Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Rain it Raineth Every Day

'Hey ho, the wind and the rain' said Shakespeare in a jolly mood. But no one is jolly in Haydon Bridge today, nor up and down the Tyne Valley. And over in Cumbria and southern Scotland it is worse still. We are living under red flood warnings which means there is a real threat to life.  All night, and all day, the rain has beat down ferociously on this part of the country on the back of a westerly gale. Storm Desmond is truly vicious. 

These old houses let in the water all over the place, and I suppose we should have been prepared for that. But what I was not prepared for was to find water in the cellar, creeping silent and sinister up the steps into the house. This morning there were 4 or 5 inches. Now it is nearer 2 feet. I have been in shorts for much of the day doing what I can to salvage things below. Not that I can do anything about the deep freeze and the biomass boiler. I've taken some photographs standing in freezing water up to my thighs. Not out of my love of photography, not even to record in the house log book. It's for insurance purposes. There will be a lot of claims from the North of England and Scotland next week, I fear. 

Even though this is a serious situation, these domestic concerns are but a little local difficulty compared with what I've seen nearer the river, and learned about from across the watershed in the North West. On the eponymous Bridge of Haydon, a large crowd of onlookers stood in the teeth of the gale to watch the river. Most, I suspect, were not directly affected - the people whose houses line the Tyne in Ratcliffe Road are too busy dealing with a real emergency. The river was (is still) rushing under the elegant arches of the bridge with a fury villagers say they have never seen. It's frightening to be so close to violent water, grasp the risks it poses not just to property but to human lives. Philip Larkin paid tribute to the Tyne at the bottom of Monica's garden by the bridge. He said it was 'muscled with currents', but I doubt she or he ever saw the river like this. 

If you have never lived near a river, as I hadn't before now, you don't appreciate how its quotidian rises and falls affect the mood of a community. There is an excellent village Face Book group where people have been sharing their experiences, asking for help, offering it, and not least, passing on the latest Environment Agency river gauge levels (there is a Twitter feed I now visit obsessively that charts the level at which the South Tyne is flowing, and plots the readings on a graph). Today, our callers have included a neighbour (if there's anything we can do, you only have to ask), the Vicar (ditto), our builder (why is the water coming in at all?), our electrician (is it safe to leave the power on while the water goes on rising?), and our heating consultant (obviously the boiler is off, but will it recover from this emergency?). There is so much good will in this village, so many generous offers of help. I reckon every village can tell the same story in adversity, and we have found it to be true in good times too. 

Meanwhile, we now have a pump in the cellar which is doing its best against long odds. Later in the night the deluge will stop, we're told. 'The rains came down and the floods came up', as the old chorus says. It is referring to Jesus' words about building your house on the rock, not on sand. There is a rock that can withstand even this assault. It is the native goodness and kindness of a village community. We are glad to be living in Haydon Bridge....with all its river's moods and vicissitudes. 

My wife is away helping to look after our 4 day old granddaughter who is, for now, innocent of these things. How blissful for her. As for me, I shall stay up all night if need be, so that I can judge whether I need to take further action like moving the furniture upstairs if the water continues to rise. I shall feel a lot less fearful when the rain stops, even though the risk of flooding will not be over just yet. I shall drink a lot of black coffee, be on call in case I am needed in the village, and wait to see what the morning brings. There isn't much else I can do. Except say my prayers. 

Sunday Morning
Last night the water rose 4 feet to the height of the power sockets in the cellar and was clearly going to get a lot higher. I had no option but to turn off the electricity and abandon Burswell House. Kind neighbours took me in. Meanwhile the street outside was flooding badly. We sandbagged our front doors as best we could. The fire service was out all night keeping the water from our houses. By 5am it began to recede. This morning, to my intense relief, the water in the cellar had reached its maximum, two steps from the top, inches below the point where it would have invaded the ground floor. The fire service are pumping out the cellar as I write. The volume of water is hard to believe. They have been magnificent. The police have toured the area checking that we are ok. Everyone is out to help each another. 

Many people in the village have stories to tell of how an unprecedented Advent flood has shaken this community. They will be echoed by many more up and down the Pennine valleys, in Lancashire, the Lake District, West Cumberland, and the Scottish Borders. There will be a lot of work to do to help one another clear up, try to understand why this disaster happened, and what we need to learn from it. But the important thing this morning is that we are all safe, and glad to see the sunshine once more. Life can begin again. 

Thanks to all of you who have offered prayers, sent thoughts and written kind supportive messages on social media. They mean more than we can say, believe me. 

Sunday Night
No rain has fallen today. The blue sky has felt like a miracle. Fire officers have been at Burswell House all day with pumps, flood-related conversation & endless good humour. I can't praise them enough for the committed way they have risen to yesterday's crisis across the village. If ever I took the Fire Service for granted, I shall never do so again. We must secure the future of the Haydon Bridge Fire Station for the benefit of the whole of West Tynedale.

At dusk we gather on the bridge for the annual ceremony of the lighting of the Christmas Trees. There is a large crowd of children and adults gathered above the river that showed its fury yesterday and wielded such destructive power. It's early to be singing 'O little town of Bethlehem' and 'Away in a manger', but I don't think I have ever found these carols more moving, speaking of divine Love to one another and to the dark chaotic forces directly beneath our feet. Later, outside the church, the Vicar pays tribute to the Fire Service for which a boisterous three cheers are shouted. In his prayer he remembers the victims of the floods. Homely togetherness to lift the spirits. Village religion at its best.

Our neighbours offer us wonderful hospitality again, a Sunday roast and a warm bed for the night. I am learning how kindness fosters not only real community but true friendship. To my surprise, despite everything, or rather because of it, it has been a good day. 


  1. Wow, what an introduction to retirement!

    We live near the Thames, albeit on higher ground, so don't suffer the water approaching slowly towards our front door as our daughter in law does, living down on the riverside. Although they are in a flood warning area, so far, we haven't had the ravages of weather that has happened in Scotland and the North East, North West and Wales. According to the forecast we're in for it tomorrow, but with much less force than you have experienced - I thank God for that, bailing out a family of mother and five children won't be any fun for them and we'd (sharing with other parents in law) take them in temporarily if necessary.

    Prayers for you and for the whole community as you struggle with the elements - that you might all be safe and that spirit of care and of adventure to some extent continues to bring and hold you together in mutual love and support.