I have wanted to return to the Levels in Somerset for some time. When I began writing the “Alex Hastings” books in 2010 my tutor, Carol Clewlow, told me I needed to find a setting strong enough to be another character in the story and the Levels soon became just that. I left Somerset twenty five years ago and apart from a quick trip by car one day whilst staying near Bath have not been back. Instead I hunted through second-hand shops for maps and picture books dated around 1980 and used the internet to look at locations and older photographs. Mixing this together with my memories and a pinch of imagination, I have written about the Levels for the last four years but I got a bit concerned I might be using too much imagination as the memories began to fade.
The chance to revisit this beautiful area came in the form of the annual rail excursion arranged by our local train enthusiasts. Not only could I get down to Somerset for a weekend, I could do it in style as the train uses first class Pullman carriages. The chance was too good to miss and I set off to see if I had somehow dreamed this mystical landscape. I hadn’t.
We spent a long, gloriously sunny day driving across the Levels, stopping for me to photograph at intervals. Some pictures were obvious and attractive – the encircling hills, Glastonbury Tor in the distance. Others probably have less universal appeal – the rusty sluice gate, for example. And the drowned cygnet. As we bounced along one road (it did have grass growing down the middle so probably should have been avoided) I spotted some peat workings, a fascinating mix of rich dark earth, rushes and water oozing from the torn land. Leaping out I began to photograph, much to the interest of a lady who had set up a picnic table and chairs by the road. As I looked around I realized I was standing opposite the exact building I had used in “The Drowners” as Derek Johns’ hiding place, only then it had been closed according to the pictures on the net. The lady beckoned me over and asked what I was doing. I tried to explain and she laughed. “That’s my father’s business,” she said. I told her it was in a crime novel and gave her a bookmark. Strange how things can happen like that.
And the image of the Levels I brought back? Despite the terrible floods, scars from which can still be seen in a number of areas, they are still quite lovely. The breeze blows almost constantly but on a fine day this sets up just a whisper in the warm air. It is hard to believe there are so many greens in the world, so varied is the foliage. There are vivid patches of golden hay, red and black cows and delightful, playful cream and tan goats. Swans drift in the canals and streams that catch the sunlight and send it, broken and glittering across the eyes. I saw so many tiny paths and little bridges and wanted to follow and cross them all. I will be going back soon, to explore some more but for now I have the Levels in my heart and my mind. it’s time to get serious about the next book.