Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Eye of the storm: Dales flooding in July 2019

The flash flooding that hit the north eastern part of the Yorkshire Dales on 30th July 2019 were the worst it has suffered in at least 100 years. That is a fact not open at all to discussion, as the flood totally obliterated structures that had stood since the late 19th century, and had survived many spells of bad weather since then.

This is northern England and we do get bad weather from time to time. Sometimes we get really bad weather, like the weather at the back end of 2015 when it didn’t stop raining heavily for about a week. The Lake District really suffered from that as its lakes expanded and properties flooded. The Dales didn’t suffer like that. Not because we didn’t also get an awful lot of rain (the prehistoric waterfall at Malham cove became a waterfall once again for the first time in living memory) but because the Dales were designed to flood.

When the Dales get a lot of rain, the streams and rivers swell as water flows down to them from the hilltops. Sometimes it rains enough that the rivers will burst their banks onto the floodplains. But there are almost no buildings that suffer because of this unless it is a really exceptional amount of rain: inhabited buildings were built out of reach of the water.

Between 3pm and 4pm on the 30th July though, somebody tipped a bucket of water out of the sky, and it fell roughly in a four mile radius around Reeth, in Swaledale. The equipment at the Dales Bike Centre recorded nearly 120mm in one hour. So much water in such a short space of time and in such a concentrated area was unprecedented. In fact, just a few miles away in Richmond there was no rain at all.

Water powered down from the hillsides into Arkengarthdale, towards the Arkle beck. Security camera footage from Douglas Barningham’s farm at Eskeleth shows water pouring across the farm yard, and then in under a minute it picked up enough volume and power to start throwing one ton bales around like they were rubber ducks. Many of his sheep were washed away, and later some would be found dangling horribly from trees and fences, strung up and almost unrecognisable amongst other debris.

Further downstream, Rowena Hutchinson at the Red Lion pub in Langthwaite noticed water coming under her front door. Going to investigate, she got to the porch when a torrent of water suddenly burst through from the back of the building, hitting her from behind and nearly trapping and drowning her as she struggled to escape from the building. The following day after the waters had gone, she found a tomato from her garden sitting on a table in the bar. Asked how she was, she simply replied, "Could have done without it."

In Reeth, water was flowing across the village green. If you know the topography of the area you might find it improbable that some of the properties in Reeth that flooded did flood: but the volume of the water meant that it wasn’t rising floodwater that caught them, but the huge amounts of water running off the hillside.

Drivers on the road between Richmond and Reeth suddenly found themselves driving through water: people criticise drivers for attempting to drive through floodwaters - but what happens when suddenly the road you were driving on becomes a river? The road from Reeth to lower Fremington was indistinguishable from a fast flowing river: the Reeth fire truck got stuck in Fremington as the waters rose. Streams of water flowed off the hillsides, causing landslips and scouring out rocks that surged down to form large boulder fields where they came to rest below.

People worked to ensure people were safe, and that was about all that could be done at that point. In Fremington, farmer Jack Stones carried a ladder and two firefighters on his quad bike around the top of the village to get to a house where the occupants were trapped inside. Looking back now it is a miracle that nobody was hurt or killed – though it is very fortunate that the water didn’t come the following weekend, when the flooded fields at Fremington would have been full with thousands of people camping at the Ard Rock mountain bike event.

The water went down almost as soon as it arrived: people could drive along the flooded road between Grinton and Reeth from about 10pm, navigating around the stranded cars. Swaledale Mountain Rescue spent a long night checking on residents in as many properties as they could. Access to the affected areas was to prove difficult, with the main road between Richmond and Reeth being badly damaged in two places and closed to traffic, and the road from Grinton to Leyburn impassable as the waters had demolished a bridge.

The following morning, diggers and trucks were already at work clearing mud and debris from the road near Ellerton abbey, and North Yorkshire County Council Highways came to inspect the road damage. Plans were quickly drawn up to create temporary mini-bypasses to the damaged/destroyed bridges, to allow time to work on them.

In the immediate aftermath the following day, people whose homes had flooded wrestled with their insurance companies, pulled out ruined furniture and carpets, and perhaps rather strangely, stocked up on sandbags, as if sandbags would have done anything against what was in any case a once in a lifetime weather event. When I visited one house over in Bellerby a few days later the occupants showed me their flooded cutlery drawer. Outside, builders were clearing away what remained of their demolished garage.

Community response hubs were set up in Reeth and Bellerby by local residents Sarah-Louise Olney and Heather Ritchie. A disaster response charity named Rubicon, more used to working overseas, came to provide assistance. The hubs piled up with donations of food, clothing, and cleaning materials, and emotional support workers from the council. Tesco donated the largest pile of bottled water I have ever seen.

The council provided skips in all of the affected areas, and over the next few days when driving along the very small roads that still allowed access to the affected areas, a constant convoy of skip and breakdown recovery trucks made their way back and forth, going in empty, coming out with a full skip or a damaged vehicle.

Many people are now out of their homes and will be for many months to come. The Red Lion pub suffered dreadful damage and will not re-open for the foreseeable future. Both the closed roads are now open however, with their temporary mini-bypasses, and at some point work will start on repairing the bridges. The National Park Authority have work to do to repair damaged and destroyed foot bridges, and footpaths.

Up at the historic Grinton lead mines, the trauma inflicted by the water was clear and sad to see. Perhaps like many other people, it has always been a favourite place of mine, with the beautiful little stone road bridge (now totally gone), the meandering little streams between the bridge and the lead mine (now replaced by a deep rocky gully), and the lead mines themselves, with the flue creeping up to Sharrow hill and its fantastic views. Fortunately the historic buildings themselves were spared any damage, though the water did flow through the smelt mill, the lowest of the buildings: interestingly, there had been a wedding in there the previous weekend, and I had been up there for a walk the night before the floods, making me probably one of the last people to see the place intact.

The water blasted through the covered culvert that carries the stream by the side of the smelt mill. It was totally demolished, as if it had never been there, now an open gash with water running through it. Without work to stabilise the sides, further heavy rainfall will eventually erode into the nearby smelt mill, which would be a huge shame to lose the best preserved of Swaledale’s 19th century lead mine buildings.

Elsewhere, huge community efforts to repair the damage started immediately. Perhaps most impressively, the following weekend saw an influx of Young Farmers Club members from far and wide descend on the area. Like a swarm of helpful locusts that put things back together rather than destroyed them, they cleared and re-walled the Reeth show field, allowing it to go ahead as planned at the end of August. Ramsays fish and chip van came to feed the volunteers. Lots of the same local faces could be found helping out here and there, such as the irrepressible Dave Clarke, who after dealing with his own flooding home was seen helping everywhere with his unstoppably cheery attitude. The community response really was a wonderfully positive thing to see, and it continued over the coming weeks with the organising of fund raising ventures of various kinds.

I have never seen such weather in the area, and would be happy to never see it again. I am not the only one to have seen what looked like a tornado attempting to form: I saw it swirling around over Catterick Garrison before the rain arrived, and others saw it in Leyburn. Yet another anomalous piece of this dramatic episode. But this is after all the Yorkshire Dales, and while we do get bad weather from time to time, we do also have a community that is good at taking drama in its stride.