As you must all be aware by now, this Christmas saw the most horrendous flooding in the north of England and the borders of Scotland. It was so distressing to see it all happening on the television but what none of us can comprehend when watching from the comfort of our homes is just how devastating it really is and I do hope that most of you never have to find out.
I did see for myself first hand just how devastating it was and still is. You are all aware I am sure, that Hebden Bridge in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire is a town that I hold dear to my heart and my father lives and works there and I have many friends there too. At 3am on Boxing Day morning the flood sirens were activated and a red warning was served. For those that don’t know a red flood warning is the highest level meaning that the water levels can be a threat to life. It was all hands on deck as the whole town fled to the shops and homes and started to raise their belongings and stock onto higher levels. Hebden Bridge suffered severe flooding in the summer of 2012 and many had put flood gates on their properties and already taken some precaution. But this was to no avail. The floods of Boxing Day were far worse than anyone could have imagined. The water levels rose many feet above the previous level. The river broke its banks and the canal flooded for the first time in history! Just let that sink in a bit. The canal has never flooded before, ever. Boxing Day 2015 it did.
And so it continued, the rain didn’t stop and the water levels rose and rose. By the end of Boxing Day I was seeing pictures on social media of the streets of Hebden being lakes. The water level was mere inches from the top of the shop doorways in some places. Where there ware once bridges there now was a torrent of river. Where there was once a park, a tow path and canal, a marina and a road there was now the largest lake you could imagine. No one could get to their businesses in the town, there were no roads or paths.
I contacted my dad on the Sunday and was relieved to hear that the water hadn’t got out to the road where he lived so his home was safe but he was unable to get to his business premises to check there. Due to the situation of the mill where he has his unit he escaped the floods of 2012 as the river rose to the top step of the cellar only, but the mill is situated on a slope down from the canal so there was a doubt as to whether it had escaped this time!
Finally by the Monday the water levels had dropped. Great you might think but what you cannot begin to imagine is the horror left behind! The Victorian sewerage system means that as the water level dropped not only did it leave behind the silt from the river and canal bed but also effluent from the sewers. The whole town, all the shops and businesses and many people’s homes were now left with a thick layer of silt, mud and faeces. And so the work begins. Everybody in and around the Calder Valley set to work helping each other. First with shovels and bin bags, then as the filth begins to retreat with clean water, soap, bleach, rubber gloves, face masks, brooms, scrubbing brushes and elbow grease. It was then that my dad finally got to get round to the mill to discover that the canal flooding meant that the mill and his unit was waist high in water!
What we can’t imagine and often don’t think about when we see things like this on the t.v. is just how far reaching the effects of this type of disaster brings. Obviously those whose homes had been flooded have lost furniture, possessions, maybe priceless things, expensive things but also sentimental things, a whole lifetime in a box of photo albums. They have no electricity, phone, gas, heating, light. That means not much food, nowhere to cook food if that have some, no means of outside contact. But also even those who aren’t flooded are affected. It may seem trivial compared to those who are flooded but my dad doesn’t have a washing machine, he uses the launderette. The launderette was flooded, dad was running out of socks! He very much lives day to day with being on his own so was planning on going to get food on the Tuesday…the shops were all flooded. He only had some cereal! But this is where having friends there and social media contact with many Bridgers brings me so much comfort. The lovely Steve and Christine from Angeldale Guest House told me to tell dad to go to theirs Tuesday morning and they would cook him breakfast and then the equally lovely Kirsty (president of the HB WI, see, being a WIer really does help) and her husband Cat kindly offered to do his washing for him.
I arrived in Hebden on the Tuesday. I debated driving up as the roads were damaged, cracks were appearing in the surface, roads were cut off and closed, bridges were collapsing from the sheer force of the water but after researching the journey and speaking to my dad and friends I felt I had to be there for, if nothing else, moral support. My dad is 75, diabetic, partially sighted and lives alone. As he said to me on the phone, don’t come if you don’t think it’s a good idea but I would like a hug. Decision made. So I arrived with a car full of food and plenty of hugs.
On Wednesday I was out in the town. I don’t know how to describe to you what it was like. I felt like I was walking on the set of a disaster movie. It somehow just didn’t seem real. The air was heavy with the smell of sludge, although this was strongly being permeated by the smell of bleach! It was all so very wet and cold. Even though it continued to rain this was a different dampness which I struggle to find words to describe to you but it was so heavily damp as if you could feel that the very bricks and mortar were saturated, the air was saturated, the cobbles and the tarmac, the people even felt saturated. the atmosphere was oppressive but then as I walked through town towards the mill I saw the people, the helpers, the builders, the council men, the residents, the business owners, the children, the teens, the elderly and every age in between. I saw locals and not so locals all working together, all helping each other, smiling at each other, hugging each other, laughing together and working together. I spoke to people who had travelled from all over this country to help those in need in a little town in West Yorkshire. I could have cried with the love and humanity that I witnessed. I don’t want to point out the lack of support from the local MP or the government, the PM’s cavalcade sweeping through town to get to the more important photo call in York, or the terrible coverage from the media. What I want to focus on is the kindness of strangers.
As soon as the floods happened and the town woke up to the disaster the Town Hall Committee, which is community run, not council, set the Hall up as the epicentre of help. They worked tirelessly coordinating everything that needs to be coordinated at times like this. They went straight onto social media and asked for help and help arrived! Kirsty, who I mention above, was telling me how funny and very English it was, especially for her as a Scot, that the first thing that arrived was tea and tea is what kept on being donated! It is so fab that in times of disaster the first thing us English think is “My God…there’ll need tea and plenty of it!” But for me I was most touched by the Muslim and Sikh community groups that travelled to Hebden to help. These included Khalsa Aid from Slough, a relief organisation whose motto is “Recognise The Whole Human Race As One” Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association from London, Muslim Hands and The Human Relief Foundation from Bradford. There were even Syrian refugees helping. These people have fed from a war torn country and have offered their help to this community. These communities all rallied together. They brought hot food with them, supplies, skilled workers and most of all friendship. It was truly touching.
But if you search online you will find many blogs and web pages telling you about this amazing work written by people who have a better way with words.
So, back to my dad. His workshop is now all cleaned out, what was ruined has gone and what has been saved is being sorted through slowly. There isn’t much that can be done now as the electrics blew up on the day after boxing day and the first electrician that came to look at them said he wouldn’t be able to put them back on as they needed a lot of work and that comes down to money! Meanwhile therefore, he has no job to go to and no means to earn and so my job for now is to stop him topping himself through boredom! I bought him a new DVD player for Christmas as his other one had given up so hopefully he has plenty of movies to watch!
But the problem is the same for so many of my friends. You see, the minute somewhere has a natural disaster then the insurance companies little eyes light up and whoosh! the premiums rocket. Many of the businesses couldn’t afford insurance after the last lot of floods and so are having to rely on people’s generosity and community based fund raising to get back on their feet. Some businesses have been lucky enough to run pop up shops on other premises, some have been able to get back on their feet relatively quickly but there are more that cannot do that and are looking at potentially 6 months of no trade yet still with staff wages to pay and overheads to cover. And so, when all the helpers have done what they can and left, when the media have grown bored and left and when the people in charge have returned to their ivory towers and moved on to the next spin story, there is left a town, a beautiful town that is home to so many wonderful people trying to make their way in the world as part of a wonderful community that is still scarred and torn, still struggling to rise again, still being bloody well rained on and that is when they need the love and support from others to go visit them, shop in the shops that are open, drink and eat in the pubs and cafes and restaurants that are open and keep returning as they get back on their feet once more and once again become the jewel of the Pennines.