The River Brue rises from a source in Kings Wood Warren, part of the Bruton Forest in South East Somerset and wends its way North West through the County to eventually flow into the River Parrett near Highbridge. Along the route it absorbs from the Somerset Levels thousands of gallons of water that runs off the low-lying moorland, the River Axe ably assists it along the way.
An area at the bottom of the Brue Valley is known as Brent Marsh and during the 4th and 5th centuries the sea levels stabilised when flooding by the sea brought the final deposits to the area; by that date deposits had already finished their growth. It was these incursions by the sea that buried any evidence of early man, although flint tools, arrowheads etc. have been found. There is in the Somerset County Museum, a preserved section of the “Sweet Track”, this was a man made track set through the marshes just above water level. It is thought to date from 2300 B.C. and is probably one of the earliest signs that man inhabited the Somerset Levels.
Further evidence of human occupation during the Bronze Age and Iron Age have been found and recent observations have shown that the raised areas were occupied by Romano-British up to about the fourth century. The Saxons reached the River Parrett in the seventh century. (See Chapter 1-Archaeological Evaluation)
Two natural rivers – The Axe and the Parrett enclose this area of the levels and were the main waterways with access to the sea. First efforts to control flooding were around 1200 A.D. on the River Parrett, sea walls and sluices, a clyce (locally known as ‘clyse’ or ‘clyce’) were constructed to let fresh water out but prevent seawater coming in. The control gradually changed the marshes and levels from saline sea marsh to fresh water lagoons and bogs. All this was recorded around 1200 A.D. and was a prelude to agricultural reclamation; similar work may have taken place at an earlier time, but is not recorded.
Mr. Samuel Nash’s observations and other factors led some to the conclusion that the early course of the River Brue may have run from the Mark area, along what is now Church Street and to link up with the “Siger” River which ran into the sea north of Burnham.
During the thirteenth century the levels were considered marsh and should be avoided, it is probable that the Monks of Glastonbury looked upon the inhabitants of the marshes as a tribe, equivalent to Aboriginal Indians. These people would have survived by wildfowling and trapping marsh animals. The community of monks was probably the first to see the potential for clearance, enclosure and drainage. They were the landlords of the area with the ability to plan and design schemes, also richer than all except the greatest of noblemen. In 1316 A.D. a great engineering feat was carried out, this was the construction of the Pilrow Cut and the changing of Ferlyng Mere so that it became the huge Mere Pool of the Middle Ages. The sea route from Glastonbury, via Meare, to join the River Axe opened up a means of getting to the sea; the work was completed in 1316 A.D. The rivers Brue, Hartlake and Sheppey were diverted to Mere Pool that was considerably enlarged in the reign of Henry VIII, the pool being five miles in circumference and one and a half miles long. Land around the levels had once been well drained and fertile but the levels themselves were frequently wet, exposed to fogs, mist and drizzling rain.
Financial incentives to carry out reclamation had been destroyed following the Black Death of 1348 to 1349. The work for the whole system was completed about 1500 A.D. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 – 9, during Henry VIII reign destroyed the central ownership and control, which had been responsible for the medieval draining projects.
The present outlet of the River Brue at Highbridge was known to exist around 1324 A.D. but it may not have been connected to the Brue Valley. The once important river way from Glastonbury to Bristol used in the 1500’s, and of which parts still remain. Is now a ditch that may be followed from the North Drain pumping station on the River Brue, along field boundaries to join a wider section on the Wedmore/Mark/Burnham Road. At the “White Horse” pub in Mark it turns north and peters out in a maze of minor ditches. If you can imagine such a scene! – this empty countryside once echoed to the sound of people poling or towing barges on the river.
It was around this time that Highbridge may have been referred to as “Huish” or as in earlier times “Huish Juxta Altum Pontem” i.e. “Next to a High Bridge”. The manor of “Huish” covered Highbridge, Watchfield, Pillsmouth and Sandyway.
The first Clyce to be constructed at Highbridge was dated about 1485 A.D. it is now buried under “Jubilee Gardens”, this indicates the position of the old riverbed. Little is known about the area for about three hundred years, the land around belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral. In their archives are notes stating that a boat was built in 1681 A.D. for use on the river, this was purchased for the sum of £6.
During the eighteenth century there was probably some trade on the river, being mainly coal and agriculture. Work on the levels accelerated around 1770 and in 1777 the Brue Drainage Act was proposed. Late in the century (1799 A.D.) the sea wall was breached at Huntspill and the vale was filled with seawater, which lingered for five months moving into the nineteenth century. An Enclosure Map shows two simple wharfs in Highbridge – East Wharf (Market Street) and West Wharf (west side of the old bridge). Archives at the Somerset Records Office for 1797 A.D. list these as Plots 226 – 234 and Plots 235 & 235A respectively. In 1801 the Brue Drainage Act was passed and between 1802 – 6 the course of the River Brue was diverted from its then path on the east and north of Wedmore running into the River Axe, to a new course south of Wedmore and into the sea. The 1801 Brue Drainage Act called for the river to be straightened and a new Clyce was dug, this new deep cut is the present course of the River Brue. The Brue was made wider and straighter near its mouth and another Clyce was built further downstream.
