Archive for the ‘Women’s Institute (WI)’ Category

My brother came back, and I said it was going to come in, and he said, ‘don’t be so stupid’. So I left, and the next day the water had come in. You just knew it was going to happen. It was intuition.   Leave a comment

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?

All:          Yes.

R3:         You just accept it.

R2:          Just carry on.

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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?

R3:         Yes.

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:

  1. The construction of a ‘watery sense of place’ ,and how memories help in this construction.

  2. The isolation villages like this experience when places like Tewkesbury hit the headlines with something they experience regularly – flooding.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. How one flood can affect people in different ways, even within a small community.


‘I won’t forget that as long as I live I don’t think, even if I live to be 101’   1 comment

Three members of the WI recount the events that occurred during a unique flooding experience in their small town, Winchcombe. Despite parts of the town susceptible to the occasional flood, the bottom of Castle Lane in particular, this event eclipses anything any of these ladies have experience before, and since. All the members were affected in different ways when the flooding occurred. Member 1 tells of her terrifying journey back from lunch.

‘Being driven back from outside Cheltenham back along the B4077 back into Winchcombe and it was all rivers. Rivers coming down Gretton meeting the road we were on and it’s really frightening…… it’s just the rapidity of the day and suddenly you’re in a dry place and then you’re not in a dry place. So that’s pretty scary.’

Member 2 had further exposure to the torrent of water, quite literally. Member 2’s house was flooded during the early moments of the flood. The stream beside her house burst its banks and her initial reaction gives the impression of shock.

‘’Immediately, I didn’t know what to do, just seeing this like a wave coming toward you and eventually reach your house and we have a conservatory there and it was like every little pinprick it was coming through.’

Finally Member 3 discussed here initial reactions of the flash floods, in which she was impassive. She would later take two people into her home that had been stranded.

The unusual event is summed up by Member 1’s comments:

‘I don’t think anyone expected something like this to happen. And so, there’s never been no previous warnings, thoughts, training to make you think about what you would do if you were flooded. When it happened and people weren’t ready for it.’

This flood was a flash flood – it came rapidly but also receded quickly. For most people, the real impact of the 2007 flood was the effect that the closure of the water treatment facility had on their lives. They had to use bottled water for everything .The bottles didn’t last long for normal everyday jobs i.e. washing clothes and person, cooking and the toilet.  The ladies even remember that immediately after the flood, basic provisions like bread and milk were also in short supply. Little information about how things were developing came from the water company Severn Trent, but they remember being regularly updated by community radio stations like Radio Winchcombe and Radio Gloucester. They felt that their small town, on a Cotswolds hill, was being neglected by formal flood relief efforts, as all attention was on Tewkesbury and Gloucester. The combination of the feeling of ‘us against the world’ and the reluctance of the council to help people in peripheral areas hill resulted the mutual help that Members  1 and 2 comment on:

Member 2: ‘There was a community spirit.’

Member 1: ‘Yes there’s camaraderie when you are in a disaster and everybody is helping everybody, a Blitz mentality.’

The interview seemed to stimulate to their memories as they confessed they hadn’t shared or discussed the stories of the floods since the publication of the WI-edited collection The Gloucestershire Floods 2007. They confessed that it had almost been forced upon them to share their stories for the book.

Member 1: ‘I think our president, Joan, called us up and said you were doing it.’

Member 3: ‘We tried to but we couldn’t get out of it’.

Two interesting things come from this. Due to the flood becoming extremely unique to the village, the apparent hesitation to contribute to the book seems to be unusual. On top of this, being the first time they had talked about these events since 2008 seems striking also. Something that affects you on that rare occasion is usually talked about in society, as it is out of the norm of people’s daily lives. In contrast many one-off events around the world are forgotten after the immediate event, and only remembered on distinctive anniversaries, if at all.

On the other hand, the particular way the flood figures in the memories of these three ladies also suggests that a single flood does not necessarily instil the awareness of flood risk on a community. Rather, the flood is perceived as a one-off disaster, and after some structural drainage improvements has been made, the flood receded into history. While it may provide a few exciting stories, it has little relevance for everyday life.

Interviewer:       So if the same thing would happen tomorrow what would be different?

Member 3:         I think it would just be the same. We would just be in a mess like last time.

Member 2:         If it happened like that on the water would just come.

Member 3:         Mind you we would fill all our kettles and pans up wouldn’t we?

Member 1:         That wouldn’t last long.

An unusual occurring theme is portrayed during the entirety of the interview, laughter. Anything distressing that is remembered seems to be followed by an expression of laughter.

‘The thing is for me I’d only come out of hospital couple of days previous to this happening and was told to rest (laughs). I was there with a pan and bucket and was thinking this is my rest! (Laughs).’

This emotion continues when the ladies account living in the aftermath of the floods especially with the sense of the unfamiliarity about this one-off event.

Interviewer: How long would it last for [the bottles of water]?

Member 2: You’ve got to think about the amount of tea you make (laughs)

There can be many reasons why the interviewee’s laughed when telling certain stories. These reasons can include, as discussed, the rarity of the event; embarrassment of some the actions taken during the event or quite possibly used as a defence mechanism to shadow something distressing from the event.

What this account explores is:

  1. Even within a small town community, people experience floods differently, before, during and after the event.

  2. The formal flood relief organizations concentrated their efforts elsewhere, possibly forced by the media, and looked past floods in peripheral areas.

  3. The reference of Blitz mentality seems to confirm an almost automatic response to disasters: If there is a threat from the outside, people stick together and help each other out.

  4. Due to the the uniqueness of the event, memories aren’t forgotten. However, they do not seem to be considered relevant for life today.

  5. The expression of laughter frequently accompanies what can be regarded distressing and extremely unfamiliar circumstances.