The original walk on the Somerset Levels
Have you ever walked the Somerset Levels at night? I have, purely for research purposes, and it was a scary experience. On the night I took my walk, charcoal clouds were scuttling across the sky. The quarter moon and the thick, milky covering of stars played hide and seek. Everything was grey…prickly hedges…reed beds…looming trunks of ancient willows…all shades of grey. As I walked the farmland paths, it was hard to spot the channels of water bordering each field. Several times I came up sharp to find myself staring down into reeking, stagnant ditches or canals brim full and squelchy at the edge. I battled on, my torch spotlighting my map, taking the wooden bridges in a zigzag route towards my destination.
The marshy moors of Somerset extend for almost 200,000 acres, from Bridgewater Bay across the low, flat lands to Glastonbury Tor and beyond. They are framed by the Mendip and Quantock hills and crisscrossed with thick fingers of water; rivers, brooks, canals and rhynes. In ancient times the area were covered in fresh lakes mingled with salt sea. Early farmers, desperate for growing room, reclaimed every clod of earth they could, draining the land, creating an obstacle path that sent me miles out of my way like a child’s puzzle maze.
Right back to Roman times, locals have extracted peat in Somerset. There are miles of moorland with soil as black as a seam of coal. The older excavations quickly grew thick with sedge and bullrushes and became wildlife magnets. The largest, such as Ham Wall, have become nature reserves. On a hot June day, Ham Wall is peaceful, full of swooping swallows and the boom of the bittern. The wide expanses of water are awash with wildfowl. If you’re quiet and lucky, you’ll see families of otters romping in the shallows.
But the modern exploitation of peat is carried out with commercial intensity and the results are extreme. Acres are excavated to a depth of several metres, the edges mechanically angular.
Eventually, I reached these on my nighttime tramp. When I saw the thin, straight paths leading between the pits, my mind screamed at me to turn back. The paths were slippery and narrow, with an invisible drop on either side. It felt like standing on the edges of ink-filled swimming pools.
I’m clearly quite mad to have attempted this. But I needed to experience what I was about to put my protagonist through. Sabbie Dare, the girl at the centre of my Shaman Mystery Series, had a similar moonlit journey through this nightmare place. In the first of the series, In the Moors, she has to search for the shallow grave of murdered children. Her hope is that she will find some other-world clue which the spirit of the last child to die might have left where he had been buried.
At the start of In the Moors, we see the wetlands at night when the police – detective sergeant Rey Buckley and his constable Gary Abbott – spot a strange figure grubbing around this shallow grave, now a police investigation site.
Abbott handed him a pair of night-vision binoculars. He slotted them to his eyes. It was hard to judge distance through the ghostly green glow. There was nothing but the vastness of the Somerset Moors where gales blew so hard and long that the leafless trees grew at low angles. Reeds and rushes were the natural uprights in this world, unlike the metal spikes holding the police tape, which were sinking into the peat. The blue and white tape flapped in the wind like alien birds; even at this distance Buckley could hear it crack. He made a steady scan of the cordoned area until he had a sharp picture. A figure loomed, swathed in scarves, bog water halfway to the tops of his rubber boots. He was standing within the forest of bulrushes, thick as a man’s thumb and as tall as a man’s thigh. Through the binoculars, Buckley could clearly see the man was stroking the suede-like top of a bulrush, as he stared at the shallow grave.
I survived my night-walk around the levels, but I’m glad I took it when I did. Much of the area is below sea level, so when the rains came in the winter of 2013/14, it was catastrophically flooded. Farm animals drowned. Entire villages went underwater. Help did arrive, and in the last ten months the murky floodwater has slowly retreated, but the clear-up is ongoing. Teams of volunteers are trying to restore order. The rivers are now being dredged, something locals have called for since before the floods, and there is talk of a long-term action plan.
I have become intensely fond of the Somerset Moors, as is Sabbie Dare; she watched those flood waters rise from her little house in Bridgewater.
Did Sabbie survive her journey to a child’s shallow grave? Only just, I have to say, but she’s a shrewd and savvy lady. With a little help from the spirit world, she came through her ordeals and returned for a second adventure in Unraveled Visions, now available; watch out for the third in the series in the autumn of 2015.
You’ll find out more about Sabbie and the Shaman Mysteries at Nina’s blogsite, http://kitchentablewriters.blogspot.com . Connect with her on @ninahare or visit her facebook page The Shaman Mystery Series.
In the Moors and Unraveled Visions are available in paperback and on Kindle,
at Waterstones online http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/nina+milton/in+the+moors/9910551/
and all good bookshops.