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Steart Marshes

Find out about the mysterious Mud Horsemen of Steart, the great winter storm of 1895 and what the Somerset dialect words of ‘bloodyfingers' and ‘kickhammering' refer to.

Welcome to the Steart Marshes hidden history Storywalk along the England Coast Path. This trail is designed to be like a skimming stone of interesting facts, myth, history and tales linked to this location. The walks are designed to be read aloud to family and friends and to embellish your experience of this place.

Route - from the WWT car park, this trail journeys south through the new wetland habitat following the England Coast Path.

If you want to delve deeper into the local history, then please visit the tourist information centres at Watchet, plus the local libraries.

Length - 3 miles / 4.8 km total, allow two hours at an amble.
Access - path is flat and level throughout.
Directions - Trailhead is at the WWT car park, Steart Marshes, Stert Drove, TA5 2PU. What3words address ///garlic.harp.merge 51.191907, -3.0716040
 
Chapter one

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘kickhammering' (pronounced kik'aam'uree) refers to a stammer.
Chapter two

The Gurt Steart

The Steart peninsula, pronounced ‘stuurrrt' to rhyme with hurt, is a unique spit of land which has been inhabited off and on for the best part of 2000 years. It has witnessed Roman, Saxon and Dane invaders using the Parrett to take flat bottomed boats deep inland. There have been ancient battles on the waters right here and sailors sadly caught in terrible flood tides.

The marshes, which we will walk beside today are part of the most recent landscape interventions. These new breeding habitats were created by an EU directive to displace those lost through national industrial developments.

Today, you may spot a wide variety of birds and wildlife here, from herons to cormorants, skylarks to curlew, ducks to plovers, dragonflies to rushes. Some of the birds are resident all year, many pass through to feeding or breeding grounds on other landmasses. It is important to see these marshes as part of a wider ecosystem designed and managed to support a broad diversity of birds and insect life in these ever changing times.
Directions - Walk out of the WWT Steart Marshes information hub, cross the road and bare left to the circular welcome area. Note - refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘backsunded’ (pronounced baak-zundud) might refer to.
 
Chapter three

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘backsunded' (pronounced baak-zundud) refers to a place which is north facing, i.e. with its back to the sun!
Chapter four

The Steart

This part of the coast has an amphibious feel to it. The Steart peninsula lies at the mouth of the River Parrett and it is part fresh water, part sea, part land. During the 7th millennium BC the sea level rose up the Lower Severn Valley, resulting in relentless flooding by the sea for around 2000 years. At that time, this area became saltmarsh.

When the Romans arrived in Britain (AD43) they drained some of the marsh, thus began a long history of reclaiming the land and turning it into grazing and arable land. This worked for almost 2000 years, and you can still see many fields grazed by sheep and cattle. However, in 2008 the Environment Agency and the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT), began the Steart Marshes Habitat Creation Scheme with the aim of returning the area to saltmarsh and freshwater wetlands.
Chapter five

The New Habitat

To begin, new embankments were built just here, then, in September 2014, the old embankments by the River Parrett were breached. This allowed the tide to cover 300 hectares of low-lying land for the first time in centuries, replenishing a vital ecosystem which has long been diminishing. The new habitats are easily visible on this trail.

Photo of curlew courtesy of Nigel Phillips.
Directions - Follow the path beside the reed pond down to the finger post and the England Coast Path. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘clapgate’ (pronounced tlaap'gee'ut) might refer to.
 
Chapter six

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘clapgate' (pronounced tlaap'gee'ut) refers to a swinging or kissing gate. With a kissing gate it is tradition to be paid with a kiss when you hold it open for another. But with a clapgate you are more likely to get a clap about the ear for being so cheeky!
Chapter seven

Glatting

These strange, marshy, amphibious wetlands are an ideal habitat for eels. Eels hatch as eggs in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. They then float on ocean currents until they reach the river systems of Europe and North Africa. There they mature for anything up to twenty years before swimming back to the Sargasso Sea to breed - a journey that can take another year.

The image taken a little down the Somerset coast at Lilstock depicts two men ‘glatting' with their dog which was practised until the 1950s. Glatting is the Somerset term for hunting and catching eels. Sometimes up to 5ft long and with a bite strong enough to crack a crab shell they generally nest under rocks in the lower tidal zone. Further down the coast in Minehead there are two round medieval fishing weirs thought to be eel traps.

Today, eels are critically endangered and an important part of the river system.They help to recycle nutrients by eating dead and decaying animals. They are in turn important food for herons, egrets, bitterns and otters.
Directions - Turn right to walk along the England Coast Path (note the black acorn on the sign) and stop at the next bench. Note - refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘crampbone’ (pronounced kraa'm boa'un) might refer to, and why would you want to wear one?
 
