Heritage of the Avalon Marshes

Heritage of the Avalon Marshes

Meare pool panorama

Somerset’s Avalon Marshes’ landscape is perhaps best known for peat and water.  These give the marshes their special character and have left a wonderful legacy of history and archaeology. For thousands of years people have been drawn to the area; once for food, fuel and safety; now for relaxation, wildlife and heritage.


Water creates richness: fish, wildfowl, lush vegetation, a means of transport and security. Early man exploited these riches and based themselves not only on the dry islands of the marshes and the adjoining hills but also in lake villages. Between these dry areas was a landscape of open water, reedswamp and wet woodland. As each succession of vegetation died layers of peat were formed. Over time the landscape changed and huge raised bogs formed. These wet landscapes were difficult to cross so early man set to work and built wooden trackways, the most famous of which is the Sweet Track.

Archaeology is a jigsaw with almost all of the pieces missing; organic material such as wood normally rots away. However, the Avalon Marshes peat deposits are very special; they have preserved an amazingly complete picture of past societies. The reason is their waterlogged condition has kept out the oxygen that would normally cause decay. Over the last 200 years numerous exciting archaeological discoveries have been made by peat cutters and archaeologists

Follow these links to find out more about:

We also have a Pre-History Timeline which takes you, step by step, through this period.

Romans to Rebellion

The Romans lived on the edges of the marshes building villas, farming the higher lands and drawing on the natural wealth of the marshes. During this period salt water channels extended as far as Burtle. Salt was a highly valuable resource so they built “salterns” to extract the salt. Working in such a remote location the workers set up a profitable side-line; forging coins!

As times passed the importance of the marshes grew. The medieval church exploited its resources, starting to shape the landscape that we see today and leaving us a rich heritage; the iconic St Michael’s church on the Tor, Glastonbury Abbey, Meare Fish House and other fascinating places. Find out more about Meare and the Abbey.

The period that followed was often unsettled: dissolution, foreign wars, civil war and finally the Monmouth rebellion.

Revolutions to Wildlife

The peaceful revolutions of transport, industry and agriculture were the next big changes. These brought the construction of canals, railways, factories and houses all of which left their mark. These revolutions needed feeding not only with coal and iron but with food. The agricultural revolution left its legacy with the network of droves, rhynes and rectangular fields and the attractive farms of stone and brick.

War did not leave the marshes un-touched. Shapwick Village is one of the few “Thankful Villages” (no one from the village died in the First World War) and World War II left behind the Huntspill River and the defence line of pill boxes along the River Brue.

Peat Industry and Wildlife

Peat community archive photography
Turfing family – Alan Difford

For many centuries peat was burnt as fuel. However, the twentieth century saw new uses, particularly for horticulture, and increased exploitation brought dramatic changes to the landscape. Its legacy is the network of reedbeds and lakes full of wildlife restored from the old peat workings. Although more recently the negative impact of peat digging on carbon storage and climate change has been recognised, it has left us with a fascinating social history which is at the heart of the local community.


Would you like to visit or get involved?

  • To visit some of the Avalon Marshes’ heritage sites and learn more go to our Places to Visit page.
  • To get involved in the practical conservation of the archaeology and heritage go to our Volunteering page.

Introductory film

Somerset has a wonderful and rich heritage with the Avalon Marshes at its heart. This film is a brief introduction.

Click on the icons below and watch this interesting film. Once started don’t forget to click on the “square” icon (bottom right) to watch full screen and turn the volume up.

There is lots more information to be found on the Avalon Archaeology blog