John Billingsley recorded around 1795 A.D. that roughly 17,000 acres of land had been drained and enclosed but there remained in the Brue Valley 9,000 acres un-drained. Billingsley’s agricultural survey suggested a drainage plan and in 1801 A.D. the Clyce at Highbridge formed part of the plan when a lower sill was constructed. A new Rhyne, later to be widened into the North Drain and the South Drain were cut with outfalls into the River Brue, although the resultant flow was not sufficient, it still had beneficial effects. Before that 1000’s of sheep were recorded as having rotted in the parish of Mark each year. Controlled flooding was then introduced to raise the land to prevent silting.
The Clyce at Highbridge is referred to in “The Drainage of the Somerset Levels” by Michael Williams, it refers to an estimate by a James Parry:-
Estimate for a new bridge and sluice near Highbridge dated 6th October 1801 to be paid in 7 instalments of £500 00s 00d = £3450 00s 00d.
£. s. d.
Estimate for dwelling house – brickwork and plain tile £60.00.00
Carpentry staircase and flooring 2.15.00
External doors – Deal 10.10.00
4 Frames ledgered 36.00.00
Tiles floor 12.16.00
Plastering 380 yards 15.16.00
Paving 420 ft. 12.05.00
From an engineers report at Hartlake Bridge (On the Street to Wells Road) in December 1802, water from Whitelake River was not moving fast enough, it was proposed that they had to lower the level by 4 ft instead of 11 inches in 2 ½ miles, to speed the flow into the River Brue. This will now give the 4ft. 11 ins in 1 7/8 miles giving a ratio of discharge of water between Hartlake Bridge and the termination of the new cut to the proportion of 33 to 26 instead of 33 to 10. This should prevent further injury from flooding in the area.A surveyors report from the 1809 states that the lock gates in the Clyce were not operating properly, due to not having been hung correctly. A meeting held at the Highbridge Inn in 1812 agreed that. “It is ordered that a proper quantity of stones be ordered and placed in the holes where necessary. A proper wall built at the northwest end of the wharf with steps for the easy landing of coal, timber and other goods. The walls of the Clyce and the new bridge, are to be pointed with proper mortar; doors of the sluice to be corked and tarred. With a proper gate to be put up at the entrance of the said road against the turnpike. Signed Joseph Stephens landlord of the Highbridge Inn 1812.”
A Lock Keepers Annual Salary in 1812 was £26.00s.08d(equal to 50p per week)
Floods again reached Glastonbury around 1816. West Sedgemoor was now looking something like its present appearance with rhynes, 5ft. deep by 4ft. wide at the base and 8ft. wide at the top, bounded with willows as boundary markers, acting as cattle barriers, as well as drains. By 1815 A.D. the coastal belt had the highest rents in Somerset (70/- an acre) as the number of cattle in the area increased. A trade in shipping cattle to Wales and Ireland began around this time, resulting in there being important trading at Highbridge. The area soon became a centre for the making of cheese and its sale, both locally and for export. During the nineteenth century, Highbridge grew from almost nothing into a thriving town, there was brick and tile making in and around the town, plus bacon curing, a creamery and the wharf was busy – timber, coal, grain, etc. came in, with cattle, bricks, cheese and tiles going out.
Better communication was planned with the opening in 1832 of the Glastonbury Canal; this however, had a short life because it was bought up by the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company under its Act of 1848. In 1852 the Somerset Central Railway started laying lines along the course of the canal and two years later the track opened and ran under lease from the Bristol and Exeter. Some sections of the old canal were retained to aid the drainage of the levels and are still in use
At a meeting in the “Railway Hotel” (1870) it was agreed that it was necessary to do repairs to the Clyce but due to the scarcity of water (drought) the work could not be completed. The removal of mud was absolutely necessary and the sum of £15.00.00 was set aside.
A surveyors report said: – “The accumulation of mud both inside and outside Highbridge Clyce has for some time penned the water. The large ships continually lying on the north bank below the canal outlet were turning the course of the stream considerably to the south. Works ordered by the Committee in 1870 have now been completed, it is recommended that the banks be sloped more to reduce the sliding into the river”.
Clyce keeper William Vowles complained in 1871 that vessels moor near the West side and endanger the safety of the doors, it was proposed a chain be fixed to prevent the boats mooring.
In 1873, Highbridge had a report made by a N.A.W. Estridge, a civil engineer. He reported that the poorer houses just had conduits to the river for drainage and that in the east part of the town Huish Rhyne was used as a sewer and was therefore very polluted. The richer inhabitants had siphon closets and cesspits. So he recommended that a drainage system should be built urgently, he estimated the cost at £3,000. This was a matter for the Axbridge Guardians in their capacity as sanitary authority. But according to the local papers Highbridge was to suffer from flooding and bad drainage plus impossibly bad roads for many years to come.
The scene with the S.S.Coralie will not be familiar to many of the present day generation of Highbridge, she is making her way along the old River Brue channel towards the Cornhill Bridge.
In 1877 the Somerset Drainage Act had overall control of the rivers, Axe, Brue, Parrett and Tone, this control remained until 1951 when the Somerset River Board took over, this also including pollution. The Somerset River Board and Somerset River Authority merged and became Wessex Water in 1974.
The foregoing has been compiled with the aid of information taken from the following:- “The Somerset Levels”, by Robin & Romany Williams, “Burnham & Highbridge” by V.J. Wrigley, “Somerset Harbours” by Farr. And Somerset Record Office.
Little has changed over the past 40 years, the River has continued to silt up and is navigable only for small craft up to the boat yard. During 2003 the Regeneration Group for Highbridge, included in its discussions, the idea that a marina could be constructed in the area of the boat yard but to-date it appears that this probability has also been shelved.