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Bruce Garrard’s latest book, The River, helps deepen our sense of wonder of the ecology of central Somerset 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 that exempted them from the ordinary laws of the land — the Isles of Avalon, Beckery, Godney, Martinsea, Panborough and Andrewsea.
The Brue once connected them all. But it has become a disconnected river as the engineering work by the medieval monks effectively cut it in half. The Brue and the Axe were once the same river. It took a lot of hard work to retrace the 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 archives of the Somerset Drainage Boards. 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 the river, sat on its banks and listened to its changing sounds. He observed the deforestation in its upper reaches as it tumbles towards Bruton and the accumulation of algae pollution in its slow flow near its present-day mouth at Highbridge.
He was inspired by a Glastonbury screening of the film Aluna last year, where the Kogi people of Colombia, isolated for centuries, relay an urgent message to the materialist modern world: “You don’t have to abandon your lives, but you must protect the rivers.” Bruce made a commitment to explore the Brue.
The first quarter of the 258-page book recounts his pilgrimage along its banks. Then he reflects on the Brue’s past: from prehistory, through the iron age, Roman occupation, Celtic Christianity, King Alfred, St Dunstan, the medieval Abbey, through to the current debate about the future of our wetland ecology in a world dominated by economic growth. (The Environment Secretary visiting Somerset in the 2014 floods when asked “What is the purpose of a river?” replied “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 woodland and river discharge. The greater the tree cover in the catchment area, the greater the absorption of heavy rain. Government research reached the astonishing 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 writing about nature that encourages us to reconnect with the land around us. Writers like Robert Macfarlane, Philip Marsden, Glastonbury’s own Patrick Whitefield [who died last year], 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 remember the Brue, to appreciate its history and its displacement. Bruce deserves our deepest thanks for giving witness to its remarkable story.