Opposing improvers

Tot the south, the parish boundary of High Ham extends to the lowland beyond Picts Hill, to the north it stretches across the moor towards Pedwell. The King’s Sedgemoor Drain begins, on the moor to the north, below Ham Hill, the steep ascent into our village, and runs north-west to meet the River Parrett at Dunball. The drain, into which runs a network of rhynes, was built in the final decade of the Eighteenth Century. Its construction brought drier land but it also brought an extinction of the commonage rights enjoyed by many of the poorer people of our community. Drainage was something resisted by those who lost their livelihoods.

Writing in Wetland: Life in the Somerset Levels in 1986 Adam Nicolson described the spirit of the local people:

The classic instance in the seventeenth century was King’s Sedgemoor, entirely owned, as its name implies, by the crown. The Stuart monarchy was desperate for money and the draining of the moor represented a handsome opportunity. Agents were appointed, plans drawn up and negotiations opened with the freeholders who had rights of common on the moor. The Agents reported that,

“the very ditches of the enclosures will so drayne it, sucke out the water and the land will soon become warm, solide and full of fruite.”

This may have been optimistic but it was not on technical grounds that the scheme failed. The prospect of the extinction of their common rights made the freeholders resist. Their obstinacy, their defence of independence and their simple obstructionism made any progress impossible. Eventually, in 1632, Charles I sold off 4,000 acres of the unimproved moor at £3 an acre. The main agent, John Battalion, was summoned before the Attorney General in 1635 to explain the failure. In words which exactly reflect the intransigent saltiness of the moors and the moor-men, he explained how the whole business had

“fylled and cloyed with many more perplexityes, questions and queres than I ever dreamt.”

That is the reality of the place, of its natural conservatism and refusal to be cowed by higher authority. When, in the eighteenth century, the more elaborate scheme for the moor was introduced, it met with the same sort of opposition, which this time failed. As one enthusiastic improver complained:

“there is no propriety in calling a publick meeting with a view of gaining signatures of consent. . . . At all publick meetings of this nature that I ever attended noise and clamour have relent.’ sound sense and argument. Once men have joined the opposition, their pride will not let them.”

It is thirty-five years since Patrick Sutherland and Adam Nicolson captured the spirit of the Levels. As the life they described has slowly disappeared, so has some of the spirit of the place. Looking at the photograph of a cousin with whom I once spent an evening making cider, a man who delivered vegetables to our house every Saturday, I wondered how much of the metropolitan cosmopolitanism that now besets the place he would have welcomed.

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