This intuition was explored by three women from the village of Tirley discussed the events and their memories of the ‘Great’ Flood which hit the small village of Tirley over a weekend in July 2007. Tirley is known for being affected by two floods a year, so there intuition comes from their regular experiences of how to recognize and react to floods. Two residents portrayed their memories of the flash flooding that affected The Street on the Saturday, whereas the other resident accounted for when the water came into her house on the Sunday. The women use the expression ‘great’ to distinguish the events of 2007 from what they term regular, ‘normal’ floods. The flood of 2007 was more than they had ever experienced previously; thus why they call it ‘great’. This is exemplified by the following:
Respondent (R) 1: We’ve got a flood path haven’t we?
R2: So not many people are affected by the little floods.
R1: But they can last up to 6 weeks, the main road can be closed for 6 weeks and you have to drive miles around to get out the village, it does have an effect on the village in general.
Interviewer (I): But one you are used to?
R3: You just accept it.
R2: Just carry on.
Images of The Street in Tirley, during and after the flash flood of July 2007 (watery photos by Pat Sharman).
This description of a flood being normal and by the same token the use of ‘Great’ for a unique flood seems to suggest that the people of Tirley have what may be called a ‘watery sense of place’. A watery sense of place is a sense that a place that incorporates flood risk as part of local character and even everyday heritage. Throughout the discussion this watery sense became more and more obvious, the more aspects of living with and without a flood was discussed. These aspects include a Flood Committee and the position of Flood Warden within the community, both with responsibilities specifically to look after the village, i.e. clear the drains. Another aspect is remembering flood patterns and recognizing signs for an imminent flood, and what precautions to take . For example, if it rains heavily in North Wales they know that they’ll get the overflow of water 3-4 days later. The flood path as described above is another aspect. The flood path, a raised path through the village, is used for the residents to remain mobile throughout a flood event. But what illustrates this watery sense the most is that in 2007, whilst the flood water was still draining away, the residents used meet at the shifting water’s edge every morning and evening. This memory was described as:
R3: It was just talking to people in the evening meet at the flood and in the morning to find out what was going on; that was it really.
I: So that was an important part?
R1: The meeting at the flood was a really wonderful.
R3: It was essential in a way.
These aspects and memories have almost built a watery subconscious within the residents of the village knowing what it is like and how to live in a high risk flood area. This possibly leads to the observation that
….If it rains you usually see two or three of us out during the day going out clearing the drains.
This subconscious doubtlessly introduces ‘rallying’ of the residents together during a flood event. Throughout the discussion many terms were used to describe the community spirit at the time, ‘brilliant’, ‘superb’, ‘important’ and ‘wonderful’. This suggests that in times of need the residents of Tirley come together and pitch in wherever they can and that this community spirit is remembered as such. This memory of community spirit, when and if a flood of this magnitude strikes again, may perhaps lead to comfort in bad times. And the three women all agreed that it will probably happen again.
Nevertheless, it seems like the community spirit is also re-affirmed and made stronger outside of floods. The formation of a local Women’s Institute (WI) group was highlighted by one participant, another spoke about the Play Group; what also seemed to re-affirm the community spirit is how the residents react during snow:
It is brilliant when it snows. The last time it snowed my drive was cleaned twice for me.
Community cohesion also comes to the fore when the women discuss the reasons why it floods more in their community. They acknowledge the need to help those flooded for the first time, like many residents of Tewkesbury in 2007, but also remakr that this may happen at the expense of looking after more regular victims, like the inhabitants of Tirley. Further activities like building on the floodplain in and around Gloucester; the lack of dredging the river and the introduction of flood gates further up the river were mentioned as factors that may increase flooding in Tirley. The women feel that all of these activities in the catchment express the indifference of planners to the small village of Tirley compared to Worcester and Gloucester. However, this usually generates a strong community spirit as it has a feeling of ‘us against the world’, which is shown within the Tirley in times of hardship. At the same time, however, these activities seem to have brought a feeling of realisation amongst the participants. This realisation is in terms of the prospect of a flood of similar size and force as in 2007 hitting the village:
Don’t wish upon us but I’m sure without any doubt that it will happen again.
I wouldn’t call unique because I think it is going to happen again.
The subject of maintaining memories and telling them is brought up. Due to the regularity of ‘normal’ floods many people only live in the village for five years. When a new resident comes into a community you’d expect fellow residents to share stories of floods to warn them of what is to come. However the dynamic of the response is thus:
I: With these new people moving in, are there any opportunities for them to learn about the floods?
R3: They learn very quickly.
R1: They learn by experience. When you search for a property which they buy, it should declare it has been flooded. I know the gentleman across the road from the church is fully aware that has flooded because he’s a flood engineer.
R3: When you do see them you do ask, ‘You know it floods?’ (Laughs). But they have no idea and understand the implications.
This shows that there is a discussion informing that their new property will flood. What is missing are the stories and memories of how to be practical throughout a flood event e.g. ‘if this tree gets submerged you need to move your belongings upstairs’. It seems that in spite of the community spirit discussed previously, many newcomers will have their first experience of a flood first hand rather than being prepared for it by fellow villagers. Tirley residents would doubtlessly help out if a flood occurs, but it seems strange that within a community which regularly experiences floods there aren’t any stories told which could help them prepare for such an event in the future. The memories of the previous exceptional flood in 1947 weren’t circulated before the 2007 flood. Had Tirley forgotten is major floods? Or had people with flood experience moved out or passed away? The interviewed women remarked that newcomers who do experience a major flood may then leave, possibly with flood memories of their own, within 5 years, diminishing further the flood memory reservoir of the village. They feel it is best for the memories to be recorded like in the Gloucestershire Floods 2007 book, through pictures they obtained during the floods, and possibly through the continuing legacy of the village’s Flood Committee. But are these documents going to be read and shared? Within a community which relies on word-of-mouth to maintain memories, who use them to prepare for the next flood event and share them in meetings and at the water’s edge, it seems like the memory of the 2007 flood will end like this:
The knowledge from so far past will not help them. It is like the ’47 flood didn’t help us in 2007. The memory will die with the older people.
