Birth and death on the Somerset levels


The M5 leading to Brent Knoll

Brent Knoll, somerset (no where near the farm)

This Wednesday 8th February (2012) I found myself walking around the Somerset levels.  The levels are a beautiful part of the South West of England. It’s home to the Glastonbury festival, an awe inspiring gorge over in Cheddar, cave’s that have given the back drop to many sci-fi drama and miles of farmland regained from the sea millennia ago with drainage channels dug by hungry Romans.

This area is mostly flat but is pepper with knolls; curious reminders of where the sea rushed in and carved the land. For the rambler the knolls, or small hills, are points to be climbed in order to survey the land. The higher they are the better vantage point you have to plot the next stage of your journey.

When I saw a footpath heading up between two knolls, through Knowle farm it seemed to be a perfect spot to spy on the wetlands of Westhay nature reserve our final destination.  On approaching them the chocolate box patchwork of the Somerset farming landscape started to change. It started to resemble something from John Hillcotts harrowing post apocalyptic film The Road. Rubbish strewn everywhere, barbed wire on gates with signs declaring “no public access”, broken fences with cows and bulls running free and worst of all a massive dead friesian with her eyes pecked out greeting us as we approached the farm.

My heart beat in my mouth as we followed the footpath, not deviating at all in fear of being confronted with an irate farmer with a double barrelled welcoming party. We passed a calf near its mother it was tiny and unsteady on its feet. On closer inspection we could still see parts of the after birth and umbilical cord still on this calf. The deprivation and neglect of this farm could not be ignored as rubbish became frequent the closer we go to the farmhouse.

Upon reaching the farmhouse my fears were justified as out came two sheep dogs, with dreaded hair and teeth as sharp as razors. They snarled at us, obviously trained to keep nosey ramblers away.  I trembled with fear as one of the dogs as snapped at my ankles. We edged past and carried on up towards our knoll.

Up we climbed trying to make light of our ordeal.  Approaching the ridge my mind raced away from the deprivation below. Thoughts of the view on the other side came and my pace quickened as I knew this would be a highlight of the hike. We would be high enough to give a clear, almost 360° panoramic view of the levels in all of their glory. I was not disappointed, the winters sun giving the barren landscape a crisp edge and bare trees etched onto the landscape as if by an artist’s brush.

But our road to hell was not over, we were still to have one last macabre surprise. High up on the edge of knowle hill was a cow. She too looked liked she was dead, her eyes were glazed and looking into the abyss, her tongue lolled to the side of her mouth as she lay motionless on her side. Then I noticed her breath leaving her mouth and turning to vapour in the cold winters air and one of her front legs involuntarily twitched with the last throws of her life. We felt helpless as we climbed down the hill, what could we do to help? I felt like urban intruder on this countryside, this wasn’t even within the  normal realm of problems us city folk are used to dealing with. I felt ashamed and frustrated that I couldn’t help.

I turned round with one last hopeless glance of pity. It was then that I witnessed a scene of intimate and timeless compassion. The cow had been surrounded by the rest of the herd. This cow left to die on a cold,  barren Somerset hillside was not to die alone.  As she took her last breaths, she shared the air taken into her mighty lungs with her tribe. These gentle innocent creatures although ill equipped, had taken the role of husbandry that should’ve befallen the farmer.

I still had the image of the dying cow in my mind when I awoke this morning and I made up my mind to call the RSPCA’s cruelty line on 0300 1234 999. Something, I should have done immediately  and something I’d advise anyone to do if they saw anything similar. I kicked myself for not thinking about it sooner and have now saved the number just in case there are any similar occurrences in the future.

It transpires that this farm is well known to the RSPCA and the farmer has been banned from keeping livestock. As I write someone has travelled down there to have a look and action will be taken. One can only hope that these animals can all find better homes and that this is the one and only time I end up seeing such a scene. If I do, I will certainly be reporting it immediately.

Alexanders & Mussels (invading moules)

If you ever find yourself around the North Devon and Cornwall coast you will find Alexanders Smyrnium olusatrumalexanders have populated everywhere. Like many plants they have done a much better job of colonisation than their Roman introducers; in some areas they are even considered an invasive species. Alexanders stayed popular for some time right up until celery took their place. A curious fact considering that although their texture and appearance are similar to celery their taste differs greatly.

A costal visit during winter should yield enough mussels and alexanders to make this recipe. Some find the taste of alexanders quite overpowering, in this recipe their flavour does not take over power the dish and the taste remains as a gentle background reminder. I consider this dish to be a great introduction to the individual taste of alexanders.


Photograph copywright ROY HUNT
Image by Roy Hunt

60 mussels
1 onion
30g finely chopped alexander leaves
60ml parsnip wine
60g butter
Black pepper to season


Prepare the mussels put them in a very large saucepan with the onion and half the alexanders. Pour in the parsley wine and heat to steam the mussels open. Slowly over the next few minutes each mussel will open; discard the ones that don’t. Pour into a colander and collect all the juices (the tastiest part of the mussels). Pour the juice back into the saucepan leaving about one tablespoon in the bowl, this last bit often contains grit. Heat and bring back to the boil whisking in the butter.

Put the mussels into a big bowl then pour the juice over them adding the rest of the alexanders and a few twists of black pepper.

Independent Bristol

This is the second article in my on going series of articles I’ve previously published. Again this is from The Bristol Magazine and was first published in February 2010.

Independent Bristol

Go to almost any town or city centre in the Europe and you will see many of the same shops. Our bland shopping habits have changed the independent face of our cities leaving us with an homogenised, boring façade of choice. Luckily, the fringes of city centres still hold rare gems holding in there against all odds. These shops not only compete against city centre chain stores, but massive supermarket chains. Without our independent shops Bristol would be much worse off.

This time of year is the worst for the retail sector and as we are still supposedly in the worst recession ever so my place to visit this month is all of our independent shops; we need them to keep our Bristol from becoming homogenised and bland.

It is to the fringes of our great city that we have to travel to really see some of my favourite shops. Shops that are run by people who have a passion for what they sell and not for how much money they are making.  As a writer I feel I must fly the flag firstly for Durdham Down books, especially as its the only independent bookshop left in the whole of Bristol. Family run and by bibliophiles  and situated on North View. It is exactly what you want from a bookshop!

This is a bit of step away from my favourite shopping area which has to be the bottom of Cotham Hill. Here we can find an off licence that sells only the best booze from around the world, an antique shop run by two wonderful eccentrics who love dolls houses and Earthbound a health food shop that beat off Fresh and Wild and where the owners seem to know everyone by name. I have noted a few shops closing down round here so do shop in all of these and your favourite shops, especially at this time of year.

Of course there just isn’t the space to mention all of my favourite shops in Bristol, albeit to mention just my favourite new shop – The Urban Fringe Dispensary a herbalist ran by the inspirational Max Drake this place is nestled in area rich in independent shops just by the Christmas Steps.

Now rip up those club cards, burn your nectar points and shop till you drop!