Tuesday, 6 April 2010

All About Somerset

The United Kingdom, often called interchangeably (although often incorrectly), as Britain or the British Isle, is divided into counties. The rural counties are sometimes referred to as "the Shires". One of the rural counties in the southwestern peninsula of England is Somerset. Traditionally, it stretches from Bath in the northeast, to Yeovil and Sherborne (among other towns) in the south and Exmoor in the northwest, although there have been some boundary changes over recent decades.
In terms of geography, it is probably one of the counties with the greatest variety. The Somerset Levels are in the heart of Somerset and encompass a large part of the county, as they stretch from the Quantock Hills in the west, through the catchment area of the Rivers Tone and Parrett and the Brue Valley, to the Mendip Hills in the east. It is an area of many Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and nature reserves, run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and Natural England, with nationally important populations of many species, including the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) and hairy dragonfly (Brachyton pratense). Parts of the Somerset Levels are just 50 metres above sea level, particularly the Avalon Marshes area in the Brue Valley, so are prone to winter flooding, although modern pumping and drainage systems have limited the extent. This has however, had an impact on the wildlife, leading to many reserves trying to recreate and manage these nationally important wetland areas, one of the largest areas of wetland in the country.
At the other extreme, the county has three upland areas, some of the highest in Southern England. To the east, you have the chalk downs of the Mendips and the Polden Hills, which are important for many of the rare blue butterflies and orchids. In fact, following the reintroduction of the large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) in the area, the lower reaches of the Polden Hills, which jut out into the Levels near Glastonbury and Street, now contain one of the most important populations.
To the far west of the county, straddling the border with Devon is Exmoor, the second highest and largest moorland area in the south west, behind Dartmoor. Exmoor, is relatively wild (although not as wild as Dartmoor). It is a granite outcrop, covered by open moorland and heathland, forming a typical upland heath, with gorse and heather predominating, in between ancient natural woodlands on the lower slopes. It also boasts some of the highest cliffs in Britain, with the northern edge dropping into the sea to form steep cliffs favoured by peregrines. Otters also frequent the rivers of Exmoor, probably in greater numbers than on the Levels, despite the lower prey density. Slightly to the east are the relatively unknown Quantock Hills. The Quantocks are very similar in terrain and wildlife to Exmoor and are in fact like a miniature version. However, they do contain more extensive woodland, with Great Wood at its centre. However, unlike Exmoor, the steep cliffs are absent, with a more gradual descent to the Bristol Channel, before lower cliffs dropping onto the ancient rocks of the beaches around Kilve and Quantoxhead.
Further along the coast to the north east, the beaches change to the sand and mud along the Severn Estuary, forming the beaches of Burnham-on-Sea and Weston Super Mare, before going on to Clevedon.
There are a few famous landmarks and tourist sites in Somerset. The largest is of course Exmoor, but in the Mendips, there is also the Cheddar Gorge, with its many caves, such as Wookey Hole. Glastonbury is also famous, due to the music festival (actually held at Pilton) and from the legends of King Arthur. Glastonbury Tor is probably one of the most popular tourist attractions in the county and the surrounding town attracts many mystics and pagans amongst the more usual tourist.
While many know of Somerset, relatively few have actually visited, simply using it as a thoroughfare on the way to the more popular Devon and Cornwall. It is a place of contrasts, upland and lowland, natural and manmade, but it maintains its rural roots and has kept some of its ancient traditions and ideals, with a low population density, probably among the lowest in England.