This was the general reaction from two residents of Coney Hill and Abbeymead (both Gloucester) to the scale of the flooding. Where these residents lived, the only effect of the floods was the mains water being switched off after the Mythe water treatment plant was contaminated with flood water. With the power of the images portrayed on the news, the two realised the full extent of the flooding. One of the participants mentions the famous image of ‘The Isle of Tewkesbury’ to highlight this realisation:
“When he [step-father] said about how high it was and some cars were underneath the water, I didn’t believe and thought he was probably exaggerating. Then it comes on the news and I could only see the church and the tops of people’s houses then it showed how serious it was. I was like, “Oh, ok.” That was quite scary to think about it in that way.”
Striking photographs on the news allows people to apply certain images to certain events, and as shown above, clarify and fortify memories. As the flooding, both pre-2007 and 2007, didn’t affect these research participants, there seems to be no reason for them to have a watery sense of place. However, living in an urban area void of modern urban drainage and SUD’s, the participants do show a degree of a watery sense of place and local flood knowledge. For example, they know which roads become flooded even during heavy rain, without there being a flood on a larger scale. One such example is Tredworth Road, Gloucester as shown below:
The lights from the traffice show the severity of the dip under the railway bridge.
The flood water is creating that this part of the Tredworth Road, espeically at night, is flat leading to trapped cars.
P2: “They were showing lots of pictures of Tredworth Road, and there is a bridge and the road dips down really far, and that one completely flooded. It looked like a straight road at night but it is really deep. I heard cars drove into it. It is funny but there is a picture of the guy just sat on top of his car.”
P1: “Is that under the railway bridge?”
P2: “……..that bridge because it does flood quite often. I don’t think he was from Gloucester otherwise he would have known that.”
This shows not only some of the participants’ local flood knowledge, but also illustrates how flood knowledge is linked to a sense of place and belonging: People from Gloucester are presented as those knowledgeable about easily flooded places. In this view, flood knowledge forms part of local identity. Over the time the quoted research participants have lived in Gloucester, they learned which roads would be affected by heavy rain, and they count themselves as insiders. During the interview, such local knowledge and associated sense of place was evoked in relation to the recent rain spell in the region. With this interview being conducted in early May, during a period of sustained rain, one of participants recalls the effects of the rain:
“I live down a little country road, and at the bottom of the road it dips down a bit. We have a massive puddle down there at the moment. Plus down and round the corner from our house, it isn’t flooded, but you know when water is running downhill, you don’t think it much but when you walk through it you realise it is quite a lot. That has been running constantly for three days and it still hasn’t gone. If it did turn out like it did in the floods, it probably would flood quite badly round there.”
This research participant thus makes connections between her experience of a smaller flooding events and the great flood of 2007. It does not seem to need suffering dramatic flooding to develop local flood knowledge and a watery sense of place.During the 2007 flood, the research participants would have been in their mid to late teens. They had no previous flood experience/memories, and being young, the fact that it flooded had little relevance to them. Nevertheless, one of the participants does explore the nature and use of flood memories for future events:
“I just have an opinion to not forget something that you can learn from. Especially the people who were hit and their houses were flooded, and if they are in an area where it could happen again; if you don’t forget it you’ll be prepared for it. I can understand if someone wanted to forget something that was that upsetting. They wouldn’t want to wait around for something to happen again.”
In essence, this research participant is describing memories as a ‘double-edged sword’ as they are useful for preparedness but may also be painful to bear. Furthermore, she places herself in flood victim’s shoes when she observes:
I: “If that stream had got into your house, would you have a different view?”
P2: “I think I would have been more negative about it. If it would have ruined all of our stuff it would have been a more emotional time.”
I: “So would your negativity [about flooding] be confirmed?”
P2: “Probably yes. It is different. We only were without water and it wasn’t that big of a deal. They had water at the bottom of the road and they gave out bottled water; it wasn’t a very big deal to live with, it just wasn’t very nice. Whereas if it did come into our house, it would be a lot more to deal with.”
This feeling of sympathy seems to be brought round by basic human nature fuelled by the exposure to victim’s stories being written and shown in the media. This seems to lead to an emotional link between victims and non-victims, which can be beneficial for some victims. However, the exposure to sympathy can be overwhelming for some victims who then refuse any help, possibly leading to them being isolated.
What this account explores is:
Flood knowledge may serve as a marker of identity and community membership
Sympathetic relationship of non-affected people towards flood victims.
The power of the mass media in communicating an emergency.
Whilst conducting interviews in Tewkesbury we stumbled across a booklet which guided tourist around the town. Instead of this tour describing the epic Battle of Tewkesbury or the unique, mediaeval alleys that inter-connect the town, this guide places the tourist in the Wellington boots/waders of the residents who were affected by the 2007 flood.
