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Somerset Levels : A Lost Landscape

When I began writing the Alex Hastings books I started with the setting. My tutor, the excellent Carol Clewlow, asked us to write a place as if it were a character, advising us that the landscape should be central to crime fiction. Reflecting on my experiences in different parts of the UK, it was the beauty and strangeness of the Somerset Levels that came to me as I sat in the class. In fact the opening paragraphs of “Death of the Elver Man” are almost as I first wrote them that evening.

As I continued to write the books I became aware of the changes, physical, economic and political, that had worked to alter the area for ever. I was writing about a world fast disappearing. Many of the changes were possibly for the better – the moratorium on peat cutting, for example, and the tremendous work done to create nature reserves and visitors’ facilities on and around the Levels. All that has been washed away in the dreadful flooding of the past weeks. The Levels have always flooded, to a certain extent. They are a man-made landscape. But they have always endured, supporting life both human and animal, despite the worst the weather can throw at them.

With over sixty square miles of land under a sea of water, sludge and sewage, with the infrastructure, always a little fragile, swept away, it will be many years before this unique landscape recovers, if it ever does. Certainly it will not be the same – too much has been lost or damaged. The Levels are so much more than “just farmland”. They are home for people, birds and animals. They hold an extraordinary and diverse ecosystem and comprise a magical and beautiful part of our country. They need to be saved.