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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Durham Floods 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In my short life, I have only lived near two towns: first Shrewsbury, and now Durham. Like many medieval English towns, both hold an uneasy contract with the rivers that surround them. In times of war, the rivers Severn and Wear respectively promised defence for the inhabitants; a couple of times each year, though, and long after the risk of war has passed, that contract continues to be broken as the rivers burst their banks, and the blue noose which encloses the towns creeps and closes together.

Over the last couple of days, Durham has seen some unseasonal and unusually dramatic flooding, caused by twenty-four hours of continual, heavy rain. By Friday evening, although the river was high, it was the drains which were the source of traffic chaos. That evening Mrs. Ishmael had a miserable commute back from Sunderland. Cars were lying abandoned along major routes; a key roundabout was completely submerged. As she called me at home and I poured over a map - which seemed an important, militaristic response, although I know the roads like the back of my hand - I felt, briefly, like some sort of commander in a siege. Of course, it was not truly serious. Her return simply involved retracing her drive back to the motorway to the north, and following it south to approach our house, which is in a village about three miles to the south of Durham, from behind.

Later that evening, we drove down the road to the Rose Tree pub, a spot that usually gets flooded. But though water lay across the road, the bolder cars could still pass, creating curls of spray and emerging dripping and chugging slightly. The next morning, though it had not rained much overnight, I biked down to the same spot. This time, I was surprised to see the road entirely closed. The river Wear, receiving the rainwater pouring off the hills in Weardale, had burst its banks at 7.00 that morning. The bubbling drains had been a mere precursor to this, the real threat of the bloated river.

[The first image above was taken in the evening of Friday, 17th July. The next photo was taken the next morning, on the 18th July. To take the first photo, I had been standing where the bin is in the second, which is now two feet deep in running water.]

I immediately set off into town by another route, discovering that the farm track I usually bike along must have been, overnight, a river. Its usually stony surface had been churned to sand, mud and pebbles. The small bridge had been partially washed away.

Of course, the main bridges in the city itself have seen this before. Elvet Bridge, the second oldest in town, dates back to 1160, when it was built by the masonry-minded Bishop Hugh de Puiset, who also made substantial additions to the Cathedral. The bridge was badly damaged by a flood in 1771, but since then has stood rigid. This time, it has dealt as easily with the huge tree washed against a buttress, as it does when it is grazed by novice rowing crews trying to squeeze through its narrow arches. But it is from Framwellgate Bridge, the oldest bridge from 1120, that the extent of the flood is clear. Up- and down-stream, the two weirs have largely vanished. If you know where to look, you can just about trace a thin, diagonal line of turbulence; but otherwise the river has become one wide, monotone, brown eddy. Half of a sculling boat passes beneath the bridge, hits the bank, crunches and sinks, and then emerges split in half again.

[From Framwellgate Bridge. Just downstream of the bridge at the top of the photo, Prebends, you can make out the weir, which is usually about four or five feet high.]

There are two comments that are heard from the heads peering over the parapets of the bridges. Local seers glance for a moment, then turn away, muttering: "It's not as bad as..." The dates, of course, are never the same from one commentator to the next. But when one has lived somewhere all one's life, memories like these are not informed by statistics, but by the context in which they occurred: the year the wedding was missed; the year the family had to boil water; the year the car had to be abandoned. The floods in Shrewsbury, where I grew up, were never bigger - and, for me, never will be bigger - than 1987 when I, small in the back seat of the car, clutched nervously as Dad negotiated the waters into town. I have not been able to find decisive records for the worst ever floods in Durham, but these must be close: the river has risen around 6 feet in as many hours.

[Taken from Elvet Bridge, looking towards the submerged beer garden of the Half Moon pub.]

The other comment, perhaps more accurate but always said with an edge of schadenfreude, is "They were silly to build that there..." That being the brand new Raddison hotel at the river's edge, or the refurbished bar, or the Chinese restaurant, or the apartments which sell for fractions of a million. If in the town's medieval founding the risk of flooding was balanced against the benefits of defence, in the modern era the trade-off is with prime real estate. The cost may be felt, though, not by property developers, but by council taxpayers who have to foot the bill for riverbank repairs and the clean-up.

In Shrewsbury, though, the borough council have already worked a clever equation. Moving into new, £10 million offices right by the river Severn, they coupled this with a long-awaited flood defence scheme, costing £6 million. The image of robed councillors forced to wave white handkerchiefs from the windows of their plush but swamped offices was one that had to be avoided. Unfortunately, in heavy floods in 2004, whilst the council offices were saved, the plebian residents of other parts of the town still suffered.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:09 am


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