Chapter eight

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘crampbone' (pronounced kraa'm boa'un) is the knuckle bone of the sheep which would be worn around the neck to ward off cramp but if it were ever to touch the ground then it would lose its power forever!
Chapter nine

Fission Vision

Overhead you cannot miss the substantial power lines from Hinkley Point power stations.
The first power station at this site was in operation from 1965 until 2000 and is currently being decommissioned. Hinkley Point B is now in operation with Hinkley C well under construction, which is intended to provide the electricity for 6 million homes when complete.

The image above depicts the austere laboratories of Marie and Pierre Curie, in Paris, where experiments on uranium ore took place and the science behind fissile materials was pioneered. Today, the hand written journals and notebooks from Madam Curie are still too radioactive to handle.

Calder Hall in Cumbria was the world's first nuclear power station to generate electricity on an industrial scale. It opened in 1956. In this early phase of building, nuclear power stations were placed far from centres of population because of their hyper toxic contents. Hinkley Point, set on the coast and in sparsely populated Somerset, was seen as a good choice, with Hinkley Point B being one of the first advanced gas-cooled reactors constructed. Planning permission for Hinkley C was granted in 2013 amidst much national anxiety.
Directions - Continue along the England Coast Path, bear left at the first fork, then right at the second to stop at the decking area. But as you walk perhaps discuss what and when is ‘Collop Monday’ ?
 
Chapter ten

Dialect

Collop Monday is the west country celebration that occurs the day before Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. These are all part of the Christian Lent celebrations when you were supposed to ‘shrive' or ‘atone' for your sins in preparation for Easter. A collop, is a slice of meat, usually bacon that would have been eaten at breakfast with the fat being kept for the pancake pan the following day.
Chapter eleven

Dragonfly

Dragonfly lay their larvae in ponds and stream edges all along this nature trail. The nymphs live in the water for up to four years before climbing out and transforming into dragonflies. The nymphs are quite amazing to fish out of the water, but remember to pop them back quickly if you do, so they are healthy when they emerge.

The image above is of a Golden-ringed dragonfly [Cordulegaster Boltonii], but the largest UK dragonfly, the Emperor can be spotted here too. It was said that King Arthur's armour had two living Emperor dragonflies stitched into the shoulder sections of his fighting jacket to make him flighty in battle.

If you see any fabulous insects, why not take a snap and post a picture on the Storywalks Facebook page.
Chapter twelve

Cloam

There are many unusual customs in Somerset, but the roots of 'crocking', 'croaming', ‘cloaming' and ‘loaming' (being generally the same thing) now seem a little lost in history. The tradition of Collop Monday, though thankfully not practised today, started with the smashing of plates and crockery on the front door steps of houses. Other accounts are of marauding youths creeping into houses via their unlocked doors during the small hours on this night and then smashing crockery on the kitchen floor before scarpering unseen.

Collop Monday, as said preceded Shrove Tuesday and a ditty, sung on a doorstep on this day could win the asker either a pancake or a forfeit! Similar in a way to the modern trick or treat, the rhyme goes.

Tippety, tippety toe
Give me a pancake and then I'll go!

If they were lucky, they would be given pancakes without fuss, but if they were unlucky, then they would be chased down until caught. At which point their faces would be blackened horribly with soot or grease before being dragged back home and then given the pancakes they so originally desired.

It is said that this ‘crocking' was still practiced in Wellington until relatively recently, perhaps through a desire to let off steam before lent.
Directions - The next stop is at the Mendip Hide which is the wooden building on the rise above you. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘gorbelly’ (pronounced gau'rbuul'ee) might refer to.
 
Chapter thirteen

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘gorbelly' (pronounced gau'rbuul'ee) is quite obviously a fat person!
Chapter fourteen

Shelduck

Thousands of British Shelduck are known to flock here in the late summer to use Bridgwater Bay during their moulting period, this is a time when the birds are more vulnerable as they will not be able to fly as well. Shelduck also nest on Stert Island just to the north of the Steart Peninsula, usually in old rabbit burrows.

