The drowned world

As the planet warms, extreme weather is becoming a part of our daily life, but Britain is still ill-equipped to cope with the floods.

Tewkesbury is submerged in receding flood waters of the River Severn and Avon
The town of Tewkesbury is submerged in receding flood waters of the River Severn and Avon. Photograph: Getty Images

I arrived in Tewkesbury on the November day the flood waters began to subside. The Swilgate, the tributary of the Avon that runs round the southern edge of the town, had overflown its banks fours days earlier. The dark brown water had spilled across a car park and playground and was lapping at the edge of the site of the new hospital, which is being built beside the old one. The line of trees rising through the middle of the placid expanse of water was the only indication of the Swilgate’s normal course; even the local man standing on the footbridge that led across the river to his home on the far bank had trouble working out where it normally ran.

Another footbridge further down Howells Road was submerged, and there were sandbags piled against the gate of a builder’s merchant. A man sweeping the tidemark of dirt off his drive showed me pictures he had taken two days earlier when the flood was at its height: the water had reached halfway up the drive, covering the wheel arches of his car, but stopping short of the motorbike and the dinghy parked beneath the windows of the house.

He had not been living in Tewkesbury in 2007, when the house was under 18 inches of water and the town acquired its reputation as the capital of a newly flood-prone country. According to the Environment Agency, 414 millimetres (16 inches) of rain fell across England and Wales between May and July 2007, making it the wettest period since records began in 1766. When between 80 and 90 millimetres of rain – more than two months’ worth – fell on Tewkesbury on Friday 20 July, the saturated ground could not absorb it. Water flooded the streets and encircled the town’s celebrated abbey, the second-largest parish church in the country, which stands at the southern end of town.

“We had people who were trapped in their cars, and slept overnight here,” the Reverend Canon Paul Williams, vicar of Tewkesbury Abbey, told me. “We had 200 in the abbey, 200 in the hall and people dotted round about. It’s something quite deep in Tewkesbury, the idea of the abbey as a refuge: people ran for shelter, and it became an ark.” An aerial photograph of the abbey surrounded by dark brown water was transmitted round the world. Paul Williams says it became as widely recognised as the image of the dome of St Paul’s rising through the smoke of the Blitz.

A local councillor called John Badham was one of the people whose house had flooded. He lives in Abbey Terrace, which lies beneath the abbey, close to the Mill Avon, the canal built in the 12th century to service the mills in the southern part of the town. Yet it was not just the Mill Avon that caused the flood; the Swilgate had overflowed as well, and water swept through his house from both sides. “It was very frightening,” he said. “It brought down all the fences in the garden and it was so powerful that you couldn’t stand up in it.”

The flooding wasn’t over. In the summer months, the gauge on the Mythe Bridge on the River Severn usually records levels of 0.5 metres, but on Sunday 22 July 2007 it reached 5.43 metres, beating the record of 5.3 metres set in March 1947. Both the Severn and the Avon burst their banks.

“When I woke up, it was eerily quiet, and I walked outside and saw the water coming, and the Fire Brigade all over the place,” Paul Williams said. He maintains that the abbey is usually immune because the “monks knew where to build” – the story of the vicar who paddled a boat down the aisle in 1760 is a folk memory of the only time in its 900-year history when it was flooded – but at 3pm on Sunday it flooded again. Paul Williams had to go down to the pub and ask people to help him move everything out of the reach of the water. He held evensong at the gates of the abbey and people came out of the nearby houses to listen. “It was a powerful cultic event. You could see the power of ritual holding a community together,” he told me.

Tewkesbury was cut off for four days. Three people drowned, more than 5,000 homes and businesses were flooded, and the Mythe water treatment works shut down for two weeks, depriving 140,000 people of running water. The pattern was repeated across the country, in Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire. In total, 13 people drowned, more than 55,000 homes and businesses were flooded, and the emergency services conducted more “search-and-rescue missions” than at any time since the Second World War.

The floods of 2007 are often described as the worst civil emergency in British history, and the Environment Agency estimates that they caused £3.2bn of damage. The true figure is probably higher, because places such as Tewkesbury suffered a “double whammy”, according to Paul Williams: its shops, hotels and restaurants depend on the tourist trade and many people cancelled holidays in the aftermath of the floods. He says it took Tewkesbury three or four years to recover, and many people in the town are still feeling the effects.