What this account explores:
The construction of a ‘watery sense of place’ ,and how memories help in this construction.
The isolation villages like this experience when places like Tewkesbury hit the headlines with something they experience regularly – flooding.
The way in which a small community helps itself in times of need despite external factors working against them, e.g. flood gates further upstream.
The depletion of a memory reservoir due to the movement of people in and out of the village, and how that can affect future generations e.g. this generation and memories of the 1947 floods.
How one flood can affect people in different ways, even within a small community.
In the floodplain village of Deerhurst, the village Flood Warden and his wife remember many floods. All but one of them they had been able to fend off with the ancient and continually improved flood defences around the village. One of the responsibilities of the Flood Warden was to close the gap in the flood bank where the road enters the village. Until recently, this was achieved by temporally constructing so-called ‘stanks’ across the road, which were made from wooden planks and clay.
We’d got the stanks […], which block the road at the end of the village. They call them stanks. They effectively, […] are two lots of boards put together, about a foot apart, built up. […] We used to have to put those in with the neighbour who lived next door then, who was quite old so physically he knew what to do but he wasn’t strong enough, so with a few other people we used to have to ram them with clay effectively. Ram them with clay and build them up according to the floods we were going to get or were getting. Besides that, we didn’t really worry too much.
Flood Warden showing the slots (now filled in) where formerly the 'stanks' were inserted
The Flood warden has not always been an expert in flooding issues. From being a newcomer to the village and the floodplain about 50 years ago, he slowly grew into his role.
We got married in 1968. We moved here. […] We lived in a caravan for about twelve months, while I… because I was in the building trade, so I developed this. It was only a little cottage at the time when we bought it. We had really no idea what floods were about at all. Whatsoever, we had no indication. Really very naïve about the whole thing, I suppose, if we look back at it in that respect. But we survived. […]
We had floods, I can’t remember the first flood I’d ever seen but it was a year or two after we moved in, but they were what we call river floods so they didn’t really affect the village very much, only possibly the road down on the corner which always seemed to get flooded. We used to have to leave our cars out and have to trample up the road there because we didn’t have very, we had pumps in those days but they weren’t very efficient to be honest.
The first big flood we’d seen probably was 1980/1981 when it flooded. It wasn’t massively deep but once the stanks are put up either end of the village, any kind of water we get, rainwater we get after that, because it can’t get out if you understand, so it built up in 1980 because we had a lot of snow and rain around 1980 Christmas time, which flooded the road […].
The next really big one was in 2000 and that was the biggest one we’d ever seen. We kept it out that year but the banks have been upgraded twice since we’ve been here. They were upgraded in about mid-to-late 70s, they were upgraded because somebody lived round the corner, worked for Dowtys who were shifting an awful lot of soil out of a job in Tewkesbury and offered us the soil and the machinery to grade it all up and put it in the right condition and so that kept us in good stead, that raised the bank quite a bit.
He learned about the stanks technique from a neighbour, who used to put them in place before, but was getting too old to do the work.
We obviously chatted over the fence about one or two things and he kept all the flood boards, you could call them, in his shed over there so I had to go there to get them and he would tell us what to do but physically, as I say, he couldn’t do it himself, and that’s how we came to know him really.
Almost as responsible a job as putting the stanks up was to take them down at the right moment to allow traffic to flow in and out of the village again.
I basically got down to the nitty gritty of going up there and shovelling the clay. […] Because I’m a builder and I work for myself I could come back at any time if I wanted to […]. The old chap behind was a bit too old by then. […] I don’t know if they had an official name in those days, and then the lady over the road suddenly came out with a tee-shirt for me with ‘Flood Warden’ written on the back, so that’s how I got the name. […] It would have been back in the ‘70s, late 70s. I can’t remember exactly when it was. So I was always nicknamed the flood warden. I mean to be fair I always used to go out there and put them up. The worst thing about putting them up… You obviously put them up to save your properties. But when it comes to taking them down, they could be up there for a week, 2 weeks or 3 weeks or however long the water hangs around, but when it came to take them down, by then people used to get up there and walk along in between the planks and of course the clay used to get rammed harder and harder and harder. Then when you came to take it out, if it had been there for 3 or 4 weeks, it takes some shifting. […] So I had to be kind of available to take them down at the earliest convenience really. That’s how I got the flood warden job […].
Together with a few other villagers, the Flood Warden learned how to gauge when it was time for putting up the stanks.
We used to mix together, there’s a farmer […] down at the church, and there’s another farmer up here, it was his dad then in those days, he’s now retired. Between us we used to, a couple of telephone calls, ‘yes we need to put the stanks up, blahdeblah.’ If you come up over the back of Barrow Wood, which I’ll show you if we go up just now, we could always reckon we’d got 12-hours before we put the first stank board up. […]
You stand up there and you could see it coming over the back of Barrow Wood. You could see it coming over the river bank from our bedroom windows. You can’t now but you could when we first came here. […] We’ve got garages and all built at the back which they didn’t have originally, so you could stand in our bedroom, or any of the bedrooms if it came to that, and you could see it, but it particularly came over at Barrow Wood and it used to work its way up, which is probably a couple of miles at the most, but you can tell when you need, if it’s say 9 o’clock at night and it was just starting to come round you could think well we don’t need to put one up until tomorrow morning. You could gauge roughly how long to allow. Sometimes you were wrong but we never got caught out really, not seriously caught out anyway.
