The worst of times…but the best of times

Chinook Helicopter Toddbrook Reservoir

It was late evening and we were sat at home listening to the rain hammer down outside.  It had certainly rained a lot and yet we were sheltered and unaffected in our little country house.  Suddenly, a knock on the door startled us and, when we opened the door, we were startled even more.  A close neighbour was stood on our driveway with her feet underwater.  We looked outside and all our garden resembled a shallow pond and a quick check of the back garden revealed the same.  Water was pouring under our rear fence at the back and into the garden from an overflowing drain at the front.  It wasn’t deep enough for the house to be flooding, but it was the first time we’d seen this happen in a decade and a half in Castleton.

However, the neighbour wasn’t actually here to tell us we had a flooded garden, it was to enlist our help to assist with others around the village that were fairing far worse.  Castleton has two significant waterways that flow through the village (and join up to continue their journey downstream) and it looked like they weren’t going to hold up to the torrent.  

We donned waterproofs, wellies and head torches and headed into the night.  It soon became apparent where the problems were.  The retaining walls that hold back water flowing down the watercourses were getting overwhelmed in a few places and a number of properties were at risk, the low banks were threatening to overflow in other places and, down near the main village roundabout, the drains simply couldn’t cope with the deluge.  

We spent until the early hours helping to shore up defences, move water with buckets and, thanks to an excellent response from the local council, shift sandbags to protect doorways and airbricks.  It was a wild night. When we finally went to bed we hoped the worst was over, but I can’t deny it was a fitful night wondering what the morning would bring.

We didn’t realise it at the time, but over the hill in Whaley Bridge a much greater disaster loomed.  The dam wall of the reservoir which sits directly above the small valley town was at risk of collapse. The dam, which is a concrete coated earth and mud construction, was significantly threatened after part of the top concrete layer was washed away.  Ultimately, the emergency services had no choice but to evacuate much of the town and many people spent the best part of the week in temporary accommodation until the dam could be reinforced and the water level lowered.  It was a huge operation involving Royal Air Force helicopters and a multi agency emergency services response.  What a miracle the dam didn’t fail.

It is important to say that our little slice of Derbyshire was only a small part of the country affected and many suffered far more than us. Parts of Yorkshire, others parts of Derbyshire, areas of Cheshire and many other places around the UK too numerous to mention – my thoughts go out to anyone and everyone affected. 

But, the main reason for writing this blog post isn’t to dwell on a very challenging time, it is to consider the positives that can be drawn at such times of adversity.  I can only comment on the local area I’m familiar with, but what a community I live in.  

When, on that challenging night, we dashed out into the centre of Castleton, we were met with a small army of villagers working tirelessly to help each other.  We moved around to offer assistance wherever we could, and in doing so met people we’ve never talked to before and got to know others we didn’t previously know well far better.  People talk about that war mentality and that was exactly it – everyone united in the face of looming disaster. This also spread to the council workers that made several journeys to deliver sand bags and helped wherever they could.  

Things gradually calmed down and we felt confident enough to go to bed, but the next morning felt like I imagine it felt for people venturing out after a bombing raid (although I am at pains to emphasise this was nowhere as serious as that would ever be).  I simply mean that people were walking the muddy streets, checking the river water levels, stepping around sand bags and nervously laughing about the night before.  It was the calm after the storm and I felt the same sense of community spirit and friendship.

Over the hill in Whaley Bridge things were still very very uncertain.  People were living in temporary accommodation, the town centre was closed and many access roads were also road blocked with police officers in place.  The battle to lower the water levels and shore up the dam wall would continue for days to come, and it was not nearly a week later that people were finally allowed to return to their homes.  

I followed the situation closely in that intervening time and had many conversations with locals and kept up to date through the various Facebook channels and the local and national news.  It was a serious situation with risk to life, but for many the problems they faced were also financial and practical. The many small businesses in the town centre starved of income, people unable to return to their homes to find pets or collect medications and emergency services personnel putting in endless hours to keep others safe and resolve the problems as quickly as possible.  

Again, though, I felt an overwhelming pride at the community response and the caring nature of people. People offered temporary accommodation to complete strangers (although sometimes these offers couldn’t be taken up due to child protection considerations), shops offered food or services, local hotels offered rooms, taxis transported people for free, locals assisted the emergency services in any ways they safely could and generally people found so many ingenious ways to show they cared.  

People talk about getting back to normal and yet I imagine things are still far from normal for many Whaley Bridge residents.  But, even now the push to support local businesses continues.  Commemorative stickers are being sold to raise funds, locals are asking people from far and wide to shop in the town centre shops and I’m sure new ingenious ways will keep emerging to get the town back on its feet.  

Summer 2019 has, (to some extent at least), been the worst of times – but sometimes the worst of times reveals the best in people too.  Our thoughts go out to anyone in the UK affected by flooding this year.  

Posted by Paul