After the deliberate infection of rabbits with myxomatosis in the 1950s ornithologists were concerned that there would be fewer nesting sites for the birds. To combat this, the warden of Stert Island prepared artificial nesting sites by digging scrapes in the ground, laying tunnels using planks of wood and partially recovering them. What the remaining rabbits thought of these artificial burrows is not recorded, but the shelducks made good use of them.
Chapter fifteen

Cox’s Folly

Cox's Folly was a structure shown on mid 19th century admiralty charts which is now in the intertidal zone to the north of the peninsula. Further to the north, on Stert Flats unexploded devices from WW2 are still on occasion discovered as the muds ebb and flow. A cylindrical tube nearly 1.5m in length was discovered in the late 1990s and was recorded as part of an aircraft engine. It re-emerged in 2008 and was subsequently re-identified to have 700lbs of live explosive inside which bomb disposal experts detonated safely in situ on the 11th April of the same year.

Pictured, knot and dunlin at Steart, Nigel Phillips
Directions - With the lagoon on your left, walk east to the finger post just a short distance along the trail. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘bloodyfingers’ (pronounced blid'ee ving'urz) might refer to.
 
Chapter sixteen

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘bloodyfingers' (pronounced blid'ee ving'urz) refers to the foxglove, also known locally as cow flop!
Chapter seventeen

Mud Horses

Fishing using a ‘mud horse' might not be quite what you think! Imagine a wooden sledge with one large runner underneath. Fishermen would use these to stop themselves sinking into the mud whilst they fished by pushing the sledge in front of them through the mud flats.

Fishermen would string nets out between wooden posts which would become submerged at high tides. Shrimp, the favoured catch, were caught in nets with wide mouths tapering to a point. Cod, whiting and dover sole would often be caught too, with the catch gathered at low tide and the sledge used to navigate the large stretches of mud flats.

Mud-horse fishing was very much a feature of Bridgwater Bay. The sledges were the best way to gain access to rich fishing grounds from both sides of the River Severn, however, there are few if any people left fishing in this way as it is hard and dangerous.
Chapter eighteen

Reeds and Rushes

Throughout these wetland habitats are various species of rushes and reeds, growing in water, they are considered semi aquatic and have a long list of historical uses. Thatch for barns and houses, woven as rope or matting for cold stone floors and even fishing baskets and hats. But the versatility of this plant doesn't end here, for woodwind instruments like the clarinet and oboe have long used reeds to produce their unique sound, plus the stems have been commonly used as the wick in candles or simply on their own as a rushlight i.e. just the burning stem.
Directions - Continue along the England Coast Path with the embankment on your left to the bench a little way around the corner. Refresh this page whenever the distance counter gets a little sleepy or use the 'help' button on the bar below. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘pillumy’ (pronounced pul'umee) might refer to.
 
Chapter nineteen

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘pillumy' (pronounced pul'umee) refers to the dust given out by a carpet when it is beaten!
Chapter twenty

The Grey Heron

Herons are the largest native UK birds beside the swan, collectively they are known as a siege and they roost in colonies. Generally they fish alone, standing still waiting for the moment when a fish swims too close before stabbing and killing with their beak. Interestingly, herons will eat voles, rats and even carrion, although they like to wet them first before swallowing head first so the pile of the fur doesn't clog in their throat!

Anglers once thought herons' feet to be lucky, using them to lure fish to their hooks. It was believed a special scent emanated from their feet which attracted fish, but this is not true, if they did have smelly feet then fishes would simply be warned away!

The image above was taken at the Quantock Hide here at the Steart Marshes and shows an avocet chasing a heron away, most likely to protect its young.
Chapter twenty-one

Droughts

1933-34 saw one of the worst droughts in recent history, October 1932 to October 1934 was the third driest 24-month period on record, with the West of England the worst affected area. Despite the severity and length of the drought, there are few records of it, which makes this photograph all the more intriguing. Did the children realise at the time it was taken that it would become an important piece of social history? Probably not!

The summer of 1933 was particularly dry, followed by a relatively dry winter and then another summer of well below average rainfall. Although the drought is now not generally well known, it is used by water companies to predict reservoir storage needs. More reservoirs were built in the following years, including Ashford Reservoir, near Charlynch (1934), Durleigh Reservoir (1938) which was made by damming a tributary of the River Parrett, Nutscale reservoir (1942) which relieves summer droughts in Minehead and finally Chew Valley Lake, the largest artificial lake in the south west of England, which was opened in the 1950s.
Directions - Continue along the England Coast Path a short distance approximately half way down the straight section but as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘poky’ (pronounced poa-kee) might refer to.
 
Chapter twenty-two

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘poky' (pronounced poa-kee) is to dawdle or loiter!
Chapter twenty-three

Swifts, Swallows and Bats

These wetland habitats are a magnet to a wide range of mammal wildlife including voles, otters and bats. The diversity of environments here gives rise to a broad range of insect life which in turn supports these communities. Today nine species of bats have been recorded at Steart which is great since there are only seventeen breeding species of bat in the UK as a whole.

