Martin Hesp says regular flooding in higher parts of the Somerset Levels means the Environment Agency must look again at its calculations
Michael Brown likes eels. He made a living out of selling young elvers; he learned to smoke the sweet flesh of the eel; and he wrote a book about them – but he never expected to be sharing his living room with the slithery creatures.
Not that Michael has actually seen any eels in his flooded home yet, it's not the right time of year – but locals living in the flattest, dampest bit of Southern England are beginning to think they're occupying a world where anything might happen.
They have every right to. Homes in parts of the Levels that have not been flooded in centuries are now under water, islands which rise out of the low moors have been inundated – one was even hit by a mini-tsunami sweeping up the road the day this part of the UK became the nation's biggest temporary lake.
Not surprisingly, the locals are angry. They say that if ancient houses – like the one lived in by 98-year-old Professor Neville Temperley, built over three centuries ago – are now being flooded when they've never been inundated before, then something has gone wrong with the way the Levels are drained.
Someone, somewhere – they say – must be to blame, and most locals speak of a lack of dredging. But they also know that the story that's turning Sedgemoor into an inland sea is more complicated than that.The TV crews and press photographers concentrating on Muchelney have been ignoring quite a bit in their coverage of the Great Somerset Flood of 2014 – like the fact that the neighbouring village of Thorney has, arguably, been hit worse than anywhere else.
It was Michael Brown, founder of the eel-smoking house Brown and Forrest, who invited the Western Daily Press to Thorney so we could find out what life is really like inside the new lake.
The visit was, for me, one of the strangest days out I've experienced in a dozen years working for this newspaper – and it began, inevitably, by boat. Kitted out in body-length waders, Michael pulled his dinghy to the part of Thorney where the road disappears underwater so that writer James Crowden (author of a local book called In Time of Flood) and I could take a tour of the village where some 20 homes have been inundated.
As we were towed along the flooded street we came across Roger Baillie-Grohman who has lived in Thorney 30 years, but never been flooded before.
"We were at home and watching with trepidation as water levels on the moors rose – and that night we saw water creeping in through crevices and cracks," he told us from the threshold of his flooded home.
"There was a gust in the gale that blew a lot of water in. That subsided briefly, only to come up again in the night. People here were sand-bagging – but you can't sand-bag against this sort of creeping water torture.
"The water here doesn't get away quick enough," he added. "An Environment Agency man told me it would cost £30 million to drain this area – and he asked if it was worth it. If I had a house in the middle of the moors I might expect to flood, but places like Thorney and Muchelney were called 'ney' because they were islands. This house hasn't been flooded since it was built 100 years ago. We live on the higher ground, but now the EA have deemed the edges of the Moors as fair game for somewhere to let water lie."
Once out of the flood, we walked to the home of long-term resident Richard England who told us: "Last year was the first flood I'd seen hit Thorney – now this is worse still. We won't stop flooding on the Somerset Moors – they are very flat and we have to accept flooding on the fields – but when it comes to houses and the water is staying in people's homes for a fortnight, it's depressing. There's no end in sight.
"If the rivers had been dredged I don't think water would be in the houses."
Returning to the great sheet of water, Michael towed us to the home he has shared with his wife Utta for the past 31 years, and we were served a delicious but bizarre lunch sitting in gumboots in the flooded conservatory.
"No, I haven't seen any eels indoors because it's the wrong time of year," said Michael.
"But this has been an extraordinary flood. We've seen floods around us over the years and become blasé. The water would come into the garden but we've got pumps, so we always survived. But this year we pumped and it totally overwhelmed us."