In my element

This is something I wrote in 2013, ten years after I returned to live in Somerset. Feels right to give it a new home here.

Home now is Yatton, a large village built on a small humpy knoll above the surrounding lowland moors, which are drained by a network of small water-filled field ditches  we locally call rhynes.

I am relishing the opportunity to better understand this landscape and ponder my own relationship with it. I make time to venture out with our two-year old collie/flat coated retriever. I take a camera to ‘see’, where before I might only have looked.

A teasel scratched my arm as I walked in the first field today; now tall enough to catch the elbows of day-dreamers.

A sheltered lane leads down to a narrow paved road — an upgraded old ‘drove’ — that crosses the moors. I cut across to the east side, and enter the patchwork of flat, featureless fields inter-connected by three field gates, and bounded by straight rhynes and a solitary line of black poplars.

The wind blows up the Bristol Channel and drives billowing cloud over the moors. On this section of the Levels there are few willows on the edge of ditches, and there is no sheltering place if caught in a sudden squall. Last year we are often caught down on the open, floody marshlands in the worst weather. For months, every muddy furrow held a long streak of water, and the squelchy mud threatened to over-brim our wellies.

Endless rain swells the rhynes and these ‘wet fences’ become very wet indeed if you get to close to the submerged bank, lose your footing and topple in. Foolishly, I once made this mistake while trying to coax our young dog back onto her lead.

The seasonal changes this year have been more marked. The winter was long, and freezing rain turned to frequent snowfall that turned the landscape monotone. We avoided the fields during March while sheep grazed the pasture. They were soon moved on.

Winter morning on Kenn Moor

And so to this memorable and overdue summer.

The reeds grew fast and by June they were a tangle of growth, giving shelter to a family of mute swans. On our early summer walks I would lag behind and squat down among the great swathes of soft grasses to photograph displays of meadow buttercups — trying not to tread on other delicate marsh-flowers. Not long after, they were all gobbled up by machine, and the buzzards surveyed the clumps of cut grass left to dry ready for the combine.

The hot spell in July turned the fields to sun-baked stubble, and at their edges burnt the patches of rust-coloured sorrel. Butterflies were suddenly everywhere. By the first days of August, early mists rose from the reedy ditches on some mornings, which then swelled with a little rain; but not enough to make the ground sodden underfoot. My footsteps often disturbed ungainly herons.

A teasel scratched my arm as I walked in the first field today; now tall enough to catch the elbows of day-dreamers. The swans cussed at me for getting too close to their growing cygnets, now learning how to feed for themselves. Rushes still grow thick along the edges of the ditches. It’s a little sad to imagine that the swallows that now tickle the tops of reeds as they dip and dive will soon be gone for another year.

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