Written for a talk at the University of the Third Age, Glastonbury, January 2016
Last year I wrote a history of the River Brue, and the central event in the river’s history is undoubtedly its redirection. This took place somewhere between the late twelfth and the mid thirteenth century, and resulted in the river going to the sea at Highbridge – as it still does today. It no longer crosses the moors north of Glastonbury – as it always had before – joining the River Axe to reach the sea near Brean Down.
The pair of sketch maps that were drawn by my late friend Patrick Whitefield are not perfectly accurate, but they do give a good impression of the huge changes that have been made to our local rivers over the centuries. I have been aware that, in particular, the Brue’s course had been changed when it was controlled by Glastonbury Abbey in the middle ages, but it was only recently that I have examined this in any detail.
My interest in the River Brue was kindled by watching the film ‘Aluna’. This is about the remarkable Kogi people of northern Colombia. They preserved their culture by remaining hidden away in the mountains since soon after the Spanish had arrived in their country, but they have now emerged with a message for the rest of the world – to the effect that we must change our ways or else we shall not survive.
The recent news from the climate change conference in Paris suggests that we might be beginning to get that message, though climate change of itself is far from being the only issue. For the Kogi, the key part of their message is that “You don’t have to abandon your lives, but you must protect the rivers”. Inspired by this, I decided that I must at least get to know my local river, and to understand better both its history and its integral place in the local landscape.
Besides studying the river’s history, I decided also to get to know it better, to make friends with it. I decided to walk its length – that is, the length of its original course (as near as I could tell where that had been), from its source in King’s Wood Warren above Brewham, to the sea at Uphill, south of Weston-super-Mare and near to Brean Down. I spent five days doing this, and it introduced me to some lovely scenery – particularly in the upper reaches of the river, above Bruton.
The further down river that I went, the more I found it has been altered and engineered by humans over the years, and there it has lost its natural attractiveness – though at first it is still lovely.
Then there’s this, just above Bruton, built in the 1980s to prevent the flooding that has been such a danger to the town of Bruton since at least the eighteenth century. As local hydrologist Colin Clark has said about this dam, “The residents of Bruton have been left well protected up to the design standard, but also left in grave peril if that standard were to be significantly exceeded”.
This ‘grave peril’ is actually very real. In June 1917 9.5 inches of rain fell on the hills above Bruton in one day, creating one of the town’s biggest ever floods. At the time this was the greatest amount of rain to have fallen in a 24-hour period anywhere in the British Isles – a record that was held by Bruton until 1955, when 11 inches fell at Martinstown in Dorset. Last December not far short of 14 inches fell in Honister Pass, Cumbria, creating a new record by a margin of nearly 3 inches. The way the climate is changing means that such extreme rainstorms are becoming more likely. If a storm over Bruton were to exceed that of 1917 by a similar amount, the dam would almost certainly be over-topped, resulting in rapid erosion of the structure and the likelihood that it would give way completely, with potentially catastrophic results.
Continuing my walk along the river, a feature of the stretch below Bruton is the number of medieval mills, churches and bridges that still exist, many of them very attractive:
– Gants Mill outside Bruton
– The Mill House at Lovington
– St Peter’s Church at West Lydford (and also the seventeenth century bridge)
– Tootle Bridge at Barton St David. If you are walking down river, it is as you approach Tootle Bridge that Glastonbury Tor first comes into sight on the horizon.
The well-known Glastonbury archaeologist John Morland drew a ‘Sketch map of the Brue valley’ in 1922 which showed a number of interesting features that illustrate the way the river has been altered and engineered over the centuries:
– Tootle Bridge
– Cunlease Rhyne – formerly part of the Brue, which now follows what is called ‘Dunstan’s Dike’, though this was a thirteenth century alteration. Morland shows Dustan’s Dike as a redirected stream feeding the Baltonsborough Mill Stream (believed to have been constructed when Dustan was Abbot of Glastonbury in the eleventh century).
– Baltonsborough Mill Stream, which probably followed the course of the original River Brue more closely than the present river (that appears to have been constructed in unnatural straight sections).
– ‘Moor now Pasture’, South Moor, formerly Alder Moor, which has been systematically drained by a network of rhynes.
– The course of the ‘old river’ from Plungen to Prior’s Weir (Clyce Hole), which before thirteenth century engineering works followed low ground much closer to Wearyall Hill than the present river.
– Pomparles Bridge (‘Pons Perilis’), and the old Roman road and bridge which were approximately 50 yards upstream from the thirteenth century bridge (that replaced them) and the present A39.
– The course of the ‘old river’ going around Beckery Hill (Bride’s Mound) and being rejoined by the Mil Stream approximately where Snows Timber Yard now is. It continues, skirting the western edge of Glastonbury, and then flows north across the moors to join the River Axe.
