Despite being 5 years ago, the notion and pictures of a flooded Tewkesbury came into the public spotlight once again. During the rain in late April of this year, Tewkesbury once again flooded; however, the flood waters were much lower than they had been 5 years earlier. The media and the public quickly likened the event to the 2007 floods, to the extent that visitors to the town were ringing businesses to see if they were ‘open for business’, while other stayed away altogether, anxious to get stuck in a flooded town.
The full extent of flood water during 2012 seasonal floods
The full extent of flood water during 2007 extreme floods
However, as we have seen and discussed in other blog posts, this flood was very much a normal, seasonal flood with the floodplains surrounding the market town under water. ‘Seasonal flood’ is very much a buzz word amongst Tewkesbury residents to encourage people to come to the town during these types of flood events despite what they may read or hear in the media. A BBC article explores the use of phrases like ‘seasonal floods’ and ‘open for business’ from Tewkesbury residents as a counter strategy to the flood reputation built up within the media. This article asks 5 Tewkesbury residents from different walks of life the same question:
So, five years on, how has it felt to see the town back in the national spotlight after heavy rains led to seasonal flooding?
Despite answering the question from different angles, the respondents portray a range of shared beliefs and attitudes. The continual association of Tewkesbury with the 2007 floods and its floodplain location is the main issue. The residents feel that due to the extreme flood event in 2007 the perception amongst the public is that all subsequent normal floods have the same impact. This perception is confirmed by the media:
“After all we did as a community when we surrounded the Abbey with colour and music and laughter (“Over the Rainbow” event, 2008) and said “we’ve got over this”, but it doesn’t appear that the media is capable of getting over it.
They are trying to make Tewkesbury and flooding an open sore, and it isn’t.
[This week] I have seen nothing that hasn’t happened three times a year all the 14 years that I have been the town crier”.
Due to the media referring to 2007 during any flood since then, visitors tend to:
“…….think that Tewkesbury is virtually shut but it’s not.
I have had customers phoning up asking if we are going to be open and I have had family and friends phoning up to make sure we are alright. Everything’s fine.”
This frustration leads to the residents’ coming together to propagate the concept of ‘seasonal floods’ and to advertise that Tewkesbury is ‘open for business’ to the general public. They wanted to teach the wider public to differentiate between the two scales of floods – seasonal, i.e. ‘normal’ and 2007, i.e. exceptional.
Many are afraid that the general association between Tewkesbury and floods is reaffirmed by visitors, which is believed to cause negative economic consequences for the town.
“They’ll look at the weather and think the town is closed.”
“It [recent media coverage] has brought flooding back into the forefront and makes people wonder whether Tewkesbury should be here or not…….We have started to get places and we really need to carry on, but people tend to get nervous especially when they are put under a lot of pressure about flooding.”
Severn and Avon Valley Combined Flood Group
“We are a holiday town and we rely on that and it is unfair really to think of flooding and then immediately think of Tewkesbury.”
Vicar of Tewkesbury
What this article explores is:
The use of media to confirm and form perceptions about certain topics
Continued association of Tewkesbury and flooding
Sense of community to reverse Tewkesbury’s reputation using positive buzz words such as ‘seasonal flooding’ and ‘open for business’
The importance of distinguishing different kinds of floods – especially for floodplain residents, but also for wider society
Recent flooding on the River Severn again revealed differing perceptions of floods, as well as the power of the media in shaping flood risk discourses, and the resentment of floodplain residents to the media representation of flooding.
It’s mostly the outsiders who get excited about the extent of the waters on the Tewkesbury Ham and along the Mill Avon. For local residents, this is just a ‘normal flood’.
On April 30th, the national BBC website reported that “Tewkesbury sets up flood incident room as river rises“. The image provided under this headline was not of the current floods, however, but of the great flood in July 2007, nearly five years ago. Also, the most striking ‘news’ of the article concerned the 2007 emergency. When it continued to report on the actual, present flood, the story sounded disappointingly dull compared to the opening lines. The reader also learns that it wasn’t “Tewkesbury” that set up a flood incident room, but the Environment Agency.
