The Boats of the Somerset Levels – a review

I guess the title of Mike Smylie’s latest book may sound a bit limited in range to some, compared with his earlier books, Traditional Fishing Boats of Britain & Ireland, Fishing the European Coast or even the definitely local Fishing Around the Bristol Channel, written with Ray Cooper.

But I would argue that does not make the new volume any less interesting.

The truth is that the Somerset Levels have long been home to the best examples of Britain’s long-standing tradition of flat bottomed boats, including turf and withy boats apparently derived from log boats with raised sides and used inland, and inshore bay boats apparently built using a combination of the flat bottom similar to the inland boats with clinker constructed sides made using skills brought by the Vikings. It’s notable, for example, that the names for the various parts of legendary flatties of Watchet and the River Parret have Viking-derived names.

I’ve had an interest in these craft and their interesting history ever since my parents moved to the area more than a decade and a half ago. Through much of that time I have been hoping that someone good at these things would one day get around to writing a book like this as a way of preserving and disseminating knowledge about these craft.

I was particularly concerned to see the research material collected by the folks associated with the Watchet Boat Museum, particularly John Nash, made available to boat enthusiasts. So I was very pleased when I learned that Mike, a prolific and effective author, had taken on the project.

Now the book is out it’s just about everything I’d expected and a bit more, for in addition to John Nash’s input, Mike has been able to include material from Commander Gil Mayes and Tony James, both of whom have built and sailed flatties in the modern era, and further material from legendary local fisherman Bob Thorne.

There are chapters on the turf boat, the basic and ancient looking Somerset Levels peat digger’s boat of about 17ft; the 18-19ft withy boat used for collecting withies used for weaving from pollarded willow trees; the river boat or Parrett flatner rigged with a spritsail and in some cases a foresail; the similar but more heavily built bay or Gore boat; the larger and more sophisticated Weston-Super-Mare and Clevedon boats often used for pleasuring as well as fishing; and the the big sister of them all, the Bridgewater barge.

To be honest, I didn’t know anything about the Bridgewater barge before I picked up this volume, and that alone would have made the book worth buying. Even better were the photos…

The only thing that I miss in The Boats of the Somerset Levels is that there aren’t more anecdotes about the old boys who used to work them. I’m sure I remember John Nash telling me that the locals used to toboggan down the banks of the muddy Parrett before hitting the water with a splash at about 30mph, and I had a hunch there would be more similar nonsense.

Either Mike or John likely decided that stories of this kind might owe rather less to the truth and rather more to someone’s sense of humour and to time spent in sheds drinking the local home made cider. If so he may have been wise – but, hey, it might have happened…

Seriously, this is a smashing 127 pages. Buy it here: The Boats of the Somerset Levels.

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