Day One - In Search of Alfred - CycleBlaze

March 7, 2017

Day One

The Kingdom in the Marshes

I decided to ride the first section of this journey as a day trip on the road bike, out across the Somerset Levels from where I live on the edge of the Mendip Hills. These days the Levels are a low lying area of fields and peatland nature reserves, criss-crossed by a complex network of ditches and waterways. It would've looked very different in Alfred's time, before medieval monastic estates drained the land, reclaiming it for agriculture and settlement. Even today, heavy rain can cause problems, most notably in early 2014 when the whole area was badly flooded.

The Somerset Levels; flooded fields at the end of winter.
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Setting out under grey skies, I zipped west and south along almost traffic free rural lanes, through fields heavy with water. It's good riding - when the wind's not howling in your face...

In the Ninth Century the Levels were a vast expanse of tidal marshes: glistening mud, bog vegetation, fast rising saline rivers. Population density would have been low, confined to small islands (now hills), with a subsistence economy based on fishing and eel catching. It would probably have been very similar to life back in Neolithic times, with island communities connected by rough timber walkways such as the Sweet Track.

Alfred fled here from Chippenham over the limestone Mendip Hills, hiding in the marshes to escape his Danish pursuers. The tangled maze of reeds and shifting waterways prevented the Danes from following him, although they were able to row their longboats up tidal rivers like the Parrett, which drains into the Severn Estuary.

An appropriate street name in the village of Othery.
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I was heading for the hamlet of Athelney, set on a small rise that would've been an easily defensible island in 878 AD. Before getting there, I passed the odd hill of Burrow Mump, with the ruins of a Thirteenth Century abbey on its summit.

Burrow Mump.
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Burrow Mump, set at the confluence of two rivers, is thought to have been an outpost of the base that Alfred established at Athelney, a couple of kilometres away. Riding along singletrack road covered in mud from tractor tyres, I soon arrived at the farm which owns the land where Alfred spent a season marshalling his forces. Knocking on the farmer's door, I asked him if it was OK for me to walk up onto the low rise behind his house and have a look. No problem, and I found myself standing in front of a small monument just as it started raining. The monument was apparently built in 1801, although no clue of that can be gained from the unreadably corroded plaque attached to it. It's a strangely understated marker for such a significant location in the history of England.

Athelney Monument.
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Alfred was on the ropes at this point; hiding out on a small island surrounded by impenetrable marshland, engaged in low level guerrilla warfare. However, relatively safe from his enemies, he spent the winter and spring of 878 AD contacting his lords and noblemen, sending out runners to co-ordinate a decisive retaliatory attack against the Danes now ravaging the Kingdom of Wessex - which is where the next phase of this journal begins...

Having checked out the monument, I jumped back on the bike and sailed home with the wind at my back via a different route, stopping at a pub en route to get out of the rain and have a quick pint...

Today's ride: 98 km (61 miles)
Total: 98 km (61 miles)

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