They are not alone: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says 5.2 million households in England are at risk of flooding, and the present agreement between the insurance industry and the government that guarantees affordable insurance to flood-prone homes is due to expire in June. On 26 November, as flood waters rose again, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) said that negotiations over a new deal had broken down. It issued a statement saying it wanted taxpayers to provide a temporary overdraft for a non-profit fund that would be used to pay claims in the early years of the scheme before it had a chance to build up reserves, but the government had refused. Defra says that negotiations are ongoing, but the ABI says they have reached an “impasse” that will leave 200,000 high-risk households struggling to find affordable insurance.

There are other points of contention: the last agreement proceeded on the basis that the insurance industry would continue to provide affordable insurance to flood-prone homes on the assumption that the government would continue to invest in flood defences, and the ABI maintains that “investment in flood defences needs to be at a level to match the flood risk”. It is estimated that every £1 spent on flood defences saves £8 on the cost of clean-up and repairs. And yet, no matter how much we invest, flood damage is sure to increase as climate change begins to take effect. A report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2004 predicted that the cost could increase from the current yearly average of £2.2bn to as much as £29bn by 2080.

Natural variations in the weather make it difficult to establish the cause of any one event, but the pattern of increasingly extreme weather we are beginning to witness is probably the result of a warming planet. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred in the past 11 years, and in September it was discovered that the Arctic sea ice had shrunk to its smallest recorded extent. A heatwave in late June and early July in North America broke many records, and sea-level rise has doubled the risk of flooding in many parts of the US and Canada. There were harsh droughts in China, Brazil and Russia between January and September and severe flooding in West Africa and Pakistan. Hurricane Sandy caused scores of deaths when it struck New York and the east coast of the United States in October, just days before the US presidential election. In early December, the “super-typhoon” Bopha killed more than 1,000 people in the Philippines.

In the UK, the March heatwave that contri - buted to hosepipe bans in the south-east of England seems more improbable now than it did at the time, because the following month turned out to be the wettest April in 100 years. There was more heavy rain and flooding throughout summer and early autumn. In late September, 570 houses and businesses flooded and the River Ouse in York reached its second-highest recorded level. In October, the Devon fishing village of Clovelly was hit by a flash flood that sent water cascading down the main street. Yet the worst flooding was triggered by the heavy rainfall that began on 21 November, with Wales and the south-west of England hardest hit. A woman drowned and 500 households were evacuated in the small Welsh town of St Asaph after the River Elwy burst its banks. The government has been criticised for cutting 294 flood defence schemes that had been approved in 2010, and on the day I arrived in Tewkesbury it announced that it would spend another £120m on flood defences.

When I left the abbey I walked down Mill Street to Tewkes - bury Mill, which stands on the banks of the Mill Avon. The mill had been cut off in 2007 – Paul Williams said the people set up a bosun’s chair to ferry supplies back and forth – and now it was cut off again: water covered the base of the steps leading up to the entrance and spilled through the open doors of the cellar, though it wasn’t until I looked at Google Street View and saw photographs taken on a summer afternoon that I realised how high the Mill Avon had risen, and how much it had altered the layout of the streets. The water that surrounded the mill and lapped at the picturesque half-timbered houses on St Mary’s Road concealed a park and a road, as well as the reed-fringed banks of the Mill Avon and the flat green fields beyond.

As I made my way along the edge of the town, following the course of the Avon as closely as I could, I kept passing steps that sank into the water, and signs directing me towards submerged footpaths. I passed Ye Olde Black Bear, “Glosters oldest inn”, which stands beside the bridge across the Avon Navigation, and turned into a cul-de-sac of terraced houses called King John’s Court. A sign restricting parking to permit holders protruded through the surface of the water at the end of the street. The way the railings at the side of the car park diminished in height as they advanced into the water confirmed that the land fell away in front of me, though it must have risen again in front of the marooned lock-keeper’s cottage, for the bench positioned for looking out across the floodplain was only half submerged.

Trees and telegraph poles marked the borders of the drowned fields, which stretched west towards the confluence of the Severn and the Avon. The still surface of the water mirrored the trees and clouds, and the silhouette of the water treatment works shut during the floods of 2007 was the only sign of human occupation. It reminded me of the descriptions of “the Lake”, the “inland sea of sweet water” that covers central England in Richard Jefferies’s prescient novel After London (1885).

Depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds became commonplace in 20th-century fiction, but Jefferies was a Victorian naturalist. “At the eastern extremity the Lake narrows, and finally is lost in the vast marshes which cover the site of the ancient London,” writes the novel’s unnamed narrator. He does not know exactly how the Lake formed, but speculates that “changes of the sea level” threw up great sandbanks at the mouth of the Thames, while a “broad barrier of beach” obstructed the mouth of the Severn: once the rivers’ eastward and westward flow was blocked, they “turned backwards . . . and began to cover hitherto dry land”. London becomes a foul, decaying swamp, but “the Lake” in the novel is as “clear as crystal, exquisite to drink, abounding with fishes of every kind, and adorned with green islands”.

J G Ballard’s early novel The Drowned World (1962) offers a less idyllic vision of a flooded planet. The rise in global temperatures that precipitates Ballard’s version of the catastrophe is caused not by human activity, but by “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms” that deplete “the earth’s barrier against the full impact of solar radiation”. As once-temperate areas become tropical and tropical areas become uninhabitable, the human population is reduced to no more than five million, who live on the polar ice caps. As the novel begins, “the South” has been abandoned, and Ballard’s protagonist, Kerans, is one of the few people to have remained in London. The city that once lay on the chilly fringes of northern Europe has become a tropical lagoon; giant ferns sprout through the windows of the abandoned buildings and the air is thronged with giant bats and mosquitoes. Reptiles are the dominant species.

Yet it is not only the external landscape that is changing. As the natural world cycles back through its evolutionary history, its human inhabitants are also drawn into what one calls the “archaeopsychic past”. Far from fearing the disintegration of the life they knew, they welcome the re-emergence of a primeval world with which they are subconsciously familiar: “How often recently most of us have had the feeling of déjà vu, of having seen all this before, in fact of remembering these swamps and lagoons all too well,” one character says. “Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory.”

I was contemplating Tewkesbury’s own drowned world when I became aware of a man watching me from the window of the nearest house. It transpired that he was more concerned by burglars than flooding – his neighbour’s car had been stolen the previous day and he was wary of a return visit. Once reassured that I was not a threat, he told me of his disdain for people who fail to appreciate that Tewkesbury always floods, and argued that his house was perfectly safe despite being located on a promontory enclosed on three sides by water. “These houses were built with flooding in mind,” he said, indicating the slab that raised the front door half a metre above the ground.

He conceded that the November flood water had been higher than usual and that it had taken longer for it to subside, but he insisted it had not been a threat: the Severn had peaked at 4.8 metres – only 70 centimetres lower than 2007, but an enormous volume of water was required to effect any rise in the level across the thousands of acres of floodplain. A family had to be rescued in Sandhurst, Gloucestershire, ten miles downstream; flood defences failed in Kempsey, Worcestershire, 12 miles upstream; and even the White Bear, which stands on the main road a hundred metres north of the Black Bear, had flooded; but King John’s Court had remained untouched. “Personally, I don’t see a problem for us here,” the man said. “There is a problem in other places, but that’s the subtle difference with Tewkesbury –we don’t try and stop the water, we just let it flow through.”

It was another version of the two contrasting views that I heard repeated several times while I was in the town. Paul Williams told me that he takes communion to housebound old ladies who used to regard flooding as so routine that they would move upstairs and let the water flush out the downstairs rooms, yet other people were not so sanguine. Councillor Badham, who moved upstairs for six months after the floods of 2007, said that 10 per cent of Tewkesbury’s residents live in fear of being flooded. “It would be nice to have security, not just for me, because I’m relatively well off, but for other people in the town,” he said. “This is a workingclass town. There are a lot of people in Tewkesbury who don’t earn very much, who face enormously increased bills on their insurance – if they can get it at all – and face the anxiety every time the water comes up of being flooded. In some parts of the town, there are a lot of very, very anxious people; often quite poor people, and elderly people: vulnerable people.”

Yet both groups had one thing in common – whether they fear the flood or view it with equanimity, the residents of Tewkesbury are used to living with it. They have made the kind of accommodation that more of us will be required to make if water levels continue to rise as predicted and flooding becomes more frequent. Paul Williams believes that we will have to accept we are not “above nature”, though J G Ballard raises the more disturbing possibility that we already have done so. Perhaps we do not fear the flood, and will do nothing to avert it, because we recognise it as part of the cycle of life on a planet that sustains us, and yet remains indifferent to our existence.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest book is “The City of Abraham” (Picador, £18.99)