‘Soul destroying’: How flooded Ironbridge found itself on front line of the climate crisis

‘This flooding, it’s no longer a one off. It’s the new normal,’ council leader says

<p>High water levels on the River Severn, in Ironbridge</p>

High water levels on the River Severn, in Ironbridge

Fifty yards or so uphill from where a danger-to-life flood warning was in place in the Shropshire village of Ironbridge, Kit Graham, 69, sat outside Darby’s café drinking hot chocolate and Cointreau in the sun.

She looked at the link fencing that severed the high street in two: risk of potentially fatal inundation that side; fine on this. “We’re safe up here,” the retired maths lecturer said. “And, if not, we’ve got our legs to run away with.”

This World Heritage village was a place of surreal contrasts on Tuesday.

On the one hand, the sun shone, the sky was blue and half-term tourists milled about on the famous 18th century bridge – the first in the world ever built of iron. The outdoor tables at Darby’s were filled all day.

Yet on the other, much of the lower village – the Wharfage – was fenced off amid dire warnings that the 20-year-old flood barriers here might not be high enough to prevent the River Severn topping them.

Houses are flooded after high water levels caused by Storm Franklin

Several low-lying homes and businesses – those not protected by the barriers – had already been submerged on Sunday and Monday following three storms in less than a week. Another 60 buildings had been evacuated.

But, as Tuesday progressed, the growing fear was that excess water now rushing down the Severn from as far away as North Wales could - despite the day’s sun - cause the river to reach far more catastrophic heights.

“It’s going to be touch and go,” said Carolyn Healy, Telford and Wrekin Council’s cabinet member for climate change, during the afternoon. “If it doesn’t go over, it’s certainly going to be lapping at the top.”

By 8pm, it had not happened and, while a danger-to-life warning remained in place, there was a sense that the worst was over.

At the Tontine Hotel, where police, fire service and council officials had set up an incident headquarters, there was a notable reduction in activity.

Alex Nicoll, manager of the Water Rat, wades into the pub’s garden area

Ironbridge felt like a village breathing a sigh of relief.

Yet the fact the barriers held this time could perhaps not disguise a bigger issue at play here: this is the third year on the trot when there have been fears they will top over.

Ironbridge is a village that – like so many others around the UK – now appears to be on the front line of the country’s increasingly freak weather.

In the middle of inland Shropshire – 90 miles from the sea – climate change already appears to be wreaking havoc here.

“We were told the 2020 floods were a once in a century event,” says Vic Haddock, owner of The Old Boat House guest house which is one of the properties that did flood on Sunday.

“Well, it’s happened twice more in two years since. It’s soul-destroying. You see the weather forecast these days and you know the river’s going to be running through your home.”

He and wife Phyllis had spent the last two days and night working water pumps at the property – where they also live – but the water inside had still kept slowly rising. “You can’t stop it once it starts coming in,” he noted. “You’re just trying to limit the damage.”

The 62-year-old former engineer would not, he said, ever consider moving. “We bought this place 18 years ago and it was my dream, and most of the time it still is” he said. “I’ll never give up on it.”

What could the authorities do to help? “They could dredge the river for a start,” he replied. “They could take us seriously when they see us up to our a***s in water.”

Local businesses have had to close to deal with the floods (Nick Potts/PA)

For Alex Nicoll, manager of the Water Rat and White Hart pubs, the flooding itself has been limited. The Water Rat’s downstairs function room and kitchen has been submerged but the main bar and dining room remain unscathed.

The White Hart, which is behind the barriers, has been kept entirely dry.

Yet because both businesses have had to close, Nicoll reckoned they will lose a combined £35,000 in sales.

“Coming on the back of a dreadful December because of Covid, it couldn’t have been worse timing,” he said, surveying the Water Rat’s garden, now a lake. “Half term is a huge week here. To have lost that is very difficult to deal with.”

Even businesses that haven’t had to close have been hit because of reduced visitor numbers. “It might seem like there’s a lot of people around today,” he said.

“But this time of year here, normally, it’s heaving. It’s Ironbridge, it’s beautiful. They come from all over the world.”

Flood defences along the Wharfage next to the River Severn following high winds and wet weather (Nick Potts/PA)

The same question as before: what can be done? That, he suggests, is the big question. “You can’t just keep building bigger flood barriers forever,” he says. “There needs to be an element of learning to live with this; accepting this happens and minimising the disruption; making sure we are keeping businesses open as much as possible. But how you do those things…it’s difficult.”

It’s difficult, perhaps, because there are no cheap solutions; and probably none that don’t require changing the entire way such communities function.

Shaun Davies, the Labour council leader here, has demanded improved and lengthened flood barriers but the sheer cost of such work for the number of properties it would protect makes such action seem unlikely.

“No doubt we’ll get a minister visit like we did last year and the year before that, and good words will get spoken, but, when it comes to it, action won’t be forthcoming,” he said.

“But what we need is a permanent solution not just for Ironbridge but a holistic view for the whole of the River Severn, all the way up to Wales. This flooding, it’s no longer a one off. It’s the new normal. So we need address that property and seriously.”

Doing so may be easier said than done.

Yet back with Ms Graham, finishing her hot chocolate, she was adamant one thing should be made clear.

The bottom of her garden was itself underwater but Ironbridge absolutely shouldn’t be defined by these floods, she said. “Living here is like waking up every day on holiday,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place.

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