If you live in Ironbridge, there are two ways of judging the height of the river Severn. There’s looking: is it up to the garden gate, has it hit the road yet? And there’s the height in metres, monitored by the Environment Agency from the gauge upstream by the football fields and the former power station at the village of Buildwas. When the river is high, everyone talks in numbers. Is it over six? Will it hit seven? Early in the morning on Tuesday 25 February, the river hit 6.52m.
“The residents know better than us what the river levels mean for their individual properties,” says station manager Darren Smith of Shropshire Fire and Rescue. In the days before the river peaked, Smith and his colleagues had been wading out, dressed in protective gear and with buoyancy aids, to local people who had already been affected by Storm Dennis to warn them another flood was on the way.
Debbie Kane, who lives just downriver from the bridge that gives the area its name, had just finished cleaning up from the first flood and was throwing out her last bucket of dirty water. Her partner Rob and her daughter Amelia had gone snowboarding at a local dry ski slope. “They came round and said it was going to happen again,” she says. “That was the first time I cried.”
Ironbridge doesn’t often make the national news. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution; it attracts day-trippers and school parties. But when the tourists go home, it reverts to being a close community in a pretty part of Shropshire. When it is on television it’s usually because a cosy social history programme, such as the BBC’s Victorian Pharmacy, has been filmed in a local museum.
But for almost two weeks now Ironbridge has lived with severe flood warnings. Flooding is part of life here, but last week’s high water levels led to residents being evacuated and national attention when the weight of the river moved the flood barriers and began to breach the defences. “We heard a huge bang, like a clap of thunder,” says Darren Smith. He’s sitting in the function room of the Tontine Hotel, currently being used as a base for the services involved in flood relief. The Christmas decorations are still up.
“From here, we could see out the window and the whole barrier had been pushed out of shape.” He’s working on risk assessments, planning for any eventuality up to 10 March. Now the adrenaline of the immediate response has died down, he and his colleagues are feeling the effects of 13 days of uninterrupted work.
The other locals are also tired. Tired of closed roads and closed schools, tired of lost business, tired of the media using their lives as a brief opportunity for sensation. But mostly they are tired of their homes and possessions being underwater or covered in silt.
“You can go in and pack a bag, but please don’t start to clear up,” Alan Boyd, Telford and Wrekin Council’s resilience manager, tells residents meeting at the Valley Hotel, where those who have evacuated their homes are staying. “There will be skips next week. This isn’t a slow response from us, it’s just pragmatic”. It’s Thursday evening and the river is dropping slightly. “We’re hearing 5.5, 5.6 for tomorrow,” says his colleague Lucinda Lycett. “But we are due more rain and it’s hard to tell because we’re trying to judge levels based on rain that hasn’t fallen yet.” The hotel staff pass out free glasses of wine. Most people just want the opportunity to pick up a toothbrush and to see if their pumps are still working.
Roy Guest, who was evacuated from his home behind the flood barriers, currently has his eye on another set of numbers: the score for Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Europa League match against Espanyol. He hasn’t much to say to anyone now, he says, except that he’s unimpressed by the visit to the area from Environment Secretary George Eustice. “We heard Boris sent his number one,” he says. “But we didn’t see him. If he wants to know what people think, he should’ve come here himself.”
Rob Price is checking Hive, knowing that if the remote-control heating still works then the electricity in his home is on and the pumps are still going. He, Debbie and Emilia moved to the area from Dudley. Their 500-year-old house was derelict when they bought it, and it took eight years to restore, flood-proof stone floors and raised kitchen cabinets were part of the renovation. They and their neighbours (“we’ve got some hefty blokes down by us”) worked together to move furniture and white goods as the river rose. The family spent a week living in the upstairs of their house. To get out they had to climb through a skylight, down a ladder and walk along the top of a wall to their neighbour’s garden.
“The back of the house was only two foot under,” says Debbie, describing this obstacle course as though it was the easiest thing in the world. “And the fire brigade took the neighbours’ fence out for us.” On Tuesday, she and Amelia decided to evacuate. By Wednesday, Rob joined them. Outside, the water had reached their windows. Inside, seven pumps have kept it down to just over half a metre. They’ve still lost their cooker, sofa, kitchen cabinets and many of Debbie’s books. “I’m most miffed about the books,” she says.
The drains pushed water into the centre of Jenny Gunning’s gallery two days before she was due to give birth. “We’d moved most of the artwork,” she says of the exhibition that was due to run until 27 February. “But we had to move the £20,000 mount cutter, the Macs, the beautiful print-making paper”. She runs Ironbridge Fine Arts and Print-Making with her sister, Sarah. The sisters and their husbands stayed up until the early hours of Wednesday morning trying to keep floodwater out of their premises. “It was hip-deep,” says Jenny. Their building is one of the biggest gallery spaces in the west Midlands. “As far as I’m concerned it’s just heaven, the best print-making studio in the whole world. And it’s covered in mud and sewage. Mostly, though, I’d just like to give birth.”
On Saturday, Storm Jorge didn’t wreak as much havoc as expected. Several properties are still flooded out. But the people still love their houses and their river. “Ironbridge is so beautiful,” says local councillor Carolyn Healey. “We want people to come and see that, all of our history and our beautiful landscape.” For now, as this weekend’s rain flows down from Wales, Ironbridge keeps watching the river gauge and thinking in numbers: 5.4, 5.5, 5.6.