This system worked well for many decades. In July 2007, the flood defences that had been successful since 1947 were surpassed by the flood waters, and almost all of the village’s buildings were flooded. As the water was rising around the flood bank, the villagers put on a unique effort of communal action, raising the banks in places and building additional defences. Eventually, however, the water broke through.
Because the water effectively comes right round the back and it came down that road that you came down and it washed that dirt all away and that was it. We were then sat in water this deep in here (points to his chest). […] It was close on 5-feet.
Telephone box, Deerhurst, 2007 flood
After spending the first night of the floods upstairs in their house – together with a friend from a neighbouring village who had come to help – they had to be evacuated by boat the next day. First thing in the morning, however, they were visited by two neighbours:
He: We were upstairs on the Monday morning, and about 7 o’clock there was a knock on the window up there and [… two villagers from the other side of the village], they were up here, I can picture the boat being up here anyway (pointing to the window), they were knocking on our bedroom window to see if we wanted tea or coffee.
She: They had a flask of each, very good, and a packet of biscuits and they hooked it up on the oar and we took it in from the landing window so we could have a drink.
As has been the case in many flooded communities, the flooding itself is not being remembered as such a traumatic phase as the aftermath of the flooding. One of the difficulties for the Flood Warden and his wife was the amount of things they had to get rid of because all that had been in contact with water was considered ‘contaminated’. What is more, the ‘contaminated’ items had to be stored in the back yard for a while, until the loss assessors had found time to look at them. In one of the photographs that the family keeps, the heap of furniture, carpets and other debris in their back yard looks almost like a monument to the flood, to the loss.
Backyard with 'contaminated' debris - a monument to loss
She: Then you had to leave it there for the assessors to come and look. That was the worst part.
He: You couldn’t get rid of that (furniture) until the assessors had come to see it.
She: Making sure that it was the value, I had to itemise everything, from teaspoons, well everything. It’s a bit of a nightmare that. […]
He: Well we ripped out all the floors, that was a wooden floor in there, carpet in the front room so all that went. These were tiled. They had to come up according to the insurance company because they were contaminated. […] All the plaster off…
She: It was all to do with being contaminated.
He: So if they were damp they had to go, effectively. […] They would have been usable, a lot of it, and certainly the floors would have been.
She: In the olden days before Health & Safety and all the rest of the stuff, you’d have swept, washed it all out, and carried on.
He: Yes so we re-plastered all the downstairs. This is a new floor, new kitchen which is not finished as you can see. Everything downstairs is virtually new. […] I’ve never seen so many skip lorries in my life in a small village. They were in and out every day, skip lorry after skip lorry. That was one of the things which I do remember. Because there was so much good stuff going out of this village to the skips, unbelievable. […] Stuff you were still using. Now, because it was contaminated everybody said the insurance companies said it had to go. It was the worst mistake we all made really, was chucking stuff away which could have been reusable. A lot of it. There were skip lorries by the load.
She: I mean we still go and look for something now and think. ‘oh no, we haven’t got it now.’ You know, even now. […]
He: Because it had been contaminated, it sounds an awful bad name as though it’s kind of unliveable, but it wasn’t. It was crazy really. […] Well it’s the upheaval of it, you’re talking about a whole year, 12-months, you know, it’s a big upheaval, plus you’ve got to replace everything. When you get older it’s not so easy to go and get a new 3-piece suite and a new television, you know. I mean if you get new things from time to time when you want them then it’s not a problem but you try and go and get everything, well we had nothing in our house because it was all gone on the skip. It’s a big upheaval.
In spite of the loss and ‘upheaval’, the couple maintains some positive memories of the floods.
He: But if you look there’s an awful lot of people live, well not only this river but other rivers in the whole wide world, if you live close to the river sometime in your life, you can be lucky or unlucky. In many ways for us it was lucky because a) I got a lot of work out of it and b) it enabled us through the insurance get a lot better furniture than we usually had. You can look it whichever way you like really.
Interviewer: But you also had a lot of trouble.
He: Yes we had a lot of fuss, a lot of upheaval, yes.
She: A lot of heartache. We lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced like family photos. Our sons growing up years, childhood, school photos, it’s all gone.
He: We didn’t think it was going to get, we put everything that we thought was valuable kind of thing above worktop height thinking it won’t get above that, but we were a bit naïve about that really.
She: We thought we’d be paddling in it the next morning but nothing more.
He: But we’re still here to tell the story.
She: Which is the main thing. Some people lost their lives and we’re still walking about, so.
The couple also reckons the 2007 flood triggered enough community action and interest within the Environment Agency to greatly improve the village’s flood defences.
The positive thing was when they formed a Deerhurst Flood Group Protection Society Committee. As soon as the 2007 flood was over, they formed the Deerhurst Preservation Flood Committee they called it. That’s one good thing that’s come out of it […] that they could then challenge and go to insurance companies and blahdeblah and do everything on a bigger scale because it was a village thing, not just individual people going to insurance companies and try and get their insurance back and what have you. So that helped.
Now that the new flood defences are built, the question arises whether villagers will remember floods, flood risk, and the fact that they live on a flood plain. The Flood Warden thinks that the 2007 floods will be remembered as the new benchmark in the area, just as the 1947 floods had been before.
I didn’t see the floods themselves […] a) because I didn’t live here and b) because I was too young, but they always refer back, ‘oh the floods that we had up to 2007.’ Even in 2000, which was the biggest flood I’d seen since we’ve been here, ‘oh it wasn’t as big as 1947.’ Everyone said it wasn’t as big as 1947 but they can’t say that after 2007 because 2007 outdid 1947 by something like 12-inches I reckon, which is a lot of water round here. […] Now we’d only talk about 2007 if we started to get anywhere a flood again and then people would refer back to 2007.
Rain and river thus seem to remind villagers of the floods, in spite of the flood wall surrounding them. Moreover, people sometimes tell stories of the floods, funny ones in particular.
