoked in individuals:

“Then they might see & perceive a far of as it were in the Element, huge and mighty Hilles of water, tumbling one over another, in such sort as if the greatest mountaines in the world, has over-whelmed the lowe Valeys or Earthy grounds. Sometimes it so dazled the eyes of many of the Spectators, that they immagined it had bin some fogge or miste, comming with great swiftnes towards them: and with such a smoke, as if Mountaynes were all on fire: and to the view of some, it seemed as if Myliyons of thousandes of Arrowes had bin shot forth at one time, which came in such swiftnes, as it was verily thought, that the fowles of the ayre could scarcely fly so fast, such was the threatning furyes thereof.”

(excerpt from ‘God’s Warning to His People’ – contemporary pamphlet)

This piece, through the use of recorded and processed sound, attempts to evoke the visceral and terrifying experience of the flood event; an event of both literal and mythic significance.


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