The Brue was straightened and embanked across South Moor in the thirteenth century, in order to provide a millrace feeding the new Mill Stream and Beckery Mill, and later Northover Mill. The river straightening and embanking, Beckery Mill, the new stone bridge (Pons Perilis) and the new causeway across boggy ground to link Glastonbury to Street and the road along the Polden Hills – all these works appear to have been built as one major engineering scheme during the time of Abbot Michael of Amesbury (1235-1252).
To summarise the old course of the Brue: across South Moor it flowed much closer to Glastonbury and Wearyall Hill, then around Beckery with a probable port facility at The Mount – the industrial area to the west of Glastonbury. From there it would have meandered across the moors, joined by the River Hartlake before going through the gap between Godney and Garslade, then into the Perry Lake where it was joined by the River Sheppey, through the Bleadney-Panborough gap where it was joined by the Saxon mill stream (now the ‘Lower Axe’), and meeting the River Axe itself somewhere beyond Marchey Farm.
Tracking the old course of the Brue across the moors north of Glastonbury:
Floods in Beckery in around 1920 gave an impression of what it may have looked like when the river flowed there; elsewhere there is still evidence of the former river course.
Along Dye House Lane the Mill Stream is now a straightened channel; the river probably followed more of a curve across the fields to the right, which are still very wet and often flooded.
On the other side of the Meare Road, the Mill Stream still follows a course that approximates that of the old Brue, which would have continued to the right, finding its way across the moors – the course now marked by a rhyne still follows a natural, winding river course.
A little further on the same is true of Great Withy Rhyne that flows past the Lake Village site, and where the old line of the river bank can still be made out.
Beyond Godney, part of the River Sheppey appears to be flowing uphill; this must have been a section of the old Brue that had dried up, and that was regraded and utilised when the Sheppey was redirected towards Godney and Meare instead of north through the Bleadney-Panborough gap.
Further upstream, the Sheppey takes an unnaturally sharp left turn at the top of a pronounced downhill slope.
At the bottom of this slope was once the Perry Lake – apart from a small overgrown pond, the only trace of the lake that still exists is the name of the lane that once followed its northern shore.
In Bleadney, the name of the ‘High Bridge’ indicates that once boats sailed beneath it; today the narrow ‘Lower Axe’ flows under the B3139 (Wells to Wedmore road) and then approximately follows the course of the old Brue to its confluence with the Axe beyond the former island of Martinsey.
There is no definitive record of the new course of the Brue being constructed, and unravelling the order and dates of events is the subject of the rest of this article.
So, when and why was the course of the River Brue changed so deciseively? First of all, there are various theories – really assumptions – as to why the river was redirected:
– In order to facilitate drainage
– In order to improve and extend the water transport system
– So that Glastonbury Abbey could avoid paying taxes to Wells Cathedral for the use of waterways
Drainage on a large scale was not actually undertaken until a much later date. Michael Williams, the historian of ‘The Draining of the Somerset Levels’ states very clearly that the purpose of the Brue’s redirection was not drainage:
‘Flooding could only be prevented by the overall control of water within the [river] system, and the achievement of this ambitious aim was beyond the knowledge or technical ability of the medieval drainer … The needs of navigation were probably paramount over those of drainage.’
Improving and extending the water transport system was certainly the intention of the monastery’s engineers; but this did not mean redirecting the river, merely adding extra channels such as that between Glastonbury and Meare Pool, and further west the Pilrow Cut.
The avoidance of taxes by the Abbey is an idea that has become popular recently, though I can find no reference to such taxes in any of the medieval sources. In any case the river passed through the Abbey’s land as far as Clewer, near Cheddar, so it is not obvious where Wells would have controlled the waterway sufficient to attempt levying taxes.
My own conclusion is that the Brue’s redirection came about as the result of a series of smaller events, which took place over the course of a century or two. Their overall effect was to change the course of the river, though it had never been anyone’s plan to stop the Brue flowing across the moors and joining up with the Axe:
– A new cut connecting Glastonbury to Meare Pool
– Continuation of the new channel via the Pilrow Cut
– Extension of the revised River Brue to Highbridge via the old Fishlake River
– Construction of trading ports at Rooksbridge (Glastonbury) and Rackley (Wells)
– Redirection of the River Sheppey
– Redirection of the Hartlake River
A new cut connecting Glastonbury to Meare Pool
A number of historians have suggested that the new cut from just beyond Pomparles Bridge to Coldharbour Bridge on the Meare Road – and thence to Meare – would have been dug in the time of Abbot Michael of Amesbury, as part of the same scheme as building Pomparles Bridge and Beckery Mill. There are problems with this however. Most importantly, medieval texts refer to a river connection from Glastonbury and the Abbey all the way to at least Mark Bridge before Abbot Michael became abbot.
It is also worth noting that the original connection probably came from Northload rather than Beckery. This (now an extension of the Mill Stream) is the direct route from Glastonbury to Meare, whilst the route from Beckery is still know by some as the ‘Back River’, probably dug later as a subsidiary channel.
