On March 17, 2011, we set out for a trip to look at flood marks in Upton-upon-Severn and Tewkesbury. And thanks to Lindsey’s long experience in flood research on the Severn, we found loads of them.
For example in Upton, between the Heritage Centre and the King’s Head Pub, flood marks indicate the levels of floods in 1852, 1886 and 1947.
There is also a 1947 flood mark in front of the St Peter and St Paul Church…
… and a 2007 flood mark on a garage.
Also in Tewkesbury, we found a number of flood marks, all of them indicating the water level of July 2007, for instance in the Tewkesbury Abbey …
… inside a Tea Room, …
… on the gate of a warehouse, …
… and on a boat house (together with a 1947 flood mark).
What does that tell us about the memoralisation of floods in these two places? On the one hand, the large number of flood marks, and their positioning in clearly public places (around churches, pubs, garages) seems to suggest that people actively try to remember these floods and their extent. A flood mark can be read as a reminder, or warning, that the waters of the Severn do potentially reach this far onto otherwise dry land.
On the other hand, however, our flood-mark hunt made clear that the relations between floods and remembering are not that straightforward. Some flood marks, for instance, that had earlier indicated particular flood levels had been removed again.
On the Swan Hotel in Upton, for instance, there used to be a flood mark, but in the process of recent renovations it disappeared. In the picture, Lindsey shows where the flood mark was situated.
Lindsey also remembers that there used to be another flood mark in Upton, indicating the July 2007 water level, which is no longer there. Only the screws remain that formerly held the flood mark plate.
On Google Street View, the flood mark can still be seen. Within a rather short period of time, between July 2007 and March 2011, people seem to have developed quite different attitudes towards remembering the floods: first, they saw a need to commemorate them by means of a flood mark, but later they preferred not to do so any longer by removing the mark.
We have found signs of the dynamic nature of remembering floods not only in disappeared flood marks. If you look closely at the 1947 flood mark in the first picture of this post, you will see that it has evidently been shifted downwards from its original position. Perhaps there has been a debate about the accuracy of the initial height of the mark, and people have agreed that the flood level was actually lower.
Flood marks are thus both indicators for, and expressions of memories. Where they are installed reflects people’s memories of the water level, and once they are fixed they maintain and shape particular memories.
But it is not only through explicit flood marks that people remember extreme water levels. A lady in Upton, for instance, illustrated the height of the 2007 flood by pointing to a particular point on the kerb in the street. Her memorial reference was not an official, dated plaque, but an everyday feature of the urban landscape.
Similarly, a barman in Tewkesbury did not refer to a flood mark when talking to us about the 2007 floods, but pointed out of the window to a timber store across the road. The water had risen to the horizontal line of the T in the word “Tools” on a posted attached to the store’s wall.
Alongside the explicit flood marks that are legible to a general public, there seems to exist a plethora of other reference points that are legible only to those who have themselves experienced the floods, or who have listened to a flood witness’ account.
The same barman in Tewkesbury, for instance, also assured us that the flood barrier, installed at the pub’s main door in the context of their insurance policy, would be futile as protection against a flood of the same magnitude as in 2007, when water rose much higher. So even the flood barrier can be seen as a flood mark.
Moreover, we came across many photographs of flooded streets and buildings that were on display in public places. Also these images serve as flood marks, and play a part in remembering the extent of a flood. In this picture, a whole gallery of framed photographs of the pub during different floods – 1825, 1998, 2000 and 2007 – is presented to us.
Similarly, a series of images of local buildings flooded in 2007 was on display in a cafe in Upton, one of them depicting the cafe itself.
Our flood-mark hunt amply illustrated that people have devised, and maintain various ways of remembering previous floods. We have also seen that these memories and memorials are all but static, and that in some instances people may even prefer to forget the floods, rather than to remember them.
At the same time, the trip has raised many questions that we need to pursue further, including:
- Who puts up flood marks, and why?
- How do people negotiate, determine and change the position of flood marks?
- Who removes flood marks, and why?
- What other “memorials” are people devising to remember floods – or to forget them?
Stay tuned on this blog, and please share your thoughts about flood marks, and about remembering or forgetting floods…