Similarly, on May 1st, a Guardian article on “the wettest April on record” was published with a picture of the 2007 floods, not the present one. The caption reads: “Tewkesbury, scene of extreme flooding in 2007, faces renewed disaster as floodwater levels rise.” The Independent’s article of May 4th, pronouncing “Tewkesbury flood threat returns as heavy rains continue” was also illustrated purely with images of the 2007 flood. And the images that make up the majority of the Daily Mail article of that same day are geared to evoke the similarities between the present situation and the 2007 flood, too, with photographs dominated by the extent of water on the floodplain. It refers to Tewkesbury as the “Gloucestershire town was devastated by near-identical floods five years ago“.
But were the recent floods ‘near-identical’ to those of 2007? From a distant, aerial photograph perspective, this might seem the case, as much of the floodplain was inundated again in early May 2012. But critically, the distribution of the water, as well as the extent of the floods, were rather different to the situation five years ago. The Daily Mail reporter does notice this, when his perspective changes from the ‘big picture’ to that of speaking to local residents:
So how were the good folk of Tewkesbury conducting themselves yesterday in the face of what some feared would be another Biblical-style disaster? Well, they were mostly just getting on with life.
‘This is not a flood,’ said Samantha Snape, 38-year-old owner of the picturesque Lower Lode Inn, where the water had spilled over the Severn banks and was sloshing a few feet from her doorstep.
‘This is a flood,’ she told me, pointing to a 2007 photograph of the 15th-century building partly submerged.
To her left was a brass plaque that marked how deep the water was last time. It’s screwed in several inches above waist height.
This echoes what many of our respondents have been saying about the recent flooding – this is a ‘normal flood’, something they would expect at least once or twice a year. They keep an eye on it, but do not get worried. This is Tewkesbury after all, located on the floodplain at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon and a number of smaller watercourses.
Also Dave Throup from the Environment Agency stated in a video interview with the Telegraph that the current flood is not to be mistaken for an event similar to the 2007 floods:
This is an entirely different situation. We’d expect levels like this probably a couple of times a year in Tewkesbury. We haven’t for the last couple of years because it has been so dry. You know, that’s why we are in drought. […] And in 2007 it was probably a good metre higher than it is now. I think if you have lived in Tewkesbury for any period of time you will have seen this many times. And people are used to it. And indeed most of the communities up the Severn will be used to rivers coming up and going back down. And it does look dramatic because the river will come out of its banks and it will fill miles of floodplain. But you know, that’s what they are there for. They are fulfilling their proper function.
Whereas such a ‘normal flood’ thus does not upset floodplain residents, the media hype referring back to the destruction and disruptions of 2007 surely does. Some inhabitants of Tewkesbury, for instance, are fed up with the idea that all their home town is known for is its flooding, and in particular the 2007 floods. They are frustrated with the media ignoring how well they actually get on with these ordinary floods. In particular, businesses like local shops, hotels and restaurants feel victimised by this misrepresentation, as each time the national media announces a flood in Tewkesbury, they experience a decline in customers.
Two weeks after the flood peak, on May 16th, the Gloucestershire Echo interpreted the small flood as a good test for the County’s contingency planning. In hindsight, it was noted that the emergency services coped very well with the events, and the only flood-related incidents in the County pertained to a few driveways and garages, rather than people’s homes. It was a tiny event compared to 2007, a ‘normal flood’ rather than a large-scale emergency.
Some of the issues that are explored here are:
How different regular and exceptional floods are for floodplain inhabitants
How the media may blur these critical differences in an attempt to gain more attention
How such misrepresentations are problematic for local residents and businesses
And how small floods may act as reminders of big ones, keeping flood risk in people’s minds.