She: There are lots of funny stories.
He: You have to look at it on the funny side of it otherwise.
She: You’d have been stressed wouldn’t you, losing everything.
Other ways of remembering the floods are more contested. Some people, for instance, suggested exhibiting images of the floods and the works towards the improved flood defences during a biannual village festival, which met opposition by others who argued that this festival was about flowers, not about floods.
Funnily enough, we have a church flower festival here every two years. […] Our friend next door, he’s the Chairman of the Flood Prevention Committee, and […] he produced several big images, photographs on big boards and wanted to put them in the churchyard two years or 18 months ago when the last flower festival was on, but he was turned down by the committee. I won’t go into the details but he was allowed a small portion in a tent but he wanted to let everybody see, all the visitors, because they get up to 3,000 to 4,000 because it’s over 3 days, and he wanted everybody to see what the situation had been like. […] Well one or two people, as I say it was a bit political, but they were running the actual flower festival and thought it was a flower festival and not an advert for showing off photographs of the flood. He did have them, I’m sure he’s still got them, but he wasn’t allowed, he put a few up but not as many as he wanted.
Nevertheless, the couple holds that even under these circumstances, memories of the floods will stay alive in their family and their village.
She: I don’t think you can [forget] that really because it happened didn’t it? We went through it.
He: If we’d have felt really peed off with it or whatever we wouldn’t be here today would we.
She: We’d have all left and gone. Can’t live there again and all that.
He: I don’t think you can say, we obviously don’t want to see one again really but we’re willing to take that chance really.
Interviewer: Yes, and you think the memories that you gathered during that time are worthwhile preserving?
He: Oh definitely, it’s a big part of our life.
She: It is now. […]
He: Our children will never forget that, never. Even our grandchildren, who were quite small at the time really, even they say about the ‘great flood Nana’, but they didn’t really see it. […]They’ve seen the photographs and all that, but that really isn’t registering them but they know about it and they won’t forget it.
Interviewer: So they’ve seen the photographs and they’ve heard stories, so in the family it’s passed on?
He: Yes, very much. You can be certain of that, because I mean until this happened everybody talked about 1947. It’s all people every talked about the floods was the 1947, which we never saw as I said before. So they’ll always talk about 2007 now, won’t they?
Interviewer: I wonder whether there will be a way that, say, your children or grandchildren will know what to do. That you take your stuff upstairs just in case, without them necessarily having been through that themselves.
She: You just tell them of your own experiences, don’t you?
He: [Our son …] was interested in buying that place which was outside the flood bank, I didn’t go into any details but I mean he hasn’t bought it, but the flood never worried him. He wasn’t worried about the flood part of it. He’s lived here so he knew if he bought that, what he was walking into as regards floods. […] Yes, they’ve all been through the floods. He loved it when you have to put the first board up.
She: Yes, especially if there’s a bit of water this side and they could go on their bikes through it. Childhood stuff obviously.
This interview speaks to many different themes in the context of our project. They include:
Communities: How does remembering floods – differently by different parts of the community – become negotiated and developed or side-lined?
Material memories: How does completely new furniture and interior decoration of one’s home affect people’s memories of the floods?
‘Levee Syndrome’: Does living with massive flood protection infrastructure make people remember or forget floods and flood risk?
Local flood knowledge: How do newcomers to the floodplain learn about living with floods? In what respect is that different today compared to the 1960s and 1970s?
This quote comes from a ‘semi-retired’ farmer from Deerhurst, explaining the flood defence scheme that the village, in collaboration with the Environment Agency (EA), had upgraded extensively after the 2007 floods. After the levee surrounding the lower end of the village had been heightened and a number of improved flood gates had been installed, the question arose of who should be responsible for operating these gates. The villagers wanted to retain the responsibility of managing the gates, as they felt better qualified to do so than the EA,
because we know when they want closing and the EA don’t. And in 2007, after the 2007 flood peaked, the EA rang up and said ‘are the gates shut?’ (laughs) So, you know, we want… And no way are we going to worry about getting them shut, if we’ve got our own, you know. And also the EA, once the floods do come they are so busy upstream getting various gates and things shut that I think it wouldn’t be a very reliable situation, so we’ve made it plain that we want responsibility to shut it.
The village, being located on the floodplain and close to the river, has a long history of flooding, and also of flood defences. In the past decades, however, their flood defences had kept the waters out of the village. Many villagers were confident that this would be the same in 2007, and were caught by surprise when it wasn’t.
I don’t think any of us realised it was going to be as big as it was until is started coming in at quite a fast rate. And then we realised the water outside the banks was higher, and we knew that we were coming up to the same level as the water outside really, and my son was busy, well the whole family here were pretty busy helping down in the village; and a lot of the villagers ‘said what about your own house?’ I said, ‘oh we never get flooded, we’re right up at the top of the bank, we never get flooded so there’s no need to worry about us,’ and then suddenly we realised our own house was getting flooded, but by then a lot of the people down the village were helping down there and it was too late to save anything and so quite a few of them came up here to help us. It was very community spirited.
Throughout the interview, the farmer emphasises how the community stuck together, both during the flood and when dealing with its aftermath.
we’re a very close-knit community here, there are only 20 houses in the village and we all know each other and we know who is old and who is vulnerable and all the rest of it and our first priority really was to go round and just warn people there was going to be trouble, and you start thinking of rations and this sort of thing. Then as the water started coming into the village all the fit people went round the village and just called into the houses to see if they were happy, and as it got more and more serious we went in and said that you must get out of the village before the problem starts. The older and vulnerable ones were the ones who were reluctant to move and they said, ‘oh no, we’re all right, we’ve experience it before, we’ll move upstairs,’ and we started moving a lot of the furniture upstairs. You know, there were quite a lot of us here and quite a lot of the younger, fitter people were moving stuff upstairs and helping other people.
