Possession – the Boxing Day Floods and the recommoning of the rivers

13 Jan 2016 james
Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, East Yorkshire
Spurn Head at the mouth of the Humber, East Yorkshire

We wake in a B&B in Kilnsea, the last village before the shingle bar of Spurn Head that juts out from Holderness in East Yorkshire. All night a South Easterly wind of Force 6, gusting to Force 7, has buffeted the farmhouse. From the windows we can see white horses on the River Humber and the raging turbulence of the grey North Sea.

Yesterday we picked up a copy of The Daily Mail from a hotel lobby. It has a classic front page. Over an image of the deluge in Lancashire are the lines:

The Day Britain Went Under

As we explored a couple of Lincolnshire towns we caught glimpses of screens in TV shops, barber salons, pubs and ipads each showing the same repeated footage from the BBC. Reporters standing in front of swirling torrents. Panning shots of submerged roads, streets and fields seen from helicopter-borne or drone-mounted cameras.

River Calder bursts its banks in Mytholmroyd
River Calder bursts its banks in Mytholmroyd

Jane points out that the waters which flood through Hebden Bridge, Leeds, Tadcaster and York, in the rivers Calder, Aire, Wharfe, Foss and Ouse, eventually pour into the Humber near Goole. So their appalling load of untreated sewage, road run-off, petrol and oil from submerged cars, flows into the Humber and thence the North Sea. If the weather was calm perhaps we would we see the pollution plume out beyond Spurn Head?

I came across a passage from Ted Hughes’s poem, ‘Mayday on Holderness’, written in 1960:

‘From Hull’s sunset smudge

Humber is melting eastward, my south skyline:

A loaded single vein, it drains

The effort of the inert North Sheffield’s ores.

Bog pools, dregs of toadstools, tributary

Graves, dunghills, kitchens, hospitals.

The unkillable North Sea swallows it all’

We talk over the Boxing Day Floods of Northern England. Andrew Wells, the retired dairy farmer who, together with Sue, runs the Westmere Farm B & B in Kilnsea, stops awhile with us at the breakfast table. We express our pity for the poor citizens of York and Leeds. He explains that, from his own experience, once the waters have subsided it takes forever for a house to return to normal. There’s the stench of the mud that covers everything and, even assisted by blowers and heaters, a plaster wall dries out at rate of 1 inch per week. After four foot of floodwater it can take a living room a year to dry. And then there’s the prospect of the inundation occurring the following winter.

We find it difficult to remember one year’s set of floods from the next, but it seems clear that this year’s floods are significantly bad. An officer from York City Council explains that 500 properties have been flooded. “It’s far worse than in 2012. Then we didn’t even have 100 properties affected” he’s reported as saying. We have the creeping sensation that at some time in the future, we will come to see these days as a turning point. That when we look back at 2015, we will say: “Before then there were bad floods every year or two, but after that point the floods on that scale came every year. That from then on it was no longer a question of if they’ll come, but rather where they’ll hit.”

We read a passage on the BBC website: ‘Environment Agency’s (Deputy Chief Executive) David Rooke, told the BBC that the UK was moving from a period of “known extremes” of weather to one of “unknown extremes”. We are inhabited by the unnerving feeling that our understanding of climate catastrophe of everything shifting and becoming unknown.

Perhaps now, our society will begin to make a substantial shift, a shift in the ‘structure of feeling’, as Raymond Williams described it in his book The Long Revolution. Faced with coming to live with the expectation of flooding perhaps we will pivot back to feel the primacy of the natural world, and the primacy of the rivers? We notice that just by reading the articles on the floods, we are learning the names of the rivers of this country. I return to the Gough Map, the earliest full map of the British Isles made in the 1370s, in which the rivers dominate the design, just as in an atlas of 2015 the blue ribbons of the motorways stand out.

East Anglia in 1360 - a detail of the Medieval Gough Map
East Anglia in 1370s  – a detail of the Medieval Gough Map. In this earliest map, north is at the top of the page, and London is seen on the left hand side of the image.

The media is clamouring for the Environment Agency to do a better job at defending tax-paying citizens from the raging torrents. Scorn is poured on Philip Dilley, the Chief Executive, for being away on holiday in Barbados. Elsewhere the commentators blame the Cameron government for slashing expenditure in flood defence.