Do disaster events such as floods re-establish communities? And do these communities exist only as long as the common experience prevails? Many of the interviews conducted for this project suggest that flood experience fosters a sense of community that is not necessarily seen under everyday conditions. Many people refer back to the Blitz Spirit, which seems to be the quintessential disaster community they remember. A constant theme throughout this interview is how the community spirit positively – and surprisingly – supports flood victims:
“And the Brewers Fayre, the Travelodge place up by the motorway, was just ram-packed because everyone had just come off there and in fact all of their rooms had gone, and I remember stories afterwards that how well the waiting staff had done. There were free hot chocolate or free drinks and things. I remember a letter in the newspaper at what a credit the staff was. They couldn’t get home but they kept working, serving all of these people and trying to get blankets. I know a couple off the Ashchurch Road; I know they went out with cups of tea and things [to people] that were stuck in the traffic. I think they let some people stay. I think they just said to them, “Are you stuck, do you want to come and stay in our spare room?”
This emergency community was established in a Travelodge, a place that many people would not visit on an everyday basis. Perhaps an unconventional location adds to the sense of urgency and exceptionality that allows this community spirit to emerge. The interviewed couple also talks about a disused railway line, now a foot- and cycle-path, as such an extraordinary, ‘liminal’ space. As the only way in and out of town during the floods, the railway line is another example of a different location of the disaster community that came into existence through the floods. In the image above, the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/). Normally, people would drive to town in their cars, hardly interacting with each other as they are strapped into their motorized confines. During the floods, however, they had to walk along this footpath, encountering plentiful situations to interact with each other. This would have lead to a temporary community of people sharing experiences or solving practical tasks together.
P2: I was quite lucky because that railway line close to where you were didn’t flood. People thought there was no way into the town centre but actually there was, and a lot of people used that. A lot of people did their shopping in the middle of town in Tesco.
P1: It got incredibly busy.
P2: Normally you would never see anyone on it, and suddenly there were masses of people on it. That was interesting because it actually got people out of their cars for a while for local journeys.
This shows that flooding brings people together but not necessarily in the ways or places they expected. It also shows how flooding can change human behaviour in positive ways and let stories be told. Many of the people using the footpath might not have talked to each other if the roads had been open.
As the title quote suggests, the couple believe that community is there when they need it. Their community spirit is dormant, and only re-invigorated in residents’ consciousness during events like this. It is summed up by:
“I think there was an initial bringing the community together, but I think people re-established that they were a community and maybe they don’t do as many events as a community as you would hope, but it still re-established communities. [They] were there and in times of need they come together again.”
Maybe the sense of permanent community is a social construct that has vanished in the younger generation. The generational difference does not only become apparent in the meaning of community, but also in the way different generations react to events such as the flood. Both the interviewees highlight this point by detailing their experiences of previous floods. One even regularly played in the floods. This sounds dangerous in this day-of-age, but this participant learned a lot about floods whilst playing in them:
P1: And like you say […] you used to play in the flood water, we used to go down a back road in Twyning and put our wellies on. Always with our parents, well we did anyway…..
P2: ……more of a liberal upbringing then (laughs)……
P1: ……I used to look at the flood water and that was part of it.
Flooding being a part of life of the participant as a child may develop a level of self-education in flooding, leading to a ‘watery sense of place’ and even an attitude of ‘biophilia’ towards floods.
Well actually it is something quite natural for it to flood.
The participants constantly refer to people rolling up their trousers and wading through water, further suggesting a watery sense of place exists in locations like Tewkesbury. With a perceived ‘nanny state’ and improved flood defences and warnings, the next generation are being told that flooding is a dangerous and extremely negative event, whereas people who have experienced many floods see flooding as a part of Tewkesbury. A watery sense of place is beneficial to floodplain residents, as seen in previous blog posts. So with the protection of the younger generation from floods, can they be taught a watery sense of place without frequently being exposed to actual floods? Apparently, many children affected by the floods had little knowledge of flooding:
They [the children] thought as soon as it chucked it down, floods were going to come; they didn’t understand how flooding happens.
By the same token, if flood risk on the floodplain were to decline, the watery sense of place would perhaps disappear along with people’s flood experience. However, events like the 2007 floods are exceptional but may happen again. Flood risk is never totally eliminated. The interviewees say that nature always finds a way of imposing itself, and this needs to be taught to children, for instance with an annual Flood Week in schools; this would expose children to flooding in their home area, and provide them with a current and locally relevant subject.
