Tuesday 4 February 2014

The Environment

Remains of Muchelney Abbey 
When my father was invalided from the Royal Navy he eventually found work at Westland Helicopters in Yeovil. Visiting my parents there I discovered many of the lovely villages and churches of Somerset. Especially beautiful was Muchelney. The priest’s house there was an early acquisition of the National Trust, the parish church is lovely, but best of all is the surviving fragment of the Abbey - now cared for by English Heritage. The Abbot’s House was kept after the monastery was destroyed 1538. Like so much taken from the Church, it passed to one of the king’s friends.

Muchelney Cloister
A fragment of the cloister survives, once fan-vaulted in that wonderful golden stone from Ham Hill, giving the slightest glimpse of what has been lost. The Abbey dates from before the conquest, was refounded by Athelstan after Danish raids, but probably originated in the time of King Ine of Wessex - that is, in the eighth century. It was part of Alfred the Great's Christianisation of England.

The name Muchelney says a great deal – for it began as an ‘ey’ or Island in the great inland sea which covered much of Somerset – and recently has covered it again. Athelney, Isle Abbots, generations of men worked to drain the land around these places.  It was the Monks who reclaimed a great deal it, with the wealthiest and greatest Abbey of them all, Glastonbury, giving the lead.So many pictures of recent flooding have shown Glastonbury Tor standing above he waters - that place where the last Abbot and some of his brethren were cruelly executed to maintain the Royal Supremacy.,

Had the Environment Agency existed before the Norman Conquest (what a dreadful thought!) we should have had no Somerset Levels, indeed almost no Somerset. Like so much of England the country there is man-made – think of Romney Marsh or great parts of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk or Lincolnshire.

The greatest example of course is on the other side of the channel. There, much of Holland is below sea-level. Can you imagine any Environment Agency there saying “we can’t afford it” or “it is ecologically friendly to wildlife to give up a few polders here and there”? Yet newspaper headlines here have recently opposed town and country, saying we can only afford to save one or the other, not both and anyway what about the wildlife?

Now clearly there have been foolish decisions by local planners, allowing superstores and car-parks to occupy land which has always been subject to flooding – water-meadows were designed to flood in winter and so were improved for summer grazing.

Many of those developments which have replaced permeable soil with concrete and tarmac could be swept away without much loss. Where housing is concerned it is more difficult – and probably money must be spent to safeguard peoples’ homes. But where farmland and ancient villages are concerned, which have been so badly harmed because ditches and rhines have been allowed to clog up, and waterways left un-dredged for the sake of the water voles, then money must be found. ‘But we have no money’ says government. What nonsense! Government always finds money for its priorities. There is always money to bail out banks – which persist in giving indecent bribes bonuses while setting aside a few billions (in the case of Lloyds this week it was Ten Billion Pounds) to pay for the mis-selling of various schemes - in other words, criminal activity. Yet all that is needed to dredge the Somerset levels is five million: just one two-thousandth of that money 'set aside’ by just one bank.

England grows smaller by the year; chunks of the South and East coast have been falling into the sea at an alarming rate; yet the population continues to grow. Surely we should be keeping as much land as we reasonably can? And there is nothing unreasonable about trying to save the Somerset Levels. If Benedictine monks could do it more than a millennium ago, what could stop us now? Except perhaps the environment agency; its chief, Lord Smith, is reported as saying it's not just something for the Environment Agency - we need to work with others to address the issues for the future. So when shall we have some joined-up thinking about a policy for the future of our county? Wildlife matters; but without the management of the Somerset Levels, there would BE no wildlife there – no voles or otters, nothing except maybe gulls and fishes. Unlike Lord Smith, Prince Charles visited Somerset today. With the Duke of Westminster, he has made generous donations for the victims of these recent inundations. Most important of all, though, is that Government should face its responsibilities and not hide behind Lord Smith's pleas of too little money, and difficult choices between town and country. 


  1. Thank you, Monsignor, for this; the countryside is low on everyone's list of priorities these days..

  2. I agree with every word you have written Monsignor Edwin. The damage caused by the failure of authorities to ensure defences are adequate will leave the countryside and many properties suffering for generations to come.