Written by a local of 40 years, it gives a detailed account of the extent of the flood but most importantly tells the stories that regularly accompany this event. Obviously this guide includes details of destruction and damage, e.g. boats sunken on moorings, and the trial of damaged furniture during the clean out. But many of the stories retold are positive and some give accounts of the residents viewing the events around them:
‘Barricaded behind piled up sandbags, they brought out picnic chairs, and glasses of wine and sat watching all the activity’
‘They were seen on national TV sitting on the roof waving to the cameras’
Principally, this guide places the visitor in the middle of the outstanding community spirit amongst the stricken residents of Tewkesbury. Stories it refers to include:
Staff at the Borough Council Offices caring for people who had been forced out of their home
A message, and later a gift, from Meisbach, Bavaria, the twinned town of Tewkesbury
Youngsters thoughtfully checking on the vulnerable
The Abbey, a national and international symbol of the floods, conducted a wedding with local residents invited due to the inaccessibility into the town for guests
Also the Abbey invited children to play and construct Christmas presents to those without the space to do so.
One particular story most eloquently illustrates the mutual help that prevailed during the floods:
‘A few yards further on is the Scout Hut. Local cub leaders opened this refuge for anyone in need. They provided hot food and drinks, somewhere to sleep if necessary and – possibly more importantly – somewhere for homeless people to go and relax. Between them just four people kept it running round the clock for as long as it was needed – almost two weeks. Their efforts were recognised by the town council and the Scouting Association. The manager of Tesco, immediately opposite the scout hut, very generously provided food, drinks and other items, including toiletries, which those who had left home with nothing, might need. As word went round about their efforts local people took in toys, clothes and all kinds of things. One woman had been rescued from her Church Street home with her newborn baby, with just the pyjamas she was wearing at the time. She was soon fitted out with clothes for herself and her baby, and given a cup of tea and somewhere quiet to sit and recover.’
This story describes how a community can come together in moments of crisis. Most importantly, though, it retells this story to visitors. This means this story is constantly told to a new audience allowing this memory to be maintained not just inside the Tewkesbury community but also for a wider audience. This account also allows positive stories to shine through what was a devastating event for the residents.
The guide finishes with walking past the Abbey and back to the starting point of the tour. During these final stages the booklet describes the Over The Rainbow event, with the symbolic hug of the Abbey from the residents. These later stages of the walk also describe the massive clear up effort, renovation of dwellings and council projects after the floods, like dredging the Mill Avon watercourse and the re-assessment of building on floodplains.
The guide booklet ‘The Tewkesbury Floods’ by Peggy Clatworthy can be bought, for instance, at the Tewkesbury Tourist Information Office and Heritage Centre ‘Out of the Hat’ (100 Church St, Tewkesbury GL20 5AB).
What this account explores is the:
Need to exemplify the positives during bleak times.
Opportunities and activities which can assist in maintaining memories and stories, not just to locals but to a wider audience.
This is how a Tewkesbury pub manager, in a recent interview, remembers the beginning of the flood on Friday, July 20th 2007. Within only thirty-five minutes, the pub was flooded waist-deep.
It was so strong that when I came out here (to the car park) it took me off my feet, you know… But it was only this deep (points to his lower feet) at the time when I was trying to get the cars out. It was like – whoa! It was coming that far, and there were bins and all sorts just rushing out onto the road. Cars still trying to come through, at stupid speeds as well, you know. This was before the bridge collapsed…
In the beginning, pub staff and customers – some of them whom had never been there before, but were stuck in Tewkesbury because earlier floods had caused road closures – tried to save as much as possible from the rising waters.
Downstairs we’ve got a book case round the corner for customers. And all those are bought, either by me or mum, or customers bring them in and put them there. So mum’s like, “rescue the books!” She collects books, she’s got thousands of them… And her plants, “rescue the plants! Don’t let them drown!” You know, […] chairs, I mean, “rescue the chairs!” We were piling chairs upon tables, and then from the tables on to chairs on top of chairs… more important chairs upon chairs, you know… Trying to build up, trying to get everything high. […] There was a [previous flood] mark on the corner of the bar, “1998”, and it was getting closer and closer to that. And when it actually beat it, we all cheered!
When the water stopped rising, the staff and some of the customers (now soaked) resumed drinking, playing pool, and socialising. “I mean, once you’ve lifted everything up, there’s nothing you can do, you know”. On the next day, the water would rise even higher in the pub, destroying its entire interior. What the pub manager finds most memorable, however, is not just the water and the destruction it caused, but the reaction of the owners (who are the manager’s parents) and other pub staff.
