Autumn comes to the Levels

The chief memory from primary school geography is the time when I turned the country around.

In those times when making photocopies was a rare phenomenon confined to large institutions where xerox machines could reproduce cloudy images, tracing paper was the way to transfer an image from one place to another. The class was given the task of reproducing a map of Britain in their exercise books. This required placing a sheet of tracing paper on the relevant page of a school atlas and holding it firmly in place while following the outline with a pencil. Once the map had been traced, the paper was turned over and, using the side of the lead, we scribbled over the line we had drawn. We then placed the tracing the right way up on a page of the exercise book and drew along the lines we had drawn. The lines scribbled on the reverse allowed enough lead to be on the paper for the lines to appear on the blank page. It was a very simple process, except when you scribbled on the same side as you had traced and then turned the paper over to draw the line from the reverse side – a process that led to Wales and Cornwall being to the east of the country and East Anglia and Kent facing westward.

Perhaps it was an omen that geography would not be a strong subject, for the only other fact that I can recall from those days is that our part of Somerset was in a “rain shadow”, the upland areas to the west and south-west of the county received a lot of relief rainfall, meaning that there were only thirty inches of rain each year in the heart of the county. Going to school on Dartmoor, where the annual rainfall was sixty inches a year or more brought an appreciation of how relatively rain-free our area was.

Rain-shadowed, it might be; dry, it is not. The autumn storms of the past week brought rain that arrived sideways. Autumn and winter on the Levels might be mild compared with the seasons elsewhere, but they are marked by a pervasive dampness. People who lived on the moors in times before modern heating and dehumidifiers would talk about there being a year round moisture in their walls, about the damp being in everything.

The grey misty rainfall, that seems sometimes to enfold you, is the price of living in the west of the country. Had the tracing been correct, we would have faced icy blasts coming from the east; dampness is easier than ice.

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