There is evidence of the continuous use of the fen woodland of the levels, and the peat bog that replaced it, via trackways constructed as early as 4,500 BC. Until c400 BC the early inhabitants left few remains that have survived to tell us where they lived, grew their cereals, and pastured their sheep and cattle. At that time they constructed an artificial island in the marsh, only one mile north of Glastonbury, beside the River Brue which was then flowing north to join the River Axe. It contained 89 huts and a population of about 100 people, living in a richly cultured society until the time of the Roman occupation. The water levels then rose and sea water once again inundated the moors.
There is much less evidence of the way in which they and their Celtic successors, after the foundation of the Abbey, used the dry land of the Glastonbury hills. At the hamlet of Wick, north east of the town, are signs of Celtic fields and also examples of the later Saxon ridges and furrows. Since the main hindrance to agricultural developments was the topography of the steep sided hills and coombes there are still the remains of Saxon terraces visible, incorporated in the mediaeval strip lynchets and the large common fields.
The field called North Binne to the north of the town bordering the rear of the High Street properties gave its name to St John’s Church and Church Lane in the thirteenth century and to the widened Norbins Road at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time of the Commonwealth Hollar shows us the Torr Common being used as enclosed fields divided into individual strips—this practice was still in use in the late 18th century. Many of the north facing lynchets would have been used for growing barley whilst the south facing ones were often vineyards. The fields on the southern side of Wearyall Hill from Northover to the Butleigh road were still called Vineyards during the 19th century.
Deer provided another source of food and also sport in the mediaeval period. Wirral Park was bounded on the north by Maidlode (Benedict Street) and the mill stream and on the south by the road to Bridgwater (Roman Way) and Fishers Hill. Norwood Park was between Wick Lane and Ponters Ball, bounded on the south by the Pennard road. The nine foot high banks and ditches to keep in the deer (at the dissolution 800 in Norwood, 100 in Wirral and 160 in Sharpham Parks) were still there in 1825.
Thus the present pattern of boundary hedges has been influenced by the Celtic and Saxon farmers and mediaeval monks and also by the beneficiaries of the dissolution of the Abbey, the enclosures of the eighteenth century, the subsidies of the post war years and of the Common Market Agricultural Policy.
Rabbits are back in their former numbers and there are a large number of badger setts on the hills. Together with foxes they are now found feeding from our waste within the town since much of their traditional food is in decline in a more intensively farmed countryside.
Although the Romans erected sea defences and carried out drainage work along the Severn Estuary, the earliest known drainage schemes near Glastonbury were carried out at Baltonsborough on the Dunstan family estate in the mid tenth century. Much more extensive were the cl200 works when the River Brue’s level was raised 10 feet above the moors behind embankments at Plungeon, off Cinamon Lane, through to the weir at Clyce Hole. This provided the head of water to power the fulling mill at Northover and the flour mill at Beckery and access to a canal along the line of the present Street Road leading towards Magdalene Close.
The extensive reclamation work carried out by the Abbots for the following three hundred years created much of the moorland landscape we know, with its drainage rhynes lined with pollarded willows and the occasional bank to confine flooding. Fountains Wall alongside the Hartlake River may have been such an embankment, also separating the areas of jurisdiction of the Abbots at Glastonbury and the Bishops at Wells.
The conflicting interests of those who saw the waterways as a resource for fish, eels and wildfowl; as a means to keep the land relatively dry and thus more productive; or as a principle means of transport, caused some of the many disputes between Bishops and Abbots.
The Meare Pool was a main source of food for centuries until being finally drained at the end of the 18th century. One of the uses of the reclaimed marshes was as a source of fuel and, between the Vineyards and the River Brue, Aller Moor was densely covered with coppiced alder. In the 16th century it was written of Glastonbury Moor, “one fayre common, the pasture thereof is very fertile, and in effect as good as meade, wherein the tenaunts doe common with theire catall at all seasons of the yere; and it contyneth in circuit (16) miles”. The present division of the moors near Glastonbury was largely finalised with the enclosures of common moor in 1722.
Our western agricultural industry has successfully developed to the point of over production. One of the roles of those now farming the outstanding countryside around Glastonbury should have much more to do with the stewardship of our environment and its wildlife, linked with tourism and the sharing of these benefits with others. The subsidies that we all pay towards cheap food and changes in our countryside could reflect this alternative priority instead of the continuing over exploitation of the land to create yet more surplus.