Throughout the interview, the couple’s generally positive attitude towards the floods, and occasional laughter, was noticeable. This may be due to their own houses not being flooded. This meant that the couple could:
‘Possibly draw out the positives a lot easier than other people can.’
The couple does comment that if they had been flooded, their memories would be different and possibly they would resent the flood. They also tell stories of people who had been flooded, in order to convey a balanced view of the floods.
With memories meaning different things to different people, naturally the starting point to the respective narratives is different. For example ‘If it had been five years earlier and without digital cameras, we would be running out of film’ starts a month before the actual flood event. This person sees the start of a rainy period as an important beginning to his narrative, whereas the present account starts during the heavy rain of Friday 21st July. Both accounts show the way narratives are constructed and personal, despite in parts telling the same story.
What this account explores is:
A dormant community spirit which seems to become re-established during flooding or similar disasters
Self-education of flooding leading to a watery sense of place
Flood victims tend to look at the wider picture
The construction of memory, especially the start of people’s narrative.
Photographs play a crucial role in remembering floods in Gloucestershire. Particularly during the more recent floods, with widespread digital photography, popular photo-sharing websites (e.g. flickr) and affordable photo printing, flood memories have been saturated with flood photos. The importance of photographs for memory comes to the fore in this interview conducted with an owner of a Tewkesbury-based business and former chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. This interviewee explained that he used photographs for two purposes: in order to support his insurance claim on the one hand, and to bolster his memories of the flood, on the other. The quote in the title attests to the sheer number of pictures he took during the 2007 flood, as well as to the role of the technology facilitating his way of documenting and remembering them.
Like many businesses in Tewkesbury, his company got flooded leading to damage and loss of stock. So to make an insurance claim, the owner took photos of the extent of the flood damage. However there is one image in particular which he does not associate with his insurance claim. It is the image above, which he saw so often during the floods that he purchased a copy of it and hung it up in his office afterwards. He illustrates why this image is important to him:
‘[On the Monday] we just sat at home; and that picture which is on the wall, it was the one that Sky News kept showing. I was seeing that every twenty-five minutes or so, and it was driving me up the wall seeing that picture which is why I had to get it.’
It was shown so frequently that the interviewee felt it was ‘burnt onto my retina’. Throughout the interview he uses the image to visually supplement his stories and to stimulate remembering other stories. We, the interviewers, got to see his stories from the perspective of the image. Looking at the picture, listeners may be able to validate the story being told and to question possible exaggerations.
Flood memory and narrative
Memories are often structured as narratives, and this one was a particularly striking example. The account did not require much interference from us interviewers to prompt the participant to re-tell his flood stories. He designed his narrative in a strict chronological order, just like history, with earlier event being told first and later events thereafter. It seemed that one story was a trigger to remember the next story and so forth. As with all narratives, this one had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning sets the narrative into motion. This story started a month before the actual flood, with a recollection of the amount of rain during the months of June and July, which effectively lead to the ground in the catchment being saturated. A different person would probably begin their narrative with a different event, and would thereby emphasise different aspects. But framing his memories in this particular way seemed important for the interviewee, perhaps to make the point that this flood happened in a particular hydrological context, which was not only exceptional, but also should have alerted people.
The middle part of the narrative represents the main event. Throughout this ‘middle’, the interviewee recalls plenty of small but interlinked memories, ranging from near-misses and other businesses’ problems to the power of the water. As with all these memories, they are very descriptive, told from his particular point of view. The following may serve as an example:
‘We walked around the building checking things whilst taking saw blades off the floor to dry out, to try and save customers’ blades. Because we sharpen blades for them; so they are not our property. We were walking around, and Alan [his colleague] walked in front, and I followed him. Because we are a saw workshop our floor is a timber floor. It is a suspended timber floor. I was following Alan and I looked down and saw one of the trap doors had floated away, so I was able to extend my foot just enough to go to the other side of it. Alan had walked straight over it and had fortunately missed it, otherwise he would have gone down a metre into the flood waters.’
