Rhynes, Dredging and the Levels – and a very brief speculation on how geography can affect language

The floods on the Somerset Levels are horrific, more so because with proper management, they could have been prevented.  Many groups, including Glastonbury Festival Founder, Michael Eavis, are now calling for the increased funding for dredging of the rhynes and rivers in the region while some are taking matters into their own hands and fundraising themselves.

Image taken from http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/weather/article3967743.ece

The Somerset Levels are an area of land reclaimed from the sea, and are, topographically speaking, below sea level.  In fact, the name of the county is believed to have been so called because it was ‘the land of the summer settlers’, because it was not possible to graze there in winter due to the flooding.  So flooding in Somerset is no new thing.  Which is why they built ‘rhynes’ (pronounced “reens”).

The rhynes were dug into the land to drain it of water – very much like the Dutch system of dykes.  The word rhyne seems to be of Celtic origin, or at least it either comes from, or shares a common origin with the Welsh word rhewyn – meaning ‘ditch’.  This is also a word used in Gloucestershire (albeit spelled ‘rhine’).

A speculative theory (and I come to this suggestion with no previous research into this particular word, so welcome any further, more enlightened comments and suggestions on this) for this word occurring in this region only is perhaps the proximity to the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.  In 1607, a tidal wave swept up the Bristol Channel and engulfed Somerset and Gloucestershire.  A much less dangerous wave, known as the Severn Bore, still makes its way up the river periodically.  Flooding management, therefore, would have been just as imperative then as it is currently.  These counties, and of course those on the other side of the channel in Wales, would have had use of rhynes.  Which is perhaps why the word is most commonly found there.

But idle speculation on the etymology of words is of little comfort to the people of Somerset still wading about their homes tonight, as well as those throughout other parts of England and Wales and also parts of Ireland.  With Storm Charlie due to make landfall this evening, stay safe everyone, stay warm, and for god’s sake, don’t go thinking that standing at harbour sides taking video footage of 45ft waves on your smartphone is a good idea.  It isn’t.

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