Boxing Day Floods

One of the tasks from the Wild Words course I did was to write about flooding. In York, in 2015, there were awful floods which affected many people and areas that aren’t usually flooded. York does flood regularly but this was the worst I’ve seen in.

Boxing Day Floods, York

Source: York Flood Inquiry

December 2015
wettest month
since records began
Ouse and Foss catchment

Boxing Day:
unprecedented situation on the Foss

                       weekend Bank Holiday
                       middle of Christmas

challenge escalates

27th BT exchange

loss of landlines internet
mobile phones
no electronic communication
                        misinformation can take hold

four hundred and fifty three
residential properties
one hundred and seventy four

remarkable efforts
generosity community spirit
assistance offered quickly
unstintingly. Donations
                       local, national

spontaneous volunteers
‘unwavering response from responders’
praised for dedication and contribution

thirteen thousand sandbags
                       builders’ merchants very helpful
                       opened depots on request

voluntary sector:
                        evacuation-meals-shelter-warmth-assisting with clean up-warehousing and distributing donated goods-practical emotional recovery support

no warning

‘Recovery from flooding does not simply end
when people move back into their homes.’

problems with insurance claims
managing builders
living in a state of disrepair

long-term issues identified:
                       respiratory problems made worse- mental health problems exacerbated-disruption to home-lost personal possessions-strain of moving in with family-strain of being separated from family-breakdown of relationships-financial pressures-lost ability to earn-went out of business

problems do not recede as quickly as water

York will flood again
an inevitability

‘York as a community would benefit from becoming more resilient
and better prepared for an emergency situation.’

My Rivers: The Ouse


“A river can give a city its very soul… We think of them pragmatically, as conduits of commerce, which is certainly one of their major gifts to us, but generally we overlook the spiritual benefits they bestow on the community living on their banks”
– Thomas Moore

The rivers in York are historically important, they are the reason the city was formed here.  They provided trade routes to the sea and were routes for people to travel along.  But the importance of the Ouse goes beyond the river herself and into the fields that follow her.  These floodplains, the ings, have been important to man, to plants and to other animals and have shaped both the landscape and the culture of York.  They have also allowed the city to survive the regular flooding of the river.


“Yorkshire’s rivers have been an important factor in man’s history, in the settlement and growth of towns and cities and in the formation of industries.  Wetlands can help man control the force of water, particularly during flooding.”
– Wild Yorkshire

It is this flooding that is key to the ecological and economic value of the land.  Sediment carried into the flood plains replenishes the land, increasing its fertility, and leaves it ripe for crops.  These fields produced agricultural produce which could then be exported along the Ouse herself, creating one half of an import export chain which brought raw materials and valuable goods into the city.

The fields grew hay which was used to feed sheep, cows and horses in the winter and the cycles of flooding and haymaking along the Ouse inspired poet Andrew Marvell in the 17th century.  The ings would also provide resources such as gorse and peat for fuel.  Willow collected from the river banks was also important and could be used to make baskets and fish traps.

Skeldergate Bridge (edited)

The history of the ings goes beyond what they could offer in terms of resources.  In 1639, King Charles I was staying in Kings Manor and, according to a member of his retinue, his “chiefest pleasure here was to ride downe into Clifton Yngs and have his nobilite about him, and see his cavaliers on their brave horses.”  Horses were not uncommon on the ings with records suggesting they were used as a location for racing since the Roman times.  In 1709, Clifton Ings became the official venue for York Races although it would later move to the Knavesmire, where the races take place today, after the Ouse flooded and the races had to be cancelled in 1729.

In the 19th century ice skating became popular on the frozen fields along the Ouse and the ings were mentioned as a skating venue at least as late as 1902. The other sport I am aware of with links to the Ouse is swimming. NB, the current is strong and the river has taken many lives over the years, please don’t try this.

As well as a fascinating social history, the floodplains are also a crucial habitat for birds, plants, insects and mammals.  In terms of plant life, the riverside is home to numerous species including:Reed Sweetgrass, Slender Tufted Sedge, Meadow-Rue, Meadowsweet, Northern Marsh Orchid, Ragged Robin, Large Bittercress, Guelder Rose and Field Garlic.

In recent years five species of bat have been found living along the river, utilising bridges as roosting spots.  There are also mice, voles, squirrels, shrews, moles, hedgehogs, rabbits and deer.  Evidence of otters suggests a slow recolonisation.  When it comes to birds there are a variety of species of ducks and geese alongside mute swans, gulls and songbirds.  The common frog, the common toad and the smooth newt are all found widely along the Ouse corridor.