What seemed to have helped was that the village acts like a community not only in times of emergency, but also in calmer times. Presumably, this facilitated communication, mutual help, and a quick response during the flood.
I think we are a very close community. When there are charity things, and particularly the church, it’s a very famous church here and 20 households can’t keep it maintained obviously. And we have major fundraising events, the whole community gets together, even if they’re non-church-goers, get together and support the whole event really. The major things are our Flower Festival which we have every other year, and that of course is an event where we decorate the whole church with flower arrangements and we have various stalls and things and the whole village helps then, not only Deerhurst but the next village as well, Apperley, which is in the same Parish but different village, and they’re all tremendous and will come and help.
In this kind of social environment, the villagers were able to very quickly form a flood committee after the floods, planning and securing funding for the improvement of their physical flood defences.
We were already existing with a pretty good set-up really, and then after the 2007 flood it was realised by the village that the flood defences wanted making much higher and much stronger. And so this sub-committee was formed of 5 of us I think, and we then started making plans to get grants to fund the situation and put great pressure on the EA to help and do something about it, and there were also flood relief funds available. […] And we were very enthusiastic too. We had some very enthusiastic members. We had a local solicitor, we had a civil engineer living in the village, so we had quite a powerful committee really.
Flood defences in Deerhurst have a long history, probably going back to Medieval times, when a Benedictine monastery had been located there. Existing flood walls had been gradually improved, for instance in the 1970s, purely by villagers’ efforts. Therefore, the 2007 flood exceeding the flood wall came as a major shock to many.
I think we were feeling pretty confident and we were sympathetic to the people who were getting flooded farther up the river who hadn’t got defences like we had got. And Upton-on-Severn is another one, you know where they are roughly, upstream anyway, they got extremely flooded, and all the sympathy was there, saying ‘poor things’ and feeling quite confident ourselves.
The farmer maintains that remembering floods is important for living in a place like Deerhurst, on the floodplain.
I think the big advantage is really experience, and the next generation experiencing what could be a problem in the future. My thought is that this is the third flood bank put, and year after year it seems to want making higher, so obviously the flooding situation is over the years getting worse and I think experiences from the previous floods is quite a benefit for the next generation to understand. And I think for instance, my son has got a pretty good knowledge now of what should be done and when the gates should be closed. We’ve now got gates instead of the old-fashioned boards that we used to put up. The gates have to be shut and you have to have a certain amount of knowledge as to when you shut them.
He says that although ‘we’re getting back to normal, […] we still do discuss it obviously.’ One danger he sees for maintaining memories of the flood is that it may not come up in conversation as much, as time goes by. Nevertheless:
I think people visiting us, friends ask questions about the floods and off you go again. The other danger I think is that people don’t stay in the communities for very long now, whereas in 1947 they were all employed locally and they lived there all their lives in the village. Now, every 5-10 years people have a job somewhere else and they move out and then of course the stories get lost perhaps, so much. People like the oldies like myself, you know, are probably the only ones who remember 1947 for instance, but the 2007 flood there’s going to be a lot of photographic evidence and a lot of articles written. It’s all written so much better than it was in 1947. That evidence will reinforce some of the verbal evidence of people, I think.
[…] And even now, if a house is put up for sale you have to declare that it is in a flooded area. We’ve got two houses on the market now and actually on the brochure of the sale it says ‘liable to flooding’. You’ve got to declare it now legally, and one or two people have been interested in buying the property have been talking to me about it. I had somebody last night talking about it.
When asked what role the River Severn itself plays in remembering the 2007 floods around Deerhurst, the farmer explains:
The way it comes up and down, and when it starts to come up and you say ‘oh no, it’s not like it was before’, and then it brings back the memories of what we had, and the village will talk about it. If the river is coming up and the floods come out, I get quite a lot of people ringing me up and saying ‘what advice? Do I need to get the car out?’ or whatever.
The issues that this interview raises in terms of the research project include:
(1) What is the relation between (successful) flood defences and flood memories? Do functional levees make people forget their flood experience, so that once the levees fail they are hit even harder?
(2) What is the most adequate way of sharing responsibility between communities and formal institutions?
(3) What are the relations between a community’s resilience to floods and general community life? And how is communal memory implicated in this relationship?
This quote comes from an interview with a couple who live in a part of Gloucester that gets flooded rather often. Usually, it does not enter people’s houses, though, but in the summer of 2007 it did. Also in 2000, their home had flooded, and the previous owner of their house told them that it had happened a few times before, most notably in 1947, but also more recently. The two floodplain inhabitants have experienced many dangers and deprivations because of the flooding. Nevertheless, they emphasise how flooding brings the neighbourhood together, so that resilience to floods and community spirit are mutually reinforcing.
He: The thing is, we don’t look at ourselves as victims.
She: No, we like it (laughs).
He: We like it here. And we accept the responsibility of the flooding. We pay highly for it because we pay our insurance prices or premiums. But then again, we accept that as well. So therefore, we don’t look at ourselves as victims. In flood times, we tend to help as many people as we can, simply because we are not victims. Other people are. But we don’t feel that way. We could become victims afterwards. After the flooding, when you are stuck out of your house, stuck in a caravan, stuck in a house miles upon miles away, coming here at six o’clock in the morning, going home at midnight, going back to the property you’ve got at midnight, that’s what we did in 2000 and in 2007. That’s the thing.
She: It is the aftermath.
He: That’s when you become victims. Not when you’re flooding. And that’s when you get no help.
She: And that’s when all those people that are speaking in the papers, on the telly, chatting their mouths off, what they have done and what they are gonna do and that. That’s when they…
He: They don’t exist for us because they do nothing.
She: […] People tend to support each other in this community.
He: Yes. We carry each other. Because nobody else will.
