Come to York! I spent yesterday walking round this wonderful city, which just now is known for being under water. But almost all of it is as dry as any other city, and it needs visitors.
As a lady who buttonholed me in front of the Minster said, when I admitted that I had come to write a piece about the floods: “The media gave out a really bad image of what York was like.”
This woman has friends in the bed and breakfast trade: “A lot of people I know said they were fully booked over New Year, and now they’re virtually empty. I was here on Boxing Day and the place was heaving with people looking at the River Ouse. Two days later it was virtually empty.”
The turning point came on the evening of Boxing Day, when the decision was taken, because of flooding in the Foss Pumping Station, to open the Foss Barrier, which since the 1980s has prevented the swollen waters of the River Ouse from flowing into the far smaller River Foss. So instead of the Foss being pumped into the Ouse, the Ouse poured into the Foss, and hundreds of houses and businesses along the Foss were flooded for the first time in over 30 years.
The media hastened to York to report on this disaster. David Cameron also hastened there, and has since promised an extra £10 million for flood defences. And ConHome has now been there too, to see how his handling of the crisis is being received.
The Ouse is still in the ground floor of buildings on both its banks, but the Foss Barrier has again been closed, and the waters of that river have fallen back, enabling work to begin on repairing the damage.
Only one man – an elderly but vigorous volunteer at the Red Tower community project in part of the old city walls – voiced severe criticism of the Prime Minister: “David Cameron went to the council depot to speak to the police and the Army, and to quite an affluent part of the city to speak to the mountain rescue people, who quite rightly wanted thanking and wanted to hear from Cameron that they were being appreciated.”
“But he should have taken it one step further, and gone to speak to some of the residents being flooded out of their homes. In the Navigation Road area, it was the elderly and vulnerable people in ground-floor council flats who had been flooded. If it hadn’t been for the armies of volunteers who came from all over the country, they would have received little or no help at all.”
“I won’t decry David Cameron. He’s Prime Minister. It’s a hell of a task. But he’s got to get a personal take on what’s happening and not rely on other people.”
“When Jeremy Corbyn came he went round the flats that had been affected and spoke to the residents, and the residents asked him questions.”
No one else attacked Cameron. Beverley Monfredi, visiting York from Doncaster with her daughter and daughter-in-law, said as she gazed at the muddy waters of the Ouse which covered King’s Staith, where she had sat a few months ago having a drink:
“You can’t stop the rain clouds. That’s Mother Nature. She’s a force to be reckoned with going back to Adam and Eve. If you see the Prime Minister, tell him I don’t blame him.”
Shaun Binns, whose family have run the Lowther pub, beside the Ouse, since 1987, said the water had risen to waist height in his bar. The defences in the doorway at the front of the pub, facing the river, held out, but water poured up out of the drains in the yard at the back, and out of the pub toilets, and also came in from the house next door.
Because flooding is becoming more frequent – since the Second World War, there have been severe floods in York in 1947, 1978, 1982, 2000, 2007 and 2012 – the bar is built of brick, with a marble top, and many of the furnishings are removable.
But Binns reckons it will cost £30,000 to repair the wrecked cellar, in which he lost stock worth £7,000 to £10,000. He worked “for three days solid” trying to save what he could, for he was not insured. For the last three or four years, his Christmas trade has been ruined by flooding
“All the other flood defences they’ve put up to protect the houses,” he said, “I think that’s why we get flooded more often. It’s got to go somewhere, the water.”
“BUSINESS AS USUAL” was the defiant message stuck in the window of Bagnalls Painting and Decorating in Huntington Road, next to the River Foss. Jane Potter, the manager, said the flood water covered all the desks and computers, wiping out almost everything on the ground floor. But she expects to have the heating and electrics working by the end of this week, refurbishment starts next week, “and in two or three weeks we’ll be all singing and dancing”.
Meanwhile her 80 employees carry on working, for they are out doing site work.
Similar tales of resilience and self-reliance could be heard all over the flooded areas. Sodden sofas, mattresses, carpets and household appliances were being thrown into skips. Tradesmen were busy pulling up wrecked floors. Heaters were running at full blast to dry houses out. Cars which had been destroyed were being hauled onto breakdown trucks.
People were too busy, and too realistic, to sit around blaming the Government for their troubles. The Press – York’s newspaper – yesterday published an enjoyable picture (which does not yet appear to be online) of the flood in 1933, when raised wooden “pavements” were put up in the streets of York so people could get about while keeping their feet dry.
Similar tales of resilience and self-reliance were told by many other businesses and householders. Tricia and Chris Goodall, who have two small children and bought their house only five months ago, said as they stood in their flood-wrecked ground floor that their insurance – on which the mortgage company insisted – would pay for everything: “The insurance company has been really good.”
So although York could do with more visitors, its people are not in a mendicant frame of mind. The floods tend to be reported as a tale of weakness and woe, and certainly to have one’s house or business flooded is horrible.
But this far from unprecedented affliction is also a chance, embraced by many, to demonstrate strength and resourcefulness. For it is so clearly best to respond to the floods with cheerful energy and a kind of rueful defiance that this is what most people seem to be doing.