A Unique History
What we now understand as the Gwent Levels owes much to the development of the sea wall since the medieval period. Draining the land involved enormous human effort: constructing a sea wall and digging the intricate network of reens and drainage ditches to allow land to be used productively. The legal framework that grew to ensure the maintenance of this network is of itself, a fascinating part of the Levels’ story as is the distinctive and unique Levels Lingo that it spawned.
It was the 1531 ‘Act of Sewers’ passed by Henry VIII that gave the Commissioners of Sewers the ability to raise taxes to pay for sea defences and drainage work. The Courts had the power to order landowners to carry out repairs to sea walls and to the drainage system where deficiencies were found, and if these were not repaired, to authorize them to be done by others and reclaim the costs from the defaulting landowner.
At this time and right up until the 1884 Act of Parliament, management of the sea defences and drains was ‘ratione tenurae’, which means that each land owner was obliged to maintain those bits of the sea defence or drainage system that were on his land. Each dynasty has depended on the successful management of the Levels’ drainage system: a responsibility now held by Natural Resources Wales since taking over from the Caldicot and Wentlooge Internal Drainage Board in 2011, a body that had been in place since 1942 when they took on the mantle from the Commissioners of Sewers.
Historical accounts reveal the many human stories of the very hard and physical struggle that it has taken to maintain this unique landscape over many centuries. Much of the Levels were hand drained using basic tools until as late as the 1960s. The survival of historic maps such as the 1830s Commissioners of Sewers survey maps provides a unique insight into the development of the traditional management of the area’s drainage system.
The water management system in its essence still functions as was intended, and reflects the unique and strategic role it has played and is still playing in the drainage of land and in flood prevention: the landscape’s historic drainage features prevent a significant part of Wales’ valuable agricultural land, and properties in and around the Levels, from flooding.
The element of tension and jeopardy that exists between the land and sea is demonstrated by the catastrophic 1607 flood and many subsequent floods and the continued imperative for close and careful management of water levels and the drainage system.