Action plans are being drawn, politicians have come and gone, royalty dipped its toe and went away and the media circus has upped satellite dishes and moved on – but folk on the Somerset Levels are still there scrubbing, mopping-up and dealing with insurance advisers in an area that could temporarily be renamed Dehumidifier Central.
Visit any village where the waters have finally receded in the Levels and you will hear the drone of them emanating from houses.
The Somerset Levels is a place where householders warn visitors: “You’ll have to wipe your feet when you leave, otherwise you’ll make your car all messy.”
Mud, slime and detritus covers floors and walls. In every home residents will show you various tide-marks which tell the story of weeks of flooded grief.
In the case of Thorney – the most inundated village in terms of the number of days flooded – the indoor tide-marks range from inches to waist deep.
It’s no wonder residents are forming their own micro-flood-protection plan. They feel let down by the powers-that-be.
Place names ending in ‘ney’ indicate an Anglo Saxon word for island and the people who built their homes in places like Thorney and Muchelney centuries ago obviously did so for good reason. But in those days the Levels were less of a man-made environment.
Which helps explain why Thorney – the highest and most inland of all the flooded villages – was inundated first and for longest. Basically, rainwater has to go somewhere if it can’t all rush unhindered out to sea – so some low-lying places become giant holding pens which retain floods while the (undredged) rivers do their best to cope.
West Moor near Thorney is one such place. It was still a massive lake when the Western Morning News visited this week – but you could see how it had been much bigger. Indeed, we witnessed first-hand how much bigger when we visited on January 17 – back then we entered the village by boat and were given lunch by Michael and Utta Brown, who’d invited other locals to their flooded home so we could hear their plight.
We ate wearing wellington boots in 12 inches of water. This week we dined dry-shod and Michael told me his thoughts on having been flooded for two months.
“I didn’t get depressed, mainly because there was simply the fight for survival – you had to do various things just to stay alive,” he shrugged.
“There was enough room upstairs for me,” he went on, explaining that Utta had gone on a prearranged trip abroad. “I had no heating or plugs but I had lighting and the immersion heater. To have a hot bath was bliss.”
Next door, Nick Frost showed us around his 17th-century home. “It’s cob, and it doesn’t like the water much,” he said, warning us our boots would get dirty if we entered.
“This place has been here 400 years, but in those days floods would have come in one side and gone out the other. This was different – for 59 days we had water in here. It’s a bloody nightmare.”
Nick pointed: “Come into the kitchen and see just how much of a nightmare it is. You can see the flood left successive tide-marks.”
We were joined by neighbour Roger Baillie-Grohman, who the WMN interviewed back in January from a rowing boat.
He told us then: “There was a gust that blew a lot of water in – that subsided, only to come up again.
“People here were sand-bagging – but you can’t sand-bag against this sort of creeping water torture, only against a flash flood.”
It is to prevent such scenarios happening again that Thorney residents have been working on a local plan which calls for a low bund to be created along a 200-metre section west and south of the village.
“Our plan has three points – the most important is to create our own flood defence on the moor side of Thorney,” explained Michael. “If we can get that, we should be safe.
“The river bank has been saving us since the 1950s, but downstream it has been eroded. The water floods in to the moor there, then backs up to here. West Moor is one of the storage areas for water. We know that and are happy with it – but the trouble is they keep it there so long that we flood.
“We want the authorities to be more thoughtful about the pumping, which is a blunt instrument at the moment,” said Michael, who is an expert on the Levels and its rhynes after years involved with the local elver fishing industry. “The mantra seems to be: no pumping this side of Langport as long as spillways are flowing into Aller and Curry Moors. While it may be sensible for them, here we’re quietly flooding to the tune of 18 houses within a few 100 yards.”
Roger added that a local bund, costing less than £100,000, would protect the road as well as homes. “This is a vital link which allows 30 houses and businesses to operate. But it was four feet deep here and a firm of metal fabricators lost a big contract – they were dry, but no transport could get through.”
On the day we visited Thorney, locals had met with officials to discuss their flood defence scheme.
“Our meeting was surprisingly positive,” said Roger.
“It was,” agreed Nick Frost. “But whether or not they will maintain that momentum when they start coming across red tape, we will have to wait and see…”
Famous pottery that was ‘marooned at Christmas’ is finally set to reopen
Half a mile down the road from a now damp and muddy Thorney, the Western Morning News came across an equally dank area of Muchelney where staff at John Leach’s world-famous pottery were preparing to reopen the flood-hit business tomorrow.
Thanks to one of the worst inundations ever seen in the region, its doors have been closed since Christmas.
John, grandson of Cornwall’s famous Bernard Leach, was busy talking to loss adjusters when we called, but potter Nick Rees told us the sorry tale…
“Muchelney was marooned at Christmas,” he said. “Then the waters came in here on January 7 – after that the pottery was flooded four times, with the water coming and going.”
As Nick spoke, he and other staff scrubbed away at numerous pots in the detritus-filled yard.
“We’re deep cleaning and sanitising everything – every bit of pottery has to be washed and dried,” said Nick. “A lot of the pots we’d made already were up on shelves, so they survived.
“But the massive three-chamber wood-fired kiln, which holds about 2,000 pots, acted like a sort of wick. The water has risen up to a metre into the brickwork,” said Nick. “All that now has to be dried off because it’s so wet.
“We’ve bricked up a dehumidifier into each chamber – and now we reckon it’s going to be another six weeks before we can fire up the kiln.
“That will mean it’s over four months of us not really operating the pottery.
“It’s disastrous and it’s tough psychologically too – thinking the water is going, then it comes back. That’s been very tough, particularly for John and Lizzie Leach.
“They just had to move out. It was impossible to cope with being in the water this time. We had eight inches of water through their house and the pottery.
“But the good news is we are opening on Friday – we have a stock of pots and the shop will be open.
“There are ways through now – we would love people to come and visit us.”