The River front cover

An exploration of a disconnected river:
the Brue and the Axe in Somerset.
Bruce Garrard
A5 Paperback, 258 pages including black & white maps.
24 pages of colour photographs also included.
Published October 2015.
Reprinted with corrections and additions, February 2018.
R.R.P. £12.95
Special price for copies bought from this website: £10.00


Chapter Headings

The Journey
Introduction: Making Friends with the River
Day One: Alfred’s Tower to Bruton
Day Two: Bruton to Baltonsborough
Day Three: Baltonsborough to Godney via Glastonbury
Day Four: Godney to Lower Weare near Axbridge
Day Five: Lower Weare to Uphill near Brean Down

The History
Introduction: The River, the Canal, and the Drain
1. Prehistory
2. Glastonbury and the Iron Age Lake Village
3. Before the Romans Arrived…
4. Roman Occupation
5. Celtic Christianity
6. Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Landscape
7. Seven Holy Islands
8. Glastonbury as one of the Holy Islands
9. The Kingdom of Wessex
10. King Alfred and the Unbinding of the Chrisom at Wedmore
11. Dunstan and the Benedictine Rule
12. Glastonbury and Wells
13. When and why was the River Brue diverted?
14. Expansion of water transport routes to the west
15. Changes to the river around Glastonbury
16. A Transition in Land Ownership: 1400-1600
17. Somerset Levels in the Seventeenth Century
18. Floods at Bruton
19. Glastonbury Canal
20. District Drainage Boards
21. World War Two and the New Regime of Pumping
22. Farmers and Conservationists
23. The Present and the Future

The River: review

Bruce Garrard’s latest book, The River, helps deepen our sense of wonder of the ecology of the central Somerset landscape with its distinctive natural and engineered landscape. He gently peels away the layers of time to reveal a much more meandering River Brue that wound its way past the island chapels of saints – a landscape of special significance, their names listed with Glastonbury in King Edgar’s charter as islands that had a privileged status which exempted them from the ordinary laws of the land – the Isles of Avalon, Beckery, Godney, Martinsey, Panborough and Andrewsey. The Brue once connected them all. But it has become a disconnected river as the engineering work done by the medieval monks effectively cut it in half.

It took a lot of hard work to retrace its original path. With a background in environmental activism and a healthy scepticism of the purely academic, Bruce would never have been content locking himself away in the Antiquarian Library or poring over the Drainage Board archives.

Throwing a rucksack over his shoulders he got out into the landscape with all its nettles, barbed wire, railway lines, rhynes, weather and landowners, and walked – over five days – from the Brue’s source at Brewham to its original mouth at Uphill just south of Weston super Mare. But more than that, he made friends with it. He kayaked and swam in it, sat on its banks and listened to its changing sounds as it tumbled down towards Bruton. Walking alongside it, he quietly observed the deforestation in its upper reaches above Bruton and the accumulation of algae pollution towards its mouth at Highbridge.

Inspured by a Glastonbury screening of the film Aluna last year, and the urgent message relayed by the Kogi Mamas of Columbia that “You don’t have to abandon your lives, but you must protect the rivers”, Bruce made a commitment to explore the Brue. He recounts his pilgrimage along its banks in the first quarter of the book, and then steps back to reflect on its history, from Prehistory, through the Iron Age, Roman Occupation, Celtic christianity, King Alfred, St Dunstan, the medieval abbey at Glastonbury, right through to the current debate about the future of our wetland ecology in a world dominated by the priorities of economic growth.

​A perspective highlighted by the Environment Secretary of the time, when visiting Somerset during the 2014 floods and asked, “What is the purpose of a river?” was to reply “To get rid of water” – as if our rivers are giant gutters to be straightened and dredged. A remarkable graph in the book shows the relationship between the percentage of woodland in a drainage basin and river discharge. The greater the tree cover in the catchment areas the greater the absorption of heavy rain. The Government’s research came up with the remarkable result that ‘water sinks into the soil under trees at 67 times the rate at which it sinks into the soil under grass’.

I believe that Bruce, as a writer, is contributing to an emerging body of immersive, experiential nature writing that encourages us to re-connect with the land around us. Writers like Robert MacFarlane, Philip Marsden, our own Patrick Whitefield, and Roger Deakin who wrote the groundbreaking Waterlog, can help deepen our appreciation of the spirit of place. The River offers us an opportunity to re-member the Brue, to appreciate its history and its displacement. Bruce deserves our deepest thanks for giving witness to its remarkable story.

Kevin Redpath, published in The Glastonbury Oracle, December 2015.

‘The River – an exploration of a disconnected river: the Brue and the Axe in  Somerset’.

The river is disconnected literally, in that during the middle ages the Brue was redirected and is no longer joined to the River Axe as it once was – in other words the source and the mouth are disconnected from each other. It is also disconnected metaphorically, in the sense that (for the author) it has become an allegory for the natural world as a whole, and we as humans are so often disconnected from the natural world (and from ourselves and each other), this being the root cause of the ecological crisis that now threatens to overwhelm us.

The book’s format comes in two parts. The first is based on a walk from the source of the Brue above Bruton, along the river as far as Glastonbury, and then following the old course across the moors, to join up with the River Axe; finally along the Axe to its mouth at Uphill near Brean Down. The walk took five days and took place over midsummer in June 2014.

The second part is the history of the river, and of its human context. This includes Glastonbury’s medieval abbey, which had a huge effect on the river with drainage works and straightening or ‘canalisation’. It also includes the Lake Village in the Iron Age, the Celtic Church in post-Roman Britain, the Saxons and Abbot Dunstan, King Alfred and the Peace of Wedmore with the Danes.

In more recent years there is also the history of flooding at Bruton, the ill-fated Victorian Glastonbury Canal, the introduction of large-scale pumping and modern drainage, and most recently the sometimes heated debate between proponents of intensive farming and nature conservation.

The text is illustrated by a section of colour photographs that cover the length of the original river course as it looks today. There is also a series of maps that show the dramatic changes that have taken place over the centuries.

Extracts from the picture section

The source of the River Brue at King’s Wood Warren

Nr S Brewham 2 1

The River Brue below South Brewham.

Gants Mill 1

Gant’s Mill, outside Bruton

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‘Our progress was now overseen by the grand presence of Glastonbury Tor’

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Great Withy Rhine, showing the line of the ancient river bank. The lake village site is in the background.

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The Lower Axe as it leaves High Bridge, Bleadney.

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The River Axe meanders south.

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Approaching the mouth of the River Axe.