Follow the leader

Perhaps the most scientifically important species to live in the floodplains of the Ouse is the Tansy Beetle.  It makes its home on the Tansy plant and is incredibly rare.  It has been christened the Jewel of York and is a beautiful, iridescent beetle with a coppery sheen.  According to myth, Victorians so admired the beetle that they used it as sequins… Not a good way to keep a species alive!

Like many waterways, the river Ouse also winds its way into folklore.  One story set in York is a spin on the ring in the fish tale.  I’ve also seen this version elaborated on but still, at it’s essence, the ring and the fish, a fable which goes back at least as far as ancient Greece and is found in various parts of the world including Norway.

Perhaps a more localised belief is that if you drop five white stones into a special part of the Ouse as the Minster clock chimes 1am on May Day morning, the surface of the river will show you a reflection of anything you desire to see, whether it be in the past, present or future.

So, it seems very appropriate to be posting this on the last day in April.  Go ahead and see what the river can show you!

I owe a lot to Martin Hammond who wrote Deep Meadows and Transparent Floods, The Story of the Ouse Ings.  It’s a well researched interesting look at the historical, social and environmental tale of the floodplains and is available from Carstairs Countryside Trust.


It’s raining, it’s pouring: Further afield

Having looked at rain and floods here in York, I’m now moving on to a more extreme form of rain, monsoons.

Before we get started though, we need to look at the definition of a monsoon.  A monsoon is a seasonal shift in winds.  Possibly not the definition you were expecting.  Surely a monsoon is about rain and the wet season?  Well, the shift in winds brings the rain.  The winds suddenly come from a different source and they come bearing water.

India is well known for its monsoon season and numerous sources on the internet say that the country experiences to most dramatic monsoon in the world so India will be my focus here.  But before I turn to India, it’s worth noting that there are many places around the world which have a monsoon including countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Laos, India, and Pakistan.  Parts of Australia, Africa and the Americas also experience monsoon rains.

Let’s head back to India where the monsoon heralds a season of love, romance and enchantment.  This may be hard to make sense of in England where the rains send us all scurrying for shelter but in India, the monsoon rains are the gift of life.  In some areas, 90% of the annual rain arrives with the monsoon (although on average it’s about 75%).  This makes the monsoon an essential source of water for drinking, cooking, for livestock, for farming, for industries, for hydroelectric power, irrigation and so much more.  To say that the monsoon waters make or break the Indian economy is not an exaggeration.

When the peacock begins to dance, the monsoon is on its way
– Old Indian saying

The monsoon season is changing.  It is becoming harder to predict and more powerful, bringing heavier rains and arriving earlier than normal.  It is already hard enough to predict, accurately, the start of the monsoon.  A government department monitors the weather across India and farmers use this information along with traditional methods to plan their planting.  Too soon and the seeds will have no water to grow, too late and they will drown.

Its clear to see that the monsoon rains are a time for celebration in India.  They are life bringing, life affirming.  They are a creative force and a reinvigorating energy.  They bring hope, happiness and joy.  They cleanse the hot air, refreshing and recharging the land and the people.

But these rhythmic cycles are not always a blessing, they can turn in an instant into a curse.  They cause chaos by creating waterlogged roads, disruption to trains, close schools and airports and play havoc with business.  They can damage crops, homes, kill animals, kill humans… People die from electrocution when water reaches live cables.  They become ill when stagnant pools of water form and create excellent breeding grounds for malaria, cholera, typhoid etc.  People get struck by lightening – there are an estimated 500,000 lightening strikes in a monsoon.  In 2005, at least 1100 people died in India during the monsoon.  In 2013, an estimated 5,700 people were killed.

And if you are unlucky enough to live somewhere which isn’t in the monsoons path that year, you face a whole host of other problems.  You have little or no water for your family, your livestock, to grow crops.  When this occurs, people move to areas where the rain has fallen and ghost towns are left behind.  Where people haven’t left their homes, the effects of drought can kill and farmers are known to take their own lives.

Without the monsoon, death becomes the dominant force.

Plants and animals don’t escape the monsoon either.  Those animals in areas of rainfall need to head to higher grounds and to do so can involve crossing roads and encountering people (who tend to be a big danger, worldwide, to animals).  Those in areas of drought face the problem of lack of water and the knock on effect of lack of vegetation.

The monsoon has shaped the land and lives of India for many years and will continue to do so for many more.  Rain truly is a powerful force.