The Pitt Review of 2008, which analysed the 2007 floods, concluded that more funding for flood defences was needed. Under Labour expenditure had grown quickly, but in 2010/11 the Cameron government cut capital spending by 27%. In January 2012, the UK government’s own review showed that flooding was the greatest threat from climate change. However two years later the National Audit Office report concluded that that the risk of flooding had increased due to government funding cuts, by 10% in real terms since 2010. For example, a £4m scheme planned for Kendal was postponed, and the town was submerged on the 5th December 2015 by the waters by Storm Desmond.

Perhaps the ideological train of the Conservatives ‘Austerity’ project is running up against the buffers of the necessity of spending public finances to protect the voting public from surging floodwaters? Perhaps the budget of the entire British state might begin to pivot? What would it be like, if in the late 20th century and early 21st century, we saw the gradual (and bitterly contested) wind-down of the machinery UK’s ‘military security’ systems, and the rapid ramping-up of expenditure on ‘environmental security’ – spending on defence against flooding and measures against drought? What if the UK state (and its successor states) came to focus ever greater attention on adapting to the impacts of climate change? That the portfolio in the cabinet that is Minister for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs became a primary position, lying only just behind Chancellor, and far in advance of the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Defence?

Perhaps too there will come a shift in the public’s perception of rivers? For the majority of the history of human habitation on these islands, rivers and streams have, at least partially, been seen as belonging to us all. They have been The Common Stream, as the title of Rowland Parker’s 1976 book runs. Along most of the brooks and creeks that spill into the Thames Estuary, there are footpaths on one or other (or both) of the banks. Higham Common, near where I live, is an oddly shaped strip of land running across the marshes. It still has common grazing rights. It lies beside a long defunct waterway, Higham Brook, which flowed into the Thames. It seems that the flow of the stream was destroyed through the building of the Thames-Medway Canal in the 1810s, two hundred years ago. The common rights have outlived the brook itself, by two centuries.

We, the general public, have an innate sense of ownership over the banks of rivers and streams when we walk along them, to exercise the dog, to birdwatch, to fish, or to get from A to B. There remains a similar sense of the right to roam across the mountains and moors of Scotland. This rightness lies behind the strength of the drive to create the Thames Path, running along the river’s banks from source to mouth. It was proposed in 1948 and campaigners fought for nearly fifty years before it was finally opened in 1996.

However when it comes to flood defence, when we want to be protected from the torrents, then the waterways become someone else’s responsibility: we demand the authorities, the state, do something. Perhaps it is part of the unconscious contract that we each have with the modern state, which in the same way leads us to expect it to defend us from foreign armies? Martin Kettle writes in The Guardian: ‘There is only one agency that can grip the task decisively, fairly and in the shared interest – and that is the state. Nothing else can do this. No one else has the money or authority. So flood prevention has become a test of the credibility not just of this government but of the British government in general.’

We complain that landowners are not taking due responsibility for the way in which their land is drained, that they are not looking after irrigation. Or as George Monbiot writes, they are placing their desire for profit from of their own land above the safety of those who live downstream.

But what if we were to take a sense of common ownership over the ‘control’ and the ‘management’ of rivers? What if we came to see that as part of the day-to-day activity of the citizen? Came to see the rivers as a central part of our culture, a subject deeply worthy of scrutiny and representation? What about an opera on the theme of the Thames, or a soap-opera centered on a flood defence unit, akin to a team in an A&E ward? (especially with a water management specialist played by a George Clooney look-alike) Can we come to possess the rivers and reservoirs?

The ‘Switched on London’ intiative, created by Platform, Fuel Poverty Action, PCS, nef and others, is campaigning to establish a pan-London energy company that is democratically controlled, publicaly owned, 100% renewable and non-profit. It is a brilliant way to encourage citizens to posses their energy system. Perhaps beyond this, lies a schema to encourage people to possess their river, to possess their flood defences?

The mouth of the River Fleet - now buried - painted by Samuel Scott 1750's
The mouth of the River Fleet – now buried – painted by Samuel Scott 1750’s

In Platform’s 1992 project Still Waters we encouraged Londoners to come to know the buried and open rivers that run through their city. We came to be enthralled – perhaps even possessed – by the rivers Wandle, Fleet, Walbrook and Effra, and the others. It seems a good time now to return to them, to let them once again flow through our imaginations. Maybe we could come to love the River Neckinger that runs through Bermondsey near where we are based? Or come to know and possess the concrete walls at the end of Horselydown Lane that twice in every 24 hours protect Butler’s Wharf and our office from the high tide of the North Sea as it floods up the Thames?

What does it take to be possessed by the rivers and take collective possession of them?

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