Saturday, 28 April 2012

A surfeit of lampreys


I am going off deep into the Somerset Levels this afternoon to spend the night with some friends, and maybe go for a walk around them in the morning, unless the weather is as bad as predicted, then we will walk around Wells instead.

The Levels is the area that King Arthur used to get around by boat, until some Dutchmen turned up in late medieval times and drained all the water away to make farmland.

Brent Knoll and Glastonbury Tor would have been two gigantic islands, with thatched villages on stilts interspersed between many smaller ones, all watched over by the monks of Glastonbury whose control reached as far as drier Bath, and tithes were collected from all the lands in the 40 miles between.  Much of this land is now controlled by the Duchy of Cornwall and the future King who makes those nice but rather expensive biscuits.  Most of the water long since drained away, the whole area is now saturated with history instead.

Driving at night on the narrow roads which criss-cross the flatlands of the Levels can be hazardous.  Either side of them are very deep ditches full of dark water, and the roads were not designed for anything faster than a cart with a sensible horse strapped to the front of it.  There will be a straight stretch which cuts through the darkness for two miles, culminating in a right-angled bend which appears in the headlights with no sign for a warning.  The snow brings even more fun and games.

Talking of which, various games and traditions have sprung up since the lands were drained, and each year in the summer, the local villagers have a boat-race down the major conduits which are wide enough to take a coracle-sized vessel.  I don't know how they are supposed to overtake each other.

A more recent competition is a snorkel race, where the contestants traverse about couple of miles of a deep ditch - but blindly underwater - through the dark and peaty streams made even more obscure by the mud kicked up by their flippers.

My friend's previous home was a 17th century farmhouse which backed onto one of the bigger ditches, and the front door opened onto a straight corridor which led directly to the back door.  In times of extreme flood, both doors would be left open to allow the stream to run straight through the house in order to minimise flood-damage.  I don't know how her insurance premiums were affected.

Rather like Nick Warburton's mythical 'Mardle Fen', you would be quite surprised at some of the things which live on the Somerset Levels.

In the sky above it, there are numerous birds to be spotted, not least the great flocks of starlings which career about like animated smoke from a pile of burning car-tyres as they avoid Peregrine Falcons in their nightly murmerations during dusk.

On the fringes of the great reed-beds that they roost in, wooden hides have been set up to spot other birds, and the tracks which run between them are carpeted with one of the strangest little plants to have ever grown on earth.  There is a rare species of Venus Fly-Trap which grows abundantly - and exclusively - on the Levels, and I don't know how this vegetable carnivore found it's way there.  If you pick up a blade of grass and tease the little jaws of this tiny creature, they close quite quickly, thinking that they have caught one of the millions of midges which swarm around the boggy ground in warm weather.  I have felt a bit guilty about playing this trick on them, because - although they close their mouths quickly - it takes about half an hour for them to re-open so you can do it again, and all that effort is on an empty stomach too.

Of course, below ground-level is either water, peaty earth - or both in equal quantities.  This is the home of the stranger inhabitants of the Levels, and some of them are very strange indeed.  I don't know if Lampreys still exist down there.  The British Lamprey is becoming scarce enough to be put on the endangered list, and the great traditional Pie which will be cooked by the City of Gloucester for the Queen during this year's Jubilee celebrations will contain Canadian Lampreys pulled from the Great Lakes - stretches of oceanic water so vast that they would engulf the whole of Europe like Noye's Fludde.  Plenty of Lampreys in there, I dare say.

The picture above is of the Lamprey Pie baked for the Queen on her Coronation in 1953, being inspected by members of the Armed Forces...  for some reason.

I think a few Eels which have lost their way from the Sargasso Sea to the Severn Estuary at the last minute, find their way up the ditches of the levels, but I don't think tonight's dinner will consist of either 'fish' - at least I hope not.