Feeling let down by local government and other formal institutions, the couple and the community have learned to fend for themselves before, during and after a flood. In the following quote, they talk about how they were trying to deal with the aftermath of the 2007 flood, trying not to become victims in spite of feeling let down by official bodies.
He: We did our own because we saw what was happening here. [Some builders] were coming and doing the job, six weeks later they were coming back to do it again, and again, and again, because the job was never done right.
Interviewer: So what was it you organised?
He: […] I got to talk to the insurance company and said, “We want the money.”
She: And get our own people.
He: “You can come and check on it,” which they did. They sent their agents down to look at what we were doing. But we got our own builders in to do the job. And we used local people. And that’s the other thing I objected to: they would come from Scotland, from Wales, one company came from Germany! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no objections to the Germans of French or Italians or whatever. But we got perfectly good local builders here, who could do the job and who you’ve got then somewhere to go when you don’t do the job properly. But when you’re in Scotland you haven’t got that.
She: Other people have had problems, Lawrence over the road, because they never came back.
He: They never came back to finish the job, they never did the job properly. They got the money, but didn’t do the jobs.
When, after the flood, most neighbours moved away while their houses were drying and being rebuilt, the couple stayed behind in a caravan on higher ground. This caravan soon developed into an impromptu community centre, as a place to meet, share information, make plans, and air grievances.
She: Some people went to stay with parents. Some people’s insurance company paid for them. Yeah, one couple had a flat up in Gloucester, in the new warehouses. […] People were all over the place.
He: Scattered all over the place.
She: All scattered is the word. There was only about two, three families that stayed here.
Interviewer: So, when everybody goes away, or scatters, how is that for the community to deal with this aftermath? As you say, it’s such a difficult…
He: They came to our caravan (laughs).
She: People used to come back, check on their houses, check what the builders were doing and how far they had gotten, and just come in, and go look in the garden, just to look at the river, just to reassure themselves. Come in, we’d give them a cup of tea. And then they went again.
When the flood happened in 2007, the couple, and other members of the community, already felt that they were not hopeless victims of a catastrophe, but that they were able to do certain things to mitigate the destruction. In particular, this was due to their memories of what they had been doing during the flood seven years earlier.
She: Can I just say, going back to what he said about the 2000 flooding, I mean – what was it, three days, three nights?
She: The people, the whole community, I mean they’d be coming in four, five hour shifts, you know, twenty-four hours a day [maintaining a sandbag flood wall they had built along the river bank].
Interviewer: How did you organise that? That’s really interesting.
She: We didn’t. It just fell into place. Somehow, it wasn’t even organised.
He: We just talked to each other. And we all… It fell into place because we all wanted to do it. And people were saying, “Well, I’m doing days, so I can do that at night.” And some were doing, “I’m doing nights, so I can do that during the day”.
She: And some people were just coming in and out all the time whenever they had the time. But the work…
He: …the work involved was tremendous. I mean, considering it was something like 5000 sandbags.
She: We had three high tides. And we held them, we held off the first two. I think they were about four star bore tides. And we held off for two nights, three days, and it just caught us on that last night.
He: Well it came from behind. Once it got us, we just walk away and then because there was nothing we could do.
She: But again, this was done through just the people that lived here.
He: No help from the people that spout off, what do they call them in Shire Hall…? This weightwatcher, whatever they call them.
She: The Environment Agency didn’t come down. None of those people, none of them came down.
Experience of previous floods had taught them that they can achieve something together. Even if their self-organised flood wall did not hold out in the end, their community action had brought them much further than the help they received from the emergency services.
The thing is, you’ve got to do something for yourself. If you rely on insurance companies to actually do the job for you, you’ll wait a long time. If you wait for the Council or the Environment Agency, well you wait forever, eh? And you will still be in the same boat twenty years later. You’ve got to do something for yourself. And if you can’t do that, don’t live on a river. Don’t live anywhere near water. Live on the treetops. Live on a mountain. You’ll probably get on with flood then (laughs).
The couple realizes that their community, and a few people in particular, are vulnerable to floods. But they also feel that mutual help and looking after each other in the community can significantly reduce this vulnerability. “There are several that are vulnerable. But they are never left to be vulnerable.”
Some of their neighbours, who have lived on the floodplain their whole lives and are old enough to be considered vulnerable to floods, do not behave as if they were vulnerable at all. When the water was rising and they sandbagged the front door of one of these neighbours
He: He opened the door and kicked them all away. […] “No, I don’t like that,” he said, “It can come in there [in the front] and will go out there [in the back].”
She: But he was born here. And he’s been through many a flood. And that’s his tactic. He opens the front door and the back door and…
He: …and pushes it through and doesn’t do anything else. Left it open to get the place dried out, didn’t he?
She: And then afterwards he doesn’t have any in dehumidifiers or anything.
He: Just leaves [his furniture] to dry outside.
She: And then you see a couple of chairs standing there in the garden. Just like wooden chairs (laughs), drying in the breeze.
Interviewer: Interesting way of dealing with it.
He: He doesn’t have a proper kitchen. He’s got a sink, […] and the cooker is picked up, right up in the air. Once the flood is gone, the cooker is put down again. And he sleeps upstairs, and lives upstairs in the flood. Once the water goes down, then he washes his place out and carries on. Does a bit of touch-up painting if he needs to, and that’s about it. And that’s the way he is.
She: Which is his perogatory.
He: Yeah. That’s the way he wants to live. And he is still alive (laughs).
The couple believes that maintaining flood memories can be useful for knowing what practical steps to take during a flood, and when dealing with the aftermath or preparing for the next flood. Nevertheless, similar to what we have heard in other interviews, too, they believe that flood memories are most useful for instilling an attitude of resilience on the inhabitants of flood-prone areas.
Interviewer: Was [what you had heard about previous floods] in any way useful for dealing with the 2000 and 2007?