The date is speculation, but must have been before 1235, when the Abbey’s ‘Rentalia et Custumaria’ prepared for Abbot Michael’s abbacy included the duties of one Robert Malerbe, the Abbot’s boatman, as ‘to look after all waters between Clewer and Street bridges, and between Mark Bridge and Glastonbury’. Historian Robert Dunning suggests that extending the waterway westward beyond Meare Pool was ‘a project undertaken in the later 12th century’. In 1340 John of Glastonbury described the translation of St Benignus’ bones from Meare to Glastonbury as being a spectacular journey by boat accompanied by cosmic lights and rainbow colours; this suggests that the river connection was in place as early as about 1090 – though William of Malmesbury, who was writing much nearer to the event, mentions no river journey at all. What John’s account does suggest is that by the time he was writing no-one (nor anyone’s recently deceased grandparents) could remember there not being a river between Glastonbury and Meare, which would put the date back at least to the early part of Abbot Michael’s time and probably earlier. During the period that Wells controlled the Abbey (1197-1219) is a possibility, though I would put it a bit earlier than that, perhaps during the prosperous abbacy of Henry de Blois (1126-1171) or his successor Robert of Winchester (1173-1180).
Continuation of the new channel via the Pilrow Cut
At the western end of Meare Pool was a solid band of blue lias rock, a geological feature that was still a problem in the 19th century when plans for the Victorian Glastonbury Canal were being made. In the 12th century it would have been an even greater problem, though one that was overcome. Nevertheless there was probably a gap between the time when a channel from Glastonbury was put in place – resulting in the fishery gradually growing larger – and that when the waterway was continued westward.
Once constructed, it would probably have joined the old Fishlake River, which rose somewhere near Burtle and led to Highbridge. This would not have been large enough to take the entire flow, and the main channel would have been the Pilrow Cut, constructed to head north and join the River Axe at Rooksbridge. The route to Highbridge did not become the principal route of the Brue until 1805.
Dates are once again speculative. The Pilrow Cut was recorded as continuing beyond Mark and to be flowing towards the sea’ by 1316, and the Brue reached Highbridge by 1324; though all of this could have been, and almost certainly was, completed much earlier.
Construction of trading ports at Rooksbridge (Glastonbury) and Rackley (Wells)
The ongoing enmity between Glastonbury and Wells was an important factor in all this, as is shown by the fact that each built separate port facilities as embarkation points for trading goods, each on the (tidal) lower part of the River Axe and within a few miles from each other. These appear to have been built (or rebuilt, on the site of former Roman lead shipment facilities) in about the fourteenth century.
Redirection of the Hartlake River
The Hartlake was originally a tributary of the Brue, meeting it on Crannel Moor and then flowing towards the Cheddar Valley and the River Axe. In 1352 there was an agreement between Glastonbury and Wells, finally settling disputes over land ownership and usage, particularly on Queen’s Sedgemoor. It was at this time that the Hartlake was redirected towards Meare Pool. The watercourse that takes this flow is still known as ‘Divisional Rhyne’, the ‘division’ being the agreed arrangement between Glastonbury and Wells. This rhyne flows at right angles to the old course of the Brue, so that the old Brue must have become silted up and disused by the middle of the fourteenth century.
Redirection of the River Sheppey
The Sheppey was also redirected towards Meare Pool. Part of the re-made Sheppey (between Hurn and Garslade) appears to utilise a section of the old Brue, though presumably re-graded since the flow goes in the opposite direction to what had been its natural direction. This work must have been carried out after the Brue had ceased flowing in this area, but whilst the old river channel was still substantially in existence.
Eventually, the waters of the mighty River Brue had been so diverted and reduced that it gradually silted up and ceased to flow. In 1326 the river between Hurn Farm and Bleadney was widened and straightened and two bridges built that were to be high enough for boats to pass underneath. So at this date it was still used for water traffic, but within a couple of decades it had ceased completely. This was something like 150 years since the river connection between Glastonbury and Meare Pool had first been dug.
So my conclusion is that diverting the Brue – disconnecting it from the Axe and reconstructing it to flow west – had been nobody’s plan but had happened more or less by accident. It was the cumulative result of all these smaller works of engineering that had taken place over the course of several generations. It was an accident, however, that could not have come about except where commerce and politics had become more important than spirituality: the section of the river that had become closed off was precisely that part, the original core of the ‘Twelve Hides of Glastonbury’, that contained the abbey’s ancient Seven Holy Islands together with their chapels and hermitages.
These chapels were the first places mentioned in the oldest of the abbey’s charters, and go back to Celtic times (around the 6th century ad) when the pre-Roman culture had re-asserted itself but in a new, Christian context. The Celtic church that came about was very different from Roman Catholicism, and has been described by the scholar Nora Chadwick:
“The Celtic Church of the Age of Saints, as we see it in their gentle way of life, their austere monastic settlements and their island retreats, the personalities of their saints, and the traditions of their poetry, expresses the Christian ideal with a sanctity and a sweetness which has never been surpassed.”
In the middle ages the chapels were still maintained, particularly with the growing popularity of the Arthurian legends, but the sanctity of the landscape and its ‘island retreats’ was gone.