Saturday, 7 September 2013

An unholy trinity

The Somerset Levels and the surrounding area posed three conundrums for me during the past week: a word that was new to me; a word that I thought was familiar but as it turns out is not; and, Glastonbury.

1. A new word

Looking at the Ordnance Survey map for the area around Westhay (the village where we stayed for the week), a strange word appeared time and time again. It was used to identify the multitude of drainage ditches which linked the larger streams across the Levels.

Part of OS Explorer Map 141, Cheddar Gorge and Mendip Hills West (Copyright Ordnance Survey)

I'd not come across that before and was struggling to work out the possibilities for the derivation. However, one of the excellent local leaflets came to my rescue, handily pointing out that the word is pronounced 'reen' and comes from the Welsh for a ditch or stream, 'rhewyn'.

Obviously, Somerset is fairly close to Wales, so that is pretty plausible. I've certainly heard Welsh words used in Devon to describe types of habitat, which is even closer to Somerset than Wales.

2. An old word

Back to the photo above and you'll notice that the Levels are low lying (below 10m) and flat (between the 10m contour and sea level), though I guess 'Level' rather explains that! If it was in the East of England it would be called a fen, or in the North West of England, a moss. So, my conundrum was the word 'Moor'. To a lad born and raised in the North East of England, who grew up walking over the Pennines hills of Teesdale, Weardale and Tynedale, a moor is a high, rocky place covered in heather, where only the hardiest of sheep can eke out an existence. Various holidays to Scotland through the years did little to dispel that notion, Rannoch Moor for example. Recent trips to Shropshire and hikes across the hills and moors of the Long Mynd only reinforced the idea. Moor = Over 500m above sea level, heather, rocks, sheep.

So how come it can also refer to a place that is almost as close to being in the sea as you can be without needing gills?

Here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject...

"Moorland or moor is a type of habitat found in upland areas in the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biomes, characterised by low-growing vegetation on acidic soils. Moorland nowadays generally means uncultivated hill land (such as Dartmoor in South West England), but the Old English mōr also refers to low-lying wetlands (such as Sedgemoor, also SW England). It is closely related to heath although experts disagree on precisely what distinguishes the types of vegetation. Generally, moor refers to highland, high rainfall zones, whereas heath refers to lowland zones which are more likely to be the result of human activity."

A-ha, it's both, then. Phew!

3. Glastonbury

This isn't about the Music Festival, this is about the town itself.

The town has been a centre of habitation since Neolithic times, but from the Saxon period into the Middle Ages was dominated by the Abbey. During the 12th and 13th Centuries, separate myths developed around the Arthurian legends and Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail. Ley lines and a landscape zodiac are more modern incarnations of these myths. So it's fair to say that belief and folklore have been Glastonbury's stock-in-trade for hundreds of years.

Nowadays, it is famous (or possibly infamous) for its New Age clientèle and religious tourism. The High Street contains a large number of shops described as 'alternative'. Even before you reach the centre of town, it is obvious that here is a place that's a little bit 'other'. More cynical minds would say 'fruitloop'. If a traveller from another galaxy made planetfall in Glastonbury tomorrow, his or her Directory of Time and Space might catalogue the period as late 1960s/early 1970s. There are certainly some groovy fashions on display.

All in all, taking onto account others comments on the place and my very first impressions, I was siding with the cynical view that Glastonbury is tacky and kitsch.

On reflection, however, whilst it does have a preponderance for emporiums reeking of incense and Patchouli oil, and possibly more pentagrams per capita than is strictly necessary, I rather liked Glastonbury. It has the usual High Street banks, a chemist/pharmacy from a national chain, other normal establishments like estate agents and shoe shops, but the remainder is fairly unique and independent. In a world where we constantly complain that everywhere looks the same and there's too many charity shops, Glastonbury is not like this.

We ate a fantastic lunch at the Rainbow's End, a vegetarian wholefood cafe, and browsed the pagan produce in a dozen or more 'alternative' shops. I almost bought cushions! That was very weird.

We managed to avoid a coachload of Austrian tourists who descended upon the Abbey ruins and also circumnavigated the muttonhead with a bull terrier, who didn't care that his dog had bitten a passer-by (which just goes to prove that even with a faster-than-light spacecraft, there's always one pillock who will spoil the party).

I only took one photograph whilst in the High Street, but I just had to record this...

Never underestimate the power of cacao.


Tales of a Bank Vole said...

Moor Rhyne?

Oh Dear

You do seem to be having trouble with your words these days - let me help.

Rhyne is what the ditches are full of after the Clhyds have broken:)

Imperfect and Tense said...

I think I've got it, Professor 'iggins! Is it anything to do with Spyne?

Tales of a Bank Vole said...

By Ghyorge, I think e's got it!

Imperfect and Tense said...


Martin said...

I would say that a Heath was drylands, and often with underlying sandstone or greensand, while a moor (in this case) would typically be wetlands, and presumably something that retains the water for the geology.

Glastonbury, aka.. a cross between a folk festival and my perception of what getting high in the 60s must have been like. Sounds like it is worth a cynical visit one day!

Imperfect and Tense said...

It just goes to show that travel broadens the mind :o)

If you go to Glastonbury, the best camouflage is something rainbow-coloured.