The swifts and swallows are also a sign of good insect life in any meadow, and are considered by many as the bringers of a good summer. The swift specifically is a bird of much mysticism since they live predominantly on the wing, feeding, drinking rain and even sleeping as they fly. In fact the only reason they land at all is to fledge their young in old buildings and cliff crags. They don't build traditional nests and were once thought to roost on the lakes of the moon in winter since no-one knew where they went, but they actually migrate to Southern Africa.

When swifts and swallows fly high, the weather is often good, since the high pressure carries their insect prey high up. But when the low pressure comes in, they can be seen to fly low and the weather therefore will likely be more turbulent.

Seven skimming swifts shift
sleek and meadow low
make haste the hive
and swing the scythe
for sure there's rain in tow
Chapter twenty-four

Pig House Chapel

The prominent red brick building in Steart village is St Andrews church. It was built in 1882 and was only accessible by crossing fields until a path was created in 1962 over formerly privately owned land.

Steart was initially in the parish of Stockland Bristol, just to the west of here. In 1885 it was transferred to the parish of Otterhampton. Interestingly St Andrews has no graveyard, this may be due to high ground waters making it difficult to dig a dry grave deep enough for burial.

If a sailor were to see a yellow butterfly on his way to his vessel then it is said he would not return from his next fishing trip. anon

The Bethel Congregational chapel at Steart was built in 1847 and was probably used by the Mariners Christian sect although in 1896 it was said to be submerged during high tides. The chapel closed just before World War II, although parts of it still survive as a domestic outbuilding. It is beyond the scope of this storywalk, but if you journey to the end of the peninsula, there is a stone outbuilding which bears the inscription ‘Bethal Chapel'.

This more recent chapel met a better fate than its predecessor which had gone out of use by 1611 and was subsequently used to house pigs. The image of sheep dipping farmers was taken late 1800s although the specific location of the Somerset farm is not known.
Directions - Continue along the England Coast Path a short distance to the solar unit on your right but as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘shackles’ (pronounced shaak'lz) might refer to.
 
Chapter twenty-five

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘shackles' (pronounced shaak'lz) refers to a type of broth or coarse soup made with pretty much anything at hand, squirrel, sparrow, hedgehog or even badger!
Chapter twenty-six

Salt

The photograph above shows an extract from the manuscript of Week Fitzpain, the Earl of Northumberland, now held in the Somerset Heritage Centre. It is a book of contracts, maps and manuscripts which show the ‘salt coast' from Kilve to Wall Common, just past the WWT car park where our Storywalk began.

The maps also depict fabulous sea beasts rearing out of the channel as well as a series of windmills. These were most likely water mills for lifting brine into cascading salt ponds where the water would evaporate to leave the salt crystals behind.

The history of salt is rich, in a time before refrigeration salt was the key ingredient to keep foods from spoiling and therefore be available in times of want. There is much archaeological evidence across the country for the harvesting of salt from sea water. Many places have names which can reveal their original nature, Sea Salter in Kent is a good example, but Stolford here on the Steart Peninsula, just a mile or two west is a derivation of salt ford.

Similar tidal sites across the country have remains of Roman salt pans designed to reduce sea water into crystals. A wide lead lined tray sitting over a fire, forced the evaporation of sea water and the subsequent material was skimmed and then moved into conical wicker baskets to solidify. But making salt is not as simple as just boiling salt water, for every ton of salt made there would be a further ton of waste and the timing of when to remove the salt from the pan is essential.
Directions - Continue along the England Coast Path the next chapter will reveal a few paces past the fork ahead and either path will suffice, but as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘doaty’ (pronounced doa'utee) might refer to.
 
Chapter twenty-seven

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘doaty' (pronounced doa'utee) is the nod when you fall asleep sitting up!
Chapter twenty-eight

Ever changing coastline

After the Roman occupation, Steart appears to have been quiet until the Norman Conquest in 1066, probably because it was prone to flooding. Indeed Stert Island (yes, the spelling is different!) was at one time part of the peninsula and broke off after a flood, around 1798. The curiously named Slab Island appeared and disappeared from 18th century maps within about 70 years. Thus the coastline here is ever-changing.

The England Coast Path continues south west from here to the port and village of Combwich which can be easily seen from here. Combwich Pill, drains into the River Parrett and provides a natural harbour. Archaeologists have found considerable amounts of pottery here, indicating that it was occupied throughout the Roman period. It is also thought that the Danes sailed up the Parrett past Combwich to attack the English.