It’s raining, it’s pouring…

On rain: “It covers the flat roof of the cabin and porch with insistent and controlled rhythms.  And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world turns by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognise, rhythms that are not those of the engineer”
– Thomas Merton

How we talk about rain is very important I think.  I explained a bit about how language shapes our views and rain does not fare well in this.  As a society we equate rain with some sort of terrible thing which is happening to us personally to make our day go badly.  We attempt to avoid the rain, hurrying under umbrellas from building to building and cursing if our feet get wet.  How much stress would we save ourselves if we accepted the rain and were thankful for the good that it does.

“Of course, the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city… the streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive and the noise of traffic becomes a plashing of fountains. One would think that the urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness , it’s baptism and its renewal.”
– Thomas Merton

Having said all of that, I am not a fan of the rain.  Rain means I have to wear my wheelchair waterproof if I want to leave my flat.  This means I have to have someone with me to get it on and off as I can’t do that myself.  It also makes it hard to go into shops etc as it makes me take up a lot more space, it’s not easy to get on and off and my hand is under a cover so the controller does get wet.  This means I only have my left hand available and if I want to check my phone or pay for anything I have to scrabble around underneath the waterproof with my left arm which is covered in droplets of water.  So despite all the effort I have to go to, I still get a bit wet.  And I can’t go out on my own.  And I can’t go out on my own if there’s a high chance of rain and I’m not going to be near any helpful strangers.  NB, not all strangers are happy to help, I’ve had people say no when I’ve asked politely if they could help me out of my waterproof.

So, my feeling about rain feels justified.  The lack of appropriate aids makes the rain quite debilitating.  But for most people this isn’t the case.

The power of rain

Despite everything I’ve just said about rain not being evil, it is immensely powerful.  It wears down rocks and soil into tiny fragments over time.  It plays a key role in dissolving certain rocks and it causes devastation and destruction in the form of floods.


It is floods that I’m going to focus on here.  I live in York, a city prone to flooding.  It floods every year, normally several times and sometimes quite severely.  You might have seen news coverage a few years back of David Cameron standing in flood water, that was at the end of my street.  Aside, don’t stand in flood water, it can be dangerous, it can have stronger currents than you think and be deeper than you think…


2007 floods

There are two rivers which run through the centre of York, the river Ouse and the Foss which converge in the city.  The Ouse is the principal drainage basin in Yorkshire and is formed by the Ouse Gill Beck and the River Ure, Swale and Nid as well as a number of tributaries.  Interesting aside, until 1757 the Ouse was a tidal river.  The River Foss originates in the Howardian Hills, north of the city.  York’s floods tend to occur because of heavy rainfall and/or melting snow up river.

We know that York has experienced devastating flooding with records going back to 1263 AD. Notable floods occurred in 1947, 1948, 1982 and 2000.  More recently, there were serious floods in 2007 and 2012 as well as the 2015 floods.

Whilst there are many measures in place to reduce the impact of floods in York, it is not a problem that is going to go away.  Lets face it, we’ve had almost a millennia to figure out options!


Forgive the image quality, this was 2007… Trees standing in water is a common sight in York.

But why does York flood so much? Well, it turns out this seems to be on the GCSE Geography curriculum based on my google search!  It’s obviously a multifaceted answer:

Firstly, York is a vale and the Yorkshire Dales to the east are steep which means fast runoff from the slopes into the rivers.  It also means less water infiltrates the soil as there simply isn’t time for it to be absorbed.

Secondly, this problem is exacerbated by the impermeable clay which means water can’t soak into the ground.  As well as clay, the Dales are also made up of limestone which is very permeable and allows the water to pass through very quickly.  Combining this with the first reason basically means there is nowhere for the rain or snow to go other than down into the river.

Thirdly, at higher altitudes vegetation tends to be heather and moorland which doesn’t soak up much of the water or slow it down very much.  Another factor which means more water in the river.  There are some trees in the area which do intercept the water but deciduous trees only do this when they have leaves, and the worst of the floods tends to be in winter.

Human impact has a role to play as well.  Use of land for arable farming means less plant life to suck up the water, deforestation means less trees to do the same and urban developments also play a role.  Tarmacked roads, housing estates and shopping centres all mean water has less chance of being absorbed into the ground so instead it makes it into sewers, drains and ultimately the river.

Climate change is also playing a role in York floods.  We are experiencing wetter winters which of course means more water in the river which means there is less space for additional rain water.

But whilst the floods in York cause a lot of damage which involves a lot of money to sort out, they don’t tend to cause much in the way of injury and death.  Many other parts of the world are not so lucky…

And that is a topic for another day…