He: Yeah, because it sits in the back of your mind. And therefore it gives you an aid to, not actually what to do, but how to deal with it.
Interviewer: So, not practical things, but more like an attitude?
He: An attitude, I would say, more than practical. How to face it, how to look at it in general. To not be depressed by it. How to dominate that, and that not dominate you. That you’ve got to keep on top. No matter what, you’ve got to laugh. Otherwise you cry. So, their experiences give an insight to what they did within themselves, not within the practicality of it, but how they coped with it. And it gives you an aid to the way you cope with it. It’s attitude more than anything else.
This attitude that enables them to better cope with floods does not, of course, imply that they take any flood for granted. Rather, they critically comment on some of the processes that they see as increasing and decreasing flood risk in their area.
She: We have been told that, from reliable sources, and particularly the person that lived here in 1947, and he in fact lived here since the nineteen thirties, it didn’t flood so much then. I mean, the forty-seven was a big one because of the snow amount and all that. It didn’t flood so much because they… What did they do in Wales?
He: They did build a dam in Wales. […]
She: They built a dam in Wales. And yeah, for years and years and years and years…
He: …they had no flooding. […] But it was the actual building on the floodplain that made it. […] You’ve lost two thirds of the floodplain to building. That’s what you have to be taking into account, you are taking places like Tesco’s, the Cattle Market and all the rest of it […].
She: And they don’t dredge. I mean, we see a large [dredger], he goes up and down now and again. But I mean, I’ve had people back here that lived in, not only in this house, in other houses, they just come back to have a look. And they’ve come out in the garden and looked at the river and they said, “Good God, it’s so much narrower than it used to be”. And it’s all silted up. As you go under the bridges, there is enough silt there to build a small housing estate on.
However, they do not buy into any old explanation for their flooding. For instance, they doubt whether Climate Change is making any significant difference in their position.
He: It has always flooded down here. The floodplain has flooded since time began, I suppose. And since records began, it’s always flooded down here. So I don’t think that’s changed any. I think you might get the variation in the levels of flood, but I don’t think – and I think this is probably part of it – this blaming global warming for the flood, I don’t think you can. Simply because it has happened too many times before. I mean, I’m not arguing against global warming. I’m not one of those people. But at the same time, there is certain things you can’t blame. And I don’t think global warming has anything to do with the flooding down here. It might have added a couple of inches to it, but we are always gonna flood; because we always have done. And I don’t think that will change. In seven years’ time, four years’ time, whatever, we will flood again. It’s the elements coming together. Same as it did in the seventeen sixties and the sixteen sixties and the fifteen sixties and the fourteen sixties. It’s gonna come again. And global warming will have nothing to do, it might make it a little bit worse as time goes on…
She: But there is not much difference between two foot six inches and two foot nine inches, is there?
He: Exactly! So you can’t actually blame, like so many are trying to do lately, “Oh, you flood because of global warming”. That’s not true. It makes it worse but if you already flood, three inches isn’t gonna make a blime bit of difference.
Among the many things that local flood history and their own flood experience has taught them is a very critical attitude towards the Environmental Agency’s flood warning system. They say that most often, the flood warnings are false alarms, making people unnecessarily upset, frightened and cynical. When their home did flood, they received the automated phone message much too late; the water had long entered the property. That does not mean, however, that they were very surprised when the flood came. In their back garden that stretches all the way to the river, they know exactly to what stick and to what stone the water rises during usual, harmless floods. Once the water reaches particular sticks and stones further up the slope, they know it is time to prepare for an eventual higher flood.
She: That’s another thing: their flood warnings, they don’t work on an area. They work on the whole River Severn which is, you probably know, is pretty long. And if they think it’s gonna flood somewhere up in North Wales […], everybody along the river gets a flood warning. And it’s usually the highest flood warning. It says “You are going to flood. Get all your livestock and animals out. Get anything valuable upstairs. Vacate your property”. And you know, they keep telling people that…
He: And we’ve had a young couple then here, up in number seventeen […], that had just moved in.
She: Three weeks before (laughs).
He: […] And they had a phone call from the Environment Agency telling them to put all their furniture upstairs and leave their property. And they were in tears. They came here in tears. You know, and it was an obnoxious thing to do really, because there was never going to be a flood. […]
She: The flood warnings are pointless, they are useless, they upset people like that. They are never accurate. I mean, when was it, one Christmas Eve, someone of the environment agency phoned me up personally […]. “You are gonna flood tonight”. And I looked out the window, and I said, “No, I’m not”. He said, “Oh, I am very sorry. You are, because our computers say this, that or the other”. And I said, “My two sticks [in the garden] say, we’re fine”. And we didn’t. We know. We see it every day. We know. I don’t know, you just get to read it. And all they’ve got is computers.
He: And until you bring it down […] to area by area, for flood warning, then nobody is going to take any notice. […]
She: In fact, I would say ninety-nine out of a hundred, those flood warnings are now a nuisance. And they ring sort of like six o’clock at night, and they’ve got it on a twelve hour thing. They ring you up at six o’clock in the morning. You actually get up and you answer the phone, and somebody telling you you’re gonna flood, and you look out and, oh no. You know. And I rang back once. There is a number to ring back for further information, and I did ring back once. So I told him where I lived, on the Severn at Gloucester. I said, “I just had the severe flood warning”. I said, “What shall I do?” I said, “The river is right down, way, you know, about four foot below the property. I personally don’t think I’m gonna flood”. “Oh, if you get the flood warning you must get out. You must get your animals out. Get your stuff upstairs and get into…” But honestly, if you did that every time you got a flood warning, run to a B&B or Travelodge or…
He: You would be bankrupt, wouldn’t you?
She: I mean, do they realise what a lot that is to do every time they ring? You know? […] So really, if their flood warnings could be a little bit more accurate, or perhaps a little bit more localised…
He: You’ve got to localise it. Small area by small area.