Heil Hitler! ( for Megan)








15 comments:

  1. The Coypu is the main inhabitant of Fenland East Anglia these days. I hope they don't encounter them when snorkling along the Levels' ditches. Nasty teeth!

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    1. I think that the Coypu has been eradicated in Britain now. For quite a while during the cull, it was quite possible to suffer from a surfeit of Coypus - they are said to have been quite tasty.

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  2. Coypu pate used to maker a regular appearance at 'open days' and suchlike - things for locals - in my area of France.
    We used to make a coypu stew too having any number of the beasts boring into the river bank and the lake - highly commended just as long as you didn't tell people what they were eating.

    I saw lampreys for sale in the local market, but as the only recipe I had called for boiling them alive before skinning them I did not buy them.

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    1. Another good reason not to eat Lampreys...

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  3. A poor substitute to your previous comments/offerings ... but we have venus fly traps and pitcher plants in our neck of the woods too. Triffody critters. Aren't they great?

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    1. I didn't know we had these little ones in Britain until I saw them a few years ago. Up until then, strange children would keep the larger, imported ones in pots in their bedrooms, but not me. I thought about it though.

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  4. Yes, I understand all the lampreys have come to America and live in the Great Lakes, where they block the intake valves of the water and power companies. No one said they were edible. Using the term lightly, of course. That pie looks more regal than edible.

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    1. I saw a picture of a Gloucester Lamprey Pie made in 2003 (I think) and it's sides are completely golden. This must be gold leaf, and quite edible - I have eaten it on Indian puddings.

      In 1860 something, the making of Lamprey Pies for the Queen (Victoria) was temporarily suspended, due to the great expense on the City of Gloucester. Skin-flints.

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    2. When I say 'edible', I don't think it has any nutritional value, but simply passes straight through you innocuously. It must make for pretty turds though - like the glitter they put on cup-cakes these days. (Oh no - I hope haven't started another bloody cup-cake conversation...).

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  5. We we used to visit my dad's family on Canvey Island, we would stop at those roadside fish stalls. My mother always ate jellied eels...still makes me shudder when I think about that.

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  6. Tom have a great time with your friends down at Wells. I know what you mean about those narrow roads we've got a lot round here like that. Keep safe. I wanted to put a comment on yesterday's post, but hovered a bit. Just to say that the frieze you're working on looks fantastic. Your client should be well chuffed with it when it's completed.

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  7. I ate lamprey in burgundy once. Actually sadly twice. I was taking wine journalists to a famous wine chateau there and seated to the left of the host. I was served first and didn't know what it was as it was almost smothered in leeks thank goodness. To me it tasted a bit like (tinned) tuna but I'm not a fish ( or eel) lover and just managed to finish my portion. Sadly because of my polite enthusiasm I was offered another helping which I took as the 101 year old host was beaming at me. The charming Glasgow Herald wine correspondent delightedly regaled me with all the gruesome (to me) facts about lampreys afterwards. Cooked in their own blood etc. Still I like black pudding so what's the fuss I suppose.

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  8. You write such interesting posts, despite the discussion of lampreys and the eating of them. Anyway, as a Connecticut Yankee trying to learn more about her adopted country, I had never heard of the Levels and don't know much about that part of the world anyway. Anyway, I think you could write a very interesting book about say, Things about England You'd Like to Know but Wish You Did ... So thanks...

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  9. The only eels i've eaten was when a former colleague of mine, who's Chinese and a wonderful cook, made some sushi. Well, i know she didn't cook the sushi, but she prepared it and had some of it with eel in a sauce and wrapped in seaweed. She said she didn't tell every Causcasian what was in it before they tried it because they wouldn't try it then, but she held out great hope for me.

    I tried it and found it delicious, although i haven't a clue as to the sauce.

    Like The Broad, i seem to learn something every time i read one of your posts.

    Glad you liked the photo, Tom.

    megan

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  10. I'm going to reply to all of you above tomorrow - I knackered now, and I'm going to give up on today by listen to radio in bed. Yum.

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