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Whaley Bridge: An Ordinary British Town at the Centre of the Climate Crisis

Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire was evacuated last month when a dam wall collapsed following extreme rainfall. As the climate crisis worsens, disasters like this may become the new norm.

by Kamila Rymajdo; photos by Tibyan Sanoh
20 September 2019, 8:15am

Whaley Bridge resident Lorrie Marchington and sandbag repairs to the Toddbrook Reservoir dam wall. 

It was a hot July day and Andrew Diaczuk decided to take a swim in Toddbrook Reservoir. As he floated on his back in the 36-acre expanse of water, families gathered to picnic on the grassy banks and sailing boats zipped way out in the depths. Diaczuk’s decision to return to his hometown of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire from nearby Manchester was showing its advantages. Not only could he enjoy the water on summer days, but he co-owned a nearby field to keep bees and free-roaming chickens.

Two weeks later, everything was different. On the first day of August, following an unprecedented amount of rainfall, a dam wall at Toddbrook Reservoir collapsed. Fifteen hundred Whaley Bridge residents were evacuated, as the authorities informed them that their homes were at risk of being washed away if the rest of the dam failed. The previously sleepy town of 6,500 inhabitants became headline news, with Derbyshire Police declaring it an “unprecedented crisis”. Diaczuk’s phone filled with concerned messages asking if he was okay.

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Toddbrook Reservoir in Derbyshire, one month on from the collapse of a dam wall.

During the following six days, a media circus ensued. An RAF Chinook helicopter dropped one-tonne sandbags onto the collapsed section of the dam wall. Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn came to visit, and locals posted developments on social media, comparing what was happening to a war zone.

“I ended up waking up one morning in complete denial, and I started to doubt myself that I had home insurance,” recalls medical clerk Tilly Owen, who moved to Whaley Bridge just eight months before the dam collapse, and was forced to flee her home. “When your levels of stress are that high, you just crumble.”

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Tilly Owen was one of 1,500 Whaley Bridge residents evacuated from their homes.

Residents were able to return to their properties nearly a week later. For Edward Dalton, who spent 20 years working as a retained firefighter, going home was even more unsettling than spending sleepless nights on call. “It’s really weird to go back to something that you thought was not going to be there,” he says. “Some people might say, ‘What do you mean? The dam’s not gone,’ but it’s immaterial that it didn’t actually burst. It’s a bit like a ticking time bomb, you can’t see it but it’s in the ground and you know at some point it might go.”

The Toddbrook Reservoir dam did not collapse fully, thanks to work from engineers to keep the water levels low and avoid further flooding, as well as emergency repairs to the broken section, but the dam is far from safe. Reports say that it could take up to three years to repair and is expected to cost millions.

According to climate change scientists such as James Dyke, as Britain’s weather becomes more extreme, incidents like the Toddbrook Reservoir dam collapse will increase in frequency. With so much of Britain’s infrastructure built hundreds of years ago and the government underprepared for weather changes, according to the Committee on Climate Change 2019 report, how will our towns and cities cope when what happened at Whaley Bridge becomes the new norm?

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Andrew Diaczuk at the reservoir.

Many experts are calling on the government to strengthen flood barriers and prevent the building of new houses on areas of land that are at risk of flooding. “The awful truth is that many ‘normal people’ simply can’t afford to flood proof their homes or mitigate the more extreme effects of climate change,” says Charlotte Wrigley, climate change researcher at Queen Mary University of London. “This demands a much broader and deeper shift in economic ideology and wealth distribution.”

Just as important as these practical steps, however, is awareness of how serious climate change is. “An important thing we can all do is become more knowledgeable about both the causes and effects of global warming – how extreme weather does not happen in a vacuum but rather, is a product of human activity and will continue to get worse if we don’t act,” says Wrigley.

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Lorrie Marchington runs local environmental group Acclimatise Whaley.

In Whaley Bridge, retired Manchester University researcher Lorrie Marchington is in agreement but worries that many people do not realise how human activity contributes to climate change. “I’m not sure everybody makes the link,” she says. “When I was talking to the journalists and I said the rain was extraordinary and people have to link this to climate change, most of them cut it out. For a lot of people, it isn’t on their radar.”

