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In the shadow of the Whaley Bridge dam

This was first published in The Spectator on 6th August 2019. I didn't want to lose track of it.

It was two days after the storm, or ‘extreme weather event’ as we call them now. I was trying to get into the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge, which sits below a reservoir with a crack in its dam wall. The reservoir had topped over during the night and the build-up of pressure meant the wall was beginning to crumble.

Fifteen hundred people in the town have been evacuated since the storm, with hardly even the time to pick up their keys. They have sought shelter in school halls and with friends and acquaintances in nearby towns and villages.

The world’s media quickly descended on the town and before journalists could even scribble down ‘closely-knit communities', the newly-installed Prime Minister Boris Johnson was parachuted in. He had a ride over the dam in a helicopter, and visited bemused Whaley Bridge refugees in a Chapel school gymnasium, urging them to carry on demonstrating the good old Brexit spirit that had won us two world wars. Prime Minister Johnson was in his element, exuding and demanding positivity, as though that was all that was required to shore up the wall.

The town of Whaley Bridge has been completely sealed off by road, and all the bridges along the River Goyt have been closed too. The water was running into the river as engineers raced to drain the reservoir before the next storms arrives – sorry, that should be ‘extreme weather event’.

There was no one there to stop me getting into the town. The main A6, an arterial road, was deserted. The only noise was the distant chug of the chinook helicopter bringing in stone to fill the hole in the dam wall.

It was the kind of quiet which disorientates. Curiosity made me wander through ginnels between the cottages. One cottage looked normal; a neatly painted black door with polished brass fittings, but with three tidy little sandbags at the bottom of the door. Another cottage lay behind a white picket fence with a window surrounded by hanging baskets full of summer bloom. There was an eeriness about it, but I guess that's what happens when the existential threat of the climate emergency (as the fashionable commentators are calling it) is suddenly writ large in the form of 300m gallons of water about to fall on your head.

A man appeared down the end of the street. It was like a scene in one of those old 1950s disaster movies, where a neutron bomb had dropped and killed everyone but left the property intact, and you thought there was only one survivor, but then another person appears.

His name was John. He was small, a wiry build, 70s, wore shorts and carried a rucksack, a look of the perpetual boy scout about him. He was heading for the canal.

'Have you come from New Mills? [The next town along the canal]' he asked. 'Is it open?'

'The bridges are both closed to traffic,' I said, 'But the shops are open.'

'Good,' said John, relieved. 'I’ve run out of red wine.'

John had lived in the town all his life and worked at the local factory. I got the whole story of the reservoir from him. He told me it had been empty in the past for seven years because they’d had trouble with the dam wall, but they thought they had fixed it. They don’t tell you that on the television news.

John had made up his mind that there was no real danger. He thinks when they built the overflow in the dam wall about 25 years ago, the water got under the concrete shell, causing it to crack, but the clay core beneath is sound. As the helicopter came back with another load of stone to fill in the hole I hoped he was right.

John sat on a bench and breathed deeply. He thought the town was lovely like this. It was like 'a throwback to the 1900s' he said, 'It’s so quiet. You can just walk out into the street without worrying about a car hitting you, it’s lovely.' John went off for his red wine, but I couldn’t resist one more look around the deserted town.

Afterwards, I was walking out along the canal towpath and I met a couple walking. They looked old, tired and ill. They lived in Whaley Bridge, but had been locked out of their home the previous day. Their medication was still in the house. He was a diabetic who needed his insulin, she had come out of hospital two weeks ago after an operation to release fluid on her brain. Her medication was still in the house too.

'We had a phone call leaving a message saying it is a red alert, get out as soon as possible.' he said. 'We are just desperately trying to get back in again, while it’s quiet.' she said. Did I think they would let them in?

'I don’t know,' I said. 'They should. There’s no one there to stop you. No one at all.'

They went on, not as reassured as I’d wanted them to be. I’ve often covered accidents and disasters and there is always a crowd of people there, trying to get a better view, straining to get closer no matter how stupid or dangerous it might be, having to be held back by a cordon of police or stewards. This was the first time I had seen no one at all.

Back in New Mills, the next town downstream, I called in the local bread shop. The woman behind the counter was apologetic, looking at the empty shelves in the window.

'They’ve been panic buying,' she said. 'Because of this... dam!'

She rolled her eyes then looked exasperated. That was probably as close as she had come to swearing in 40 years. 'I wouldn’t mind but coming in this morning, all the roads were shut, so we were half an hour late. There was already a queue outside the shop. Then someone said: "Oh, a late start then is it?"’

She tucked in her chin and stuck out her chest, she was full of indignation. Just down the road the river ran high under the bridge, kept in an artificial spate as it drained the reservoir. Meanwhile, 200 miles away in the south of England chalk streams are running dry through lack of water, and 5000 miles away in Siberia, an area the size of Belgium burns. You could have talked about the existential threat of climate change to the woman in the bread shop if you want, but I don’t think she would have had much truck with it.

Andrew Griffiths


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