I wandered with hazy curiosity around Taunton for a while but didn’t feel drawn to anywhere. It felt like I was dowsing where there was no water so I headed out west along the River Tone to camp.
The next day began in The Levels. Kilometers of drained land in Somerset with canalised rivers and streams. I passed a couple of men with a large flexible pipe and a noisy bowser and motor. It was only afterwards that I realised it was a mobile pumping truck, they were pumping the water from one ditch to another to reduce the flooding. The last day of April, but the effects of the winter floods remained.
Passing a house, I asked for water.
“You’re very lucky.” The man told me. “A couple of weeks ago you wouldn’t have been able to get through. All this was flooded…for months.” He gestured to the road, fields and paths. The flooding had stopped just short of his house but had cut him off from the main road.
Thinking of all the life and biodiversity that used to be there before wetlands were drained and turned into crops put me in a sombre mood. Climbing up towards Stoke St. Gregory by chance I passed an environmental outdoor education space. Boards within it showed the expanse of Somerset that would naturally be flooded without flood defences. It was most of it.
With a changing climate How long would make sense to hold the waters back? What would happen to these people? Would we collectively take responsibility for our climate refugees or just leave the market to deal with them once they could no longer get insurance?
I passed next to a field full of solar panels, the first time I’d been able to get right up and have a look. A lot of technology on a field. Better than a coal power station, but what about the use of the land? I would have to find out more.
At the top of the hill I found the owners of the environmental center. It turned out to be a private business, a willow farm. Also at the farm was a free Willow and Wetlands visitors center, museum, workshops and cafe. Looking out at the levels from the environment education space had filled me with sadness, but the working people at the willow center restored me.
Baskets and boxes of all shapes and sizes. Trays, fencing, walls, garlands and hoops all woven out of willow. Stacks of willow for people to make their own items. I turned around in the shop, smiling at all the biodegradable products that could be bought instead of synthetic. My favourite by far though, were the coffins. You might buy a basket you didn’t need, but no one was going buy one of these unless they needed it.
Woven by hand in different shades of willow, each taking about twelve hours. With no metal in them, the coffins were fastened with wooden toggles, while the edges were a line of nestled V shapes like a celtic knot. Unsurprisingly the coffins are becoming one of their best products. In a large concrete room five craftspeople were each working in their own area in stern concentration.
The willow must be boiled for ten hours before the bark is stripped and depending upon whether you steam it first will change the colour. Steaming with the bark on, lets the tannins seep into the willow underneath. In the past the willow would have been stripped one piece at a time between two prongs of metal, usually by children. Now a large machine takes bundles of the willow and strips it all.
Most of the willow grown on the farm doesn’t actually end up woven at all. Next time you look at a charcoal drawing you’re probably looking at some of this willow. The majority of artist charcoal in Europe comes from this one farm.