Somerset Levels

Somerset Levels, Somerset (c) Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn

Britain from the Air - Somerset Levels

An ancient land of reed swamps, peat, willow and eels.

The Somerset Levels started life, some 6,000 years ago, as a large boggy area made up of freshwater fens and salt marshes interspersed with islands of higher land (much like the Fens of East Anglia).

The swamps were rich in natural resources - peat and reeds, fish and eels - and were exploited from the very earliest of times by Stone Age people who temporarily camped on the higher lands. But unlike the Fens, the Somerset Levels were not widely drained and reclaimed until steam pumps were introduced in the mid 19th century. They pumped the water out into a network of drainage channels which are still used today.


Willow has been used in the area for centuries. It has the advantage of being tough, pliable and light, and is readily grown in wet soils. It is a unique local industry on the Somerset Levels and Moors.

Fragments of prehistoric willow basket have been recovered, and it was used in the construction of several Iron Age causeways. The Romans used it on their chariots and it provides the sturdy baskets hanging beneath hot air balloons.

Mostly used today to make baskets and fences (called hurdles), sadly, the industry has been in decline since plastic bags were introduced in the 1950s.

The European eel

The Somerset Levels are home to a huge variety of plant, insect and bird species, including Peregrine Falcons. It has an important population of otters and water voles, whose numbers are increasing. It also provides a habitat in the sleepy River Parrett for an extraordinary and highly endangered fish - the European eel.

Eels spawn in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The young larvae drift for 10 months before reaching European estuaries. Here they change into miniature eels - elvers - but do not mature into silvery white-coloured adults for between 5 and 20 years. Then they migrate back to the mid Atlantic, spawn and die. Even though 10,000 eels have been recorded migrating upstream in a single night, the number of eels has declined in the past 40 years by about 90%.

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Location: Somerset Levels, Somerset, BS26 2RG
Grid reference: ST 38397 52874

Britain from the Air - Somerset Levels credits

Thank you to -

Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn for aerial photography

Text researched and written by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

One of the best-preserved Iron Age villages in the UK - Glastonbury Lake Village - was discovered in 1829 in the Somerset Levels.