Diaczuk holds a similar view. “When it was going on, I went on Twitter and there was a really big contingent of people who were set on portraying it as unrelated to climate change,” he says. “It’s almost like a strange denial. Maybe it feeds into something of the stoicism of the North, and not wanting to become anything more lofty or ephemeral than being about the practicalities of stone and mud, but I think the logic’s all wrong.”

In an attempt to change this attitude, Marchington runs Acclimatise Whaley, an activist group that increases access to locally sourced food and renewable energy, as well as recycling facilities. In her shed, she shows me meticulously labelled cardboard boxes containing crisp packets, sweet wrappers and even toothbrushes, collected from TerraCycle bins distributed around the area.

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Pipes used to pump the excess water from the dam.

Unusually high rainfall was a factor in the collapse of the Toddbrook Reservoir dam wall, but it’s not the only one. Salford University’s floodplain specialist George Heritage says that floods have always occurred in Britain and will “continue to do so, regardless of climate.”

He continues: “Extreme rainfall did not cause the partial collapse at Whaley Bridge. It was a combination of events which created the situation, most notably a failure to conduct adequate inspections of the structure which allowed it to progressively deteriorate.”

A solution, Heritage says, is to review the systems currently in place to prevent flooding. A new study published in the Science Advances journal states that coastal areas in the UK and northern Europe will see an increase in storm surges and heavy rainfall in the coming decades, thanks to rising global temperatures. However Britain’s defences are far from adequate.

“Building flood banks that protect agricultural land on floodplains only makes things worse for those living downstream,” Heritage says. “We must balance the value from farming these areas as we currently do with the costs to downstream communities.”

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Local resident Craig Podmore at The White Hart pub in Whaley Bridge.

Leaving Marchington’s home, I head to The White Hart pub in Whaley Bridge’s market square to meet Craig Podmore. He wrote a poem about what happened during the partial dam collapse, joining other Whaley Bridge residents who turned to artistic expression to make sense of what happened. On the bar is a collection box for emergency services, adorned with a sticker that reads: ‘Keep your Chinook up’. As we sit down for a chat, a couple on the next table ask for directions to the dam. I ask Podmore how he feels about the disaster tourism that has ensued in a town that many locals describe as a place where everyone knows each other.

“When we talk about the tourists here in the pub it’s just like, ‘What’s the point?’ I know they say it’s the Chernobyl effect but for me, it’s not the same,” he says. “Personally, I don’t see the attraction of coming to see the dam now.”

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For Owen, there seemed no point to visit the dam after the evacuation, until we had arranged to meet and I suggested we go there. “If you’re from Paris, do you go to visit the Eiffel Tower every day?” she asks. When we approach the dam, she keeps her distance as I take a closer look. It’s an arresting sight: the blue pumps hanging over the rubble on the dark grey concrete look like giant snakes that have been run over, while the sandbags dropped by the Chinook remind me of an infected wound, the fast-acting cement holding them together a sickly shade of yellow.

As we walk towards the reservoir’s incline, Owen describes what it was like to return home after being evacuated. “Seeing things piled up on the sofas and the rug rolled up, I just cried,” she says. “It was the shock of, ‘Yes, that’s really just happened.’ But it was also the relief of, ‘We’re allowed back in, we’re safe and nobody was hurt.’”

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Diaczuk had a similar experience. “There’s probably a long German compound word that describes this exact feeling,” he says. “Your little town is the centre of this global news story, you wake up and it’s like Apocalypse Now.”

When we reach the top of the reservoir, it’s hard to imagine how Toddbrook looked as Diaczuk described it on the sunny July day he went swimming. With nearly all the water pumped out, it evokes the terrain of another planet. Harsh and uninhabitable.

@kamilarymajdo / @viewtibyan

Tagged:
environment
climate change
flooding
Derbyshire
Extreme weather
rainfall
storms
Whaley Bridge
Toddbrook Reservoir