Friday, February 21, 2014

William Mayne's The Member for the Marsh and the draining of the Somerset Levels

A BBC News page gives the history of the draining of the Somerset levels:
In Roman times artificial flood defences were built to keep out the tides from the nearby Severn Estuary, and ditches were dug. This created a network of inland channels to drain large areas of floodplain marsh. 
During the Middle Ages the monasteries at Glastonbury, Athelney and Muchelney drained and looked after the land. 
Dutch engineers arrived to drain the Levels in the 17th Century. Farmers have managed the landscape ever since.
Except that there is more to it than that. A post on Tallbloke's Talkshop (written by the nicely named Corporal Jones' Ghost) tells the more recent story:
You have to go back to 1939, when the MOD decided that they needed a new Munitions factory for HDX explosives, HDX uses a lot of water, all munitions manufacture does, but HDX is greedy. 
The levels had too much water and so we built one on the Levels, ROF37 or ROF Bridgewater or ROF Woolavington, it’s all the same place. 
To ensure that there was enough water even on the waterlogged Levels, we built the Huntspill River, we then connected it to the River Brue to the North and the Kings Sedgemoor Drain via a pipe to the South, we also widened the River Sowy to get water to our factory.
This information has been taken by bloggers who are sceptical about climate change as proof that the current flooding of the Somerset Levels were caused, not by exceptional weather, but because the government did not spend enough on draining them.

Their assumption seems to be that, even though the munitions factory has gone, we must continue to drain the levels the way we did while it was open. This seems an odd argument to me, and not only because climate change sceptics tend to be opposed to government action in most other circumstances.

Large areas of the Fens are purposely flooded every winter, but no one thinks that is an outrage. And Environment Agency figures quoted  suggest only 40 houses on the Levels have actually been flooded. So it is by no means obvious that their assumption is right, even if the climate is not changing.

This winter's floods have also reminded me of a book I have long had on my shelves without reading: William Mayne's The Member for the Marsh.

Writing about Mayne will always be awkward, following his conviction for child abuse. My defence is that he was a superlatively good writer for children and that if you cannot separate artists from their work you are due for a life of disappointment.

I can also say that this blog carries the fullest discussion of Mayne and his offences that I have found anywhere. You can find that discussion in the comments on a post from 2010.

The Member for the Marsh is typical of Mayne in the way it brings together children of different ages in an easy companionship.

A group of boys discover what they suspect is the site of a prehistoric lake village in a marsh that the local farmer is about to flood. If this were a Malcolm Saville story the farmer would be a villain and the children would save the village site.

But the farmer is no villain. He is happy for the boys to enter the marsh, but stipulates there must be no schoolmasters allowed to visit - because he does not want them finding the site.

The boys have a bonfire and carry out a little amateur archaeology to prove the site really had been a lake village. Then it is lost beneath the water. But the farmer makes sure a causeway is left dry so one of the boys can use it to get to and from the school bus.

Running through the book is a sense that the draining of the levels is a work in progress. The munitions factory is not mentioned, but its effect is felt.

1 comment: said...

A friend I telephoned in Somerset tells me a 33 sq mile lake has appeared on the Somerset Levels where no lake existed hitherto.