The couple realizes that it is important to remember the floods, and to remember other things that they have learned, and continue to learn, about the river. They also realize that some memories are causing harm, and are best forgotten, or “shut away” most of the time.
I think the only thing you can do in any flood, in that situation, is remember the good things that happened […] like the camaraderie and things like that. And forget the bad stuff. Because the bad stuff isn’t going to do you any good. The next flood that comes along, hopefully you think about what you were doing at the beginning of a flood and you weren’t feeling too bad about it. Buoyed up by it, you can cope with the next one. If you’re looking at the depressed side of things, then you’re going to be that much more depressed before you even flood. Therefore you’re not going to be able to cope. Therefore you will have a nervous breakdown or whatever. So my viewpoint would be that you remember the good points and shut away the bad points. Because the bad points, at the end of the day, are not gonna do you any good at all. […] I don’t think they actually forget. What happens is, they shut it away. I think the mind is a great thing, the brain is a great thing. It’s got the capacity to shut things away so that you can live a life. If you were to remember the bad things in whatever situation you are in, discounting flooding, anything that you live in, if you just remember the bad things, you’re not gonna live a life, are you? You’re gonna be permanently depressed, permanently upset. And all this guff about talking about it might make it feel better… It doesn’t. It’s not gonna make you feel better, it’s gonna make you feel worse. The only thing you can do to actually continue life, in my view, that means only my personal view, is to shut it away. Because otherwise you can’t live. At some stage you can bring it back if you need to.
Being able to bring back these memories when needed presupposes to keep them alive in some form, and also to pass them on to other people, such as to new residents in the neighbourhood. The couple is regularly involved in organising street parties and other social events that bind the community together and provide opportunities for sharing and passing on memories of floods and other locally relevant issues.
He: I can’t remember what the last [party] was for. It was just to… have a chat.
She: Because of some new people had moved into the street. We said, it would be nice for the new people to get to know the people who already lived here.
Interviewer: And on these occasions, do floods come on as a subject?
She: Yeah, sometimes.
He: Of course it does. You talk about it, you know. And then, that’s the time when the bad things come out as well as the good things.
She: And the jokes.
He: And the jokes. But the thing about it is, in my view, the only way you get through these kind of things is by looking for the good side. […] You look at the good side and you pass that good side on to other people. So, with the bad that’s happened, you’ve got the good. And that can only come from the people suffering that situation. It can’t come from prats outside. It’s got to come from the people within. And until you can do that, or if you can’t do that, then you’re gonna suffer even more in the long term.
She: And […] due to flooding [we] have a community where people…
He: … band together. […]
She: If we do have a street party or anything, at some point during the evening [flooding] will…
He: It will always come up.
She: And the old stories come out.
He: At three o’clock in the morning, when that street party was going on, in the end it was a group of chairs in the middle of the street, a big circle of chairs. […] Yeah, and we were all sitting around that and we talked about what? The flooding.
She: And there was two new people there.
He: And so therefore, it was passed on.
She: And they said, […] “Oh, well hopefully it won’t happen again.” And we all said, “Yeah, it will happen again! But don’t worry, we’ll all…” (laughs)
He: So, you know I mean, there is nothing hidden. I say, you shut it away, you shut it away in ordinary daily life, to live. But when you get meetings like that it all comes out. It’s all talked about.
She: And mainly the funny things. It’s the funny things we talk about more.
He: The good things come up on top. And the jokes come out.
The couple has been flooded twice in the fourteen years of living on the river. Flooding clearly is a major concern to them. But they do not emphasise the problems this brings with it. Rather, they stress the joys of living close to the river and the community spirit that comes with suffering floods together, helping each other out during and after the flood, and collectively feeling let down by local authority and other formal institutions.
Questions that arise from this interview include:
What are the causal relations between community help/spirit and flood coping with floods?
Does common flood experience regularly bond communities together? Or what are the conditions necessary for this to happen?
How can people who feel left out from formal flood risk management be taken on board? And how can formal flood risk management benefit from the ample local knowledge that exists in such communities?
How can communities be supported in developing and passing on their flood memories, for instance in street parties and similar community settings?
What role can flood memory play in flood-risk communities, both in instilling an appropriate attitude towards floods and in passing on practical knowledge of how to deal with floods?
… Church Street was flooded all the way along here but it was sort of walkable, it wasn’t completely closed off. Within a few days I was down here seeing what I could do to help …
This is an excerpt from one of our first interviews, with a lady from Tewksbury. She was 72 at the time of the July 2007 floods, but did not talk about her own suffering very much. Rather, she remembered a lot of mutual help and community spirit during and after the flood. In her housing estate that was almost completely flooded, they even set up a neighbourhood association after the floods, formalising some of the collaboration that had been boosted during the flood.
there were some three or four families … [who] said we need to support the rest of our neighbours … help them through this post flood situation. … You know all these things that were a terrible worry to some families. And it was a form of community support.
And I think it allowed people to talk it out, you know, talk it over and put ideas forward, saying what the council should do in the future. And I mean, this is how we got all the drains and the rivers and the ditches all dredged. There was various associations in groups, roads that formed these little committees. And they were all saying the same things. And all this went to… It was good reinforcement to tell the council to never let this happen again.
The mainstream understanding of resilience has it that community functioning breaks down during a flood. But from this lady’s memories, it seems that some form of community – probably not the formal one of schools, stores and routines – can actually thrive during a flood. This is an informal form of community of direct help to neighbours, stranded travellers, vulnerable residents, etc.
What does that mean for community resilience to floods?
How can this essentially informal setting be incorporated into larger flood risk management? Or should it at all?
And what is it that makes some groups of people cohere during an event like a flood, while others perhaps disintegrate even more in such an event?