Caught by the River

Low Water at Meare

26th October 2011

by Paul Cowlishaw.

It was another unusually mild October morning. There was a light breeze from the south- west and when the sun broke through the gaps in the cloud there were bursts of warmth. I stood, facing downstream, on the stone bridge over the River Brue just below Manor Farm, rod and net in hand, and gazed into the water. The river along this stretch is just a few metres wide and quickens over shallows before slowing dramatically to its normal sluggish pace through deeper glides. There had been little rain for weeks and I knew the water level would be low. Rafts of lime-green duckweed gathered in the margins.

I spotted a few small perch, spiny dorsal fins erect, and some small roach and chub. A grey wagtail, on a rock near the base of one of the arches, looped off downstream crying a high-pitched alarm and a heron reared up and flapped off northwards, its strangled croaking rasping the air. I began to wander upstream. Tortoiseshell butterflies, presumably in no hurry to hibernate, displayed on the nettles and over the field below the river a kestrel arced and weaved ahead of two chasing crows. As soon as the crows withdrew, the kestrel turned through 180 degrees and resumed its hovering position, as though to taunt them. Then I spotted something pale and still floating at the water’s edge, half covered with weed. It was a dead fish, a good sized chub, its creamy grey body bloated, a stiff pectoral fin pointing skyward, a white eye. I looked up and scanned the river. I spotted another dull shape, and then another. I walked upstream towards the next farm and then back downstream beyond the bridge and counted 28 dead chub, mature fish between 2 and 4 pounds in weight, some possibly bigger.

This landscape, around the ancient settlement of Meare on the Somerset Levels, used to be a much more watery (and fishy) one than it is now. Set in the broad valley of the River Brue between the Mendip Hills and the Polden Ridge, before the wholesale draining of the Levels in the late 18th century Meare was an island in a frequently flooding land of marsh, bog and fen. The area to the north of Meare was the location of a huge lake known in Saxon times as Ferlingmere and later as Meare Pool. It would expand with the rising water table in the winter and contract in the summer and was described in 1537 as “4 miles in circumference in winter, 2 miles when least and three miles most commonly”.

It was a pool full of fish and from Saxon times, when the manor of Meare was granted to Glastonbury Abbey, they formed a major part of the monastic diet and were a source of considerable wealth. The men of God diverted the local Rivers Brue, Sheppey and Hartlake into the pool and so important was this fishery that in the early 14th century a ‘Fish House’ was built by then Abbot along with a manor complex and church. The head fisherman lived upstairs and on the ground floor fish were salted and nets stored. Over 5000 eels were caught in the pool every year and according to a record of 1553 there were “great abundances of pykes, tenchards, roaches and jeles (eels) and divers other kindes of fyshes”. The Manor House and the Fish House still survive, but the boat house, the fishermen’s drinking hut and the retaining ponds are long gone.

Parts of the wetlands were being reclaimed for agriculture at this time but it wasn’t until early in the 18th century that Meare Pool was finally drained from the map. Extensive draining of the marshes followed later in the century, accompanying the parliamentary enclosures and resulting in the pattern of fields and drainage channels and straight-edged rivers that exists today. The extent to which the agricultural lands should be drained to facilitate intensive farming or be allowed to re-flood to provide rare wildlife habitats, to preserve archaeological remains in the damp peat and to help manage river overflows, has been a matter of intense debate ever since.

Leaning against the bridge railing, I rang the Environment Agency. They were aware of the chub deaths, believing they had happened a few days previously below the sewage plant outfall further upstream. The low water levels had concentrated the sewage resulting in reduced oxygen levels. The stress caused by this, combined with unusually high temperatures and the recent weed cutting had seen to the chub’s downfall. They sounded concerned, said they would continue to monitor the sewage levels and bemoaned that we needed more rain, much more rain. They were grateful for my call.

Ah yes, the problem of water. I picked up my rod and my unopened tackle bag to begin a slow walk back to the car. Looking north-eastwards over the shallow depression that stretched in front of me, acres of empty green pasture, crossed with ditches edged with stumpy willows and with not a soul in sight, it was very difficult to imagine the vast expanse of water, the boats, the fishermen, the nets, the bustle of people landing, gutting and salting fish. I headed upstream towards the next bridge and crossed over the river to take the path by the Abbot’s Fish House. I was struck by how incongruous it seemed, oddly marooned in the middle of a field that was once the south-west shore of the lake. Its uneven windows, now barred and blackened, stared out across the dry land.