When it was about three o’clock in the morning and there was left myself, my mum and dad, Mark who works for us, and he’d stayed to help, Bathy who works for us, and he’d stayed to help… All the customers had gone, they’d all left. Mark’s wife, who’s passed away now, but she was here, she was sat upon the bar. […] Dad was behind the bar up to his waist in water. We all had drinks in our hands, and dad went, “that’s it, bollocks to it. What’s happened has happened.” And then Mark started singing ‘always look on the bright side of life’ by Monty Python, while we were covered up to our waist! And we all just stood there – it’s on video somewhere, just wish I could find it – all singing ‘always look on the bright side of life.’ We were all just dancing at three o’clock in the morning. It was cold and wet and miserable, but at that moment… It was just like “what’s done is done, that’s it.” That will be something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. You know, I just sort of stood back and looked at mum and dad cuddling, because they just lost everything – and you have lost everything! – and I just thought I wish my brothers were here to watch this, and my sisters […]. Because it’s a moment you’ll never get back again, you know, watching your parents who just lost everything, and then they can just raise a drink and sing…
Later in the interview, the pub manager explains that remembering floods is very important for inhabitants of flood-prone areas. He says that these memories not necessarily help people to practically deal with floods, but that they are important in fostering a particular attitude. People need to be aware of the possibility of flooding, of the dangers that flooding brings, and of the things that they can and cannot do during a flood. The pub manager explains that his own attitude towards floods was shaped by many flood experiences during his childhood. This is how he describes one of his memories of learning to live with floods:
I’ve always been brought up around flooding. As a child, we used to walk the floods. We’ve done it on Christmas Day, to walk to the pub at Lower Lode across the embankments, the flood barriers. There was water rushing; it was quite deep. All holding hands linked, and mum had wrapped scarves around our hands. We were walking along and Nicky was tied to the dog, my little sister. […] He’s a big dog, a big lurcher cross greyhound, so he’s a big powerful dog. And she had one hand hooked onto mum and one hand… Well, the dog chose to actually – you might think this sounds stupid, but – the dog actually chose to stand next to Nicky across that flood barrier. She hooked onto his collar, and he was on the outside of them. And then we all went to the pub for a drink. Well, they did; we all just played in the floods.
Many people living on and moving to the floodplain lack such memories, however. And even the pub manager and his family were surprised by the extent of the summer 2007 flood, and learned from it. In his own words:
Next time you’d be a bit more prepared, definitely. And there will be a next time for as long as I’m here anyway. If I stay here, it will happen again. So next time, we’ll be a bit more prepared. So now, we’ve got more sandbags ready over there. And rather than before, when we were kind of like, “where are they, where are they?” they will all be piled up in the corner. […] We’ve got boards cut ready for the pub, something that you can try and stop it a bit more. That’s about the only advantage, isn’t it, that you’ve actually experienced it. Some people haven’t experienced it, they might be really frightened. We will all be like, “no, it’s cool don’t worry. We’ve got to get everything out; we’ve got to do this…”
But he adds that there need to be ways of teaching those people about floods who have never experienced one themselves. Otherwise they will have to learn the hard way. Remembering the floods, and passing on these memories to children and newcomers, must be formalized in some way. The pub manager reckons that schools with pupils from flood-prone areas should adopt flooding and coping with floods into their curriculum.
You need to remember, don’t you. Like that poor lad that died, that father and son that died… You can’t forget that because that’s just… That kid tried to cross a brook! Kids need to be taught that. I know that you don’t go crossing brooks, but I was brought up […] surrounded by floods. He wasn’t, and he tried to swim across. I mean, I know that you can drown in four inches of flood water, because it will take your feet away. You can bang your head and that’s it. So kids need to be taught that this is a flood-town. That’s what they don’t do around here, they don’t teach the children in schools about flooding. You know, they don’t teach them how powerful water is. I have to explain to my son… I had to explain it to him, he now knows. They don’t understand, they think you could probably just cross branches like Tarzan to go across a flooded brook, and don’t realise that once he’s in there you’ve got virtually zero chance of getting back out of it again, because you’re just washing along with it. Yeah, that’s what they need to do around here.
Is it thus an attitude that makes people resilient to floods?
And what role can formal education play in passing on flood memories?
What other ways are there to keep these memories alive, and relevant for the next flood?
This quote comes from a recent interview with a gentleman from Gloucester, who has experienced time and again that his knowledge of the river, floodplain and flood dynamics are categorically ignored by planners and authorities. Interested in water for a long time, he feels he has something to contribute to flood risk management.
Ever since I was about seven or eight, I had a fascination with water. And where I used to live in Birmingham there was several golf courses, golf links, up in the hills. And there was little brooks that meandered down, they were about six feet down, a little trickle. But if you had rain up in the hills, you could stand there, and you could watch that brook rising. And I used to chuck little sticks in to see where the water went, and it used to fascinate me to see the water going up around the corners and swinging around. And where it goes through a narrow gap, it forms like half a bowl, as the water funnels into it. I have lived on the Gloucester floodplain since 1947. I lived at Sandhurst. In 1963 we had a big flood, and I lived in an old, converted bus in them days. And the water was halfway up the bloody bus wheels. We had the boat tied up to the door knocker. That was the first year farmers had levelled the edges, trimmed the edges down. And we had one big lake between where we were and the railway line, and all the water rushing by going south.
But because he lacks formal training and diplomas, his accounts are regularly disregarded.
And this barrister stood there, and he’s one of these (he puts his glasses on the tip of his nose, raises his nose and looks over his glasses). “Would you agree with me, Mister […], that these people have got qualifications?” And I said, “Yes, I can’t dispute that, can I?” “What qualifications have you got?” I said, “On paper, nothing. But I do believe my living in, on and around the floodplain and travelling in boats at flood time, and working on the river in all of its moods makes me an expert in my own right”. Because to me, you can’t beat practical experience.
One of the things he did during the floods of 2007 was to take a series of pictures of water-level gauges in his area, following the development and distribution of the floods. Some of his pictures are reproduced below.
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…