The Vikings began raiding Anglo-Saxon England in the late 8th century. Raids continued periodically for around a hundred years and in 845 a raiding party was defeated by Eanwulf, ealdorman of Somerset, near the mouth of the Parrett. Then in the 870s serious invasions took place. Somerset, then part of the kingdom of Wessex, was one of the last places to hold out against them. King Alfred hid out in the marshes at Athelney, some 15 miles inland from Steart. There he gathered forces, finally defeating the Vikings at the battle of Edington, in May 878.

The remoteness yet accessibility of this coastline continued to make it a favoured site for invasion. In 988 the invading Danes made the island of Steep Holm into a base. And centuries later, in the 1580s when Spanish invasion threatened, guns were placed between Combwich and Steart to guard the Parrett and Minehead.
Directions - Continue along the England Coast Path to the finger post where our Storywalks will conclude. But as you walk perhaps discuss what the old Somerset dialect word ‘Arsyvarsy’ (pronounced aa'rsee-vaa'rsee) might refer to.
 
Chapter twenty-nine

Dialect

The old Somerset dialect word ‘Arsyvarsy' (pronounced aa'rsee-vaa'rsee) means simply, upside down!
Chapter thirty

Ships

The waters, mud flats and rocky outcrops all around the Steart Peninsula have cursed many a sailor, but in the winter of 1895, a storm of great ferocity blew up over the Bridgwater Channel. Ketches and steamers waited in the mouth of the Parrett for the run of the tide to take them up to the docks at Highbridge (pictured) others had already lost their sails in the earlier throws of the storm. But in the small hours as the flood tide pushed in with fearful strength it smashed and ground boats together as they pounded upstream.

Captain Crossman, master of a screw steamer with 150 tons of coal on board, had brought his vessel to wait on the tip of Stert Island in the dark night for the flood tide. They threw up a head of steam in readiness to run with it but as the tide lifted, the ship caught on a mud bank and slewed terribly about. The boat then keeled over on its side and the waves then began to crash and wash across the deck, swilling the cargo away.

The huge waves pushed the ship further and further onto its starboard side, two crew had already abandoned the ship, which left just the captain and the engineer. But seeing all was lost, the captain jumped into the dark black waters in the October night and was swiftly washed away up stream. He was carried past many ships before finally being rescued higher up the river but the engineer was not so fortunate, for his body was found two weeks later.
Chapter thirty-one

The End

This brings us to the end of this Storywalk although there are many others of these along the Somerset stretch of England Coast Path. Feel free to post a picture on the Storywalks Facebook of your family or group enjoying the trail.

These trails have been researched and written by C Jelley and Dr Helen Blackman and have been made possible by grant funding from the England Coast Path scheme, managed by Somerset County Council and the Rights of Way team.
Chapter thirty-two

Directions

Directions - To return to the start, either walk back the way we came or alternatively, for a simple circular extension, continue along the England Coast Path towards Combwich. At the village playing field follow the finger post inland to journey along the southern edge of the reserve. The final leg runs parallel with the road to lead you back to the WWT car park.

This extension will make the total trail 3 miles / 5km, where as returning directly from here will total at 1.8 miles / 3km.

For Storywalk app service issues and enquiries - Storywalks contact

For Somerset public rights of way issues - Somerset County Council
Chapter thirty-three

Acknowlegements

Images - in order of display

1 and 2 - Extract from Week Fitzpaine - Somerset Heritage Centre - DD/X/WI/34

3 - Horses Gathering Seaweed - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DSJ/53 - Clement Keely collection

4 - Curlew - photograph - Nigel Phillips

5 - Glatting - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DSJ/51 - Clement Keely collection

6 - The laboratories of Marie and Pierre Curie - Welcome Collection - Photograph, ca. 1900 - https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ujus8qq7

7 - Golden-ringed Dragonfly - photograph - Christopher Jelley

8 - Shelduck - photograph - Nigel Phillips

9 - Knot and Dunlin at Steart - photograph - Nigel Phillips

10 - The Mud Horse - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DSJ/72 - Clement Keely collection

11 - Rushes at Steart Marshes - photograph - Christopher Jelley

12 - Avocet and Heron - photograph - Christopher Jelley

13 - Children on a Wall - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DSJ/368 - Clement Keely collection

14 - Sheep Dipping - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/DSJ/199 - Clement Keely collection

15 - Extract from Week Fitzpaine - Somerset Heritage Centre - DD/X/WI/34

16 - Oystercatchers - photograph - Nigel Phillips

17 - Highbridge wharf - slide - Somerset Heritage Centre - A/CSY/WH/07
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