He ends his narrative with talking about the ‘Over The Rainbow’ event. Ending with this event re-visits what has already been discussed in this blog: Choosing the well-organised festival that declared ‘Tewkesbury back in business’ a year after the floods seems a suitable end to the narrative of a Chamber of Commerce chairman. The event serves as a fine bookend of that flood memory, much like ‘Over The Rainbow’ had probably been intended to be.
Having a narrative makes his account more compelling, as it flows from one story/memory to the other with ease. With such easily-flowing stories, however, it also becomes evident that they have frequently turned into well-rehearsed formulas, which are reproduced in particular occasions. We must therefore ask: when the interviewee is telling his story, is he referring to the memory of the event itself, or is he remembering and recounting the last time he told his story of it?
Flood memory and sense of place
Throughout, the interviewee exhibits a strongly watery sense of place. A watery sense of place is a sense of place that incorporates flood risk as part of local character and even everyday heritage. The interviewee’s flood knowledge comes from living in the area for a long period of time. He has experienced the flood meadows during regular but minor floods, but more importantly, he can access his flood memories when needed. Some of this knowledge was accidentally voiced when he peered at our interview sheet:
‘So at the top of that piece of paper there, where it says ‘the River Severn Floods of 2007’ – actually it wasn’t. It was the water from brooks coming off the Cotswolds escarpment trying to get to the river. So when this happened, the rivers weren’t in flood, had we not had the ‘47 flood defences in place, this would have gone straight to the river and we wouldn’t have flooded.’
His knowledge extends to say that the Rivers Avon and Severn don’t flood from the rain that falls in Tewkesbury, but from what falls further upstream, in Kidderminster and Worcester. Later in the interview he uses this knowledge and applies it to illustrate a larger picture:
‘If it [the torrential rain] had been sat over the top of Manchester, a lot more than five people would have died. Had that storm moved 5 miles east, then that water would have gone down the Thames catchment area and a lot more people would have died in London. As it is, it probably found the right place; apart from the Somerset Marshes, otherwise here is the next best placed for it to have fallen.’
Unlike many people affected by floods he doesn’t just focus on his immediate area. Rather, he has calculated the possible effects this storm would have had on bigger urban areas and their possible unfortunate consequences. His local hydrological knowledge also extends beyond his immediate surroundings to include wider issues of land use in the catchment. He highlights especially the historical depletion of the UK’s forest, suggesting flood wouldn’t have happened if more forests were still standing.
Perhaps this indicates that ‘local knowledge’ about flooding in one place is never limited to that place alone. Along a river – and when dealing with water more generally – local phenomena are necessarily bound up in wider contexts. Water always comes from somewhere and drains somewhere. Sometimes, floodplain residents sum this up in the phrase: ‘One person’s flood defence is another person’s flood.’ Clearing drainage ditches or raising flood banks in one place usually means that the water is channelled or compounded in other places, where it may cause or aggravate flooding instead. Consequently, ‘local knowledge’ in a flooding context is not limited to the local. As the chairman of the Tewkesbury Chamber of Commerce he had many opportunities to talk to the media about the effects of the floods. During the interview he told us that he found it important, but also rather difficult, to communicate positive stories of how Tewkesbury dealt with the floods. The press seemed interested in negative news, as floods are generally considered a disastrous event. Our interviewee, however, wanted to emphasise that Tewkesbury is not just a community of victims, but is also dealing well with the floods. Rather than painting the picture of a place devastated by a catastrophe, he wanted to convey that Tewkesbury was open for business as usual.
What this account explores:
The role of images for memory
How memories can be structured into narratives, whose specific beginning and end frame them in a particular way and convey a certain message
Local flood knowledge necessarily incorporates very non-local aspects, e.g. the wider meteorological context and land use changes in the catchment.
The struggle of representation in flooded places, between those who want stories of suffering and devastation, and those – often including businesses anxious about their image with customers – who want to convey that all is working well in spite of the disruption.
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.