It’s almost six months since Hebden Bridge was hit by two major floods in a matter of weeks. But has the Calder Valley town recovered? Chris Bond reports.
WITH the snow-capped hills glistening in the distance and its shop windows festooned with decorations Hebden Bridge looks as pretty as a Christmas card.
On a crisp, sunlit day like this it’s hard not to be impressed by the charm of this popular and proudly independent West Yorkshire town. But at times during this year’s atrocious summer it looked neither pretty or charming as torrential rain left homes and shops flooded twice in the space of three weeks.
In June, more than 500 properties in Hebden Bridge, Todmorden and Mytholmroyd were damaged by flooding after a month’s rain fell in just 24 hours, and then a couple of weeks later the sheer volume of water from another downpour overwhelmed drains and caused a canal to overflow.
Now, nearly six months after the first deluge Hebden Bridge is back on its feet and gearing up for Christmas. At the height of the floods the water was more than a metre deep in places in the town centre, but while the sandbags are no longer there and most of the affected shops have dried out and are open again, it still bears the scars of the summer downpours. Along Market Street a couple of shops have yet to reopen and at the Moyles Hotel a handwritten sign reads, “Closed Due To Flood Damage”.
But Hebden Bridge is well known for its strong community spirit, something it has needed to draw on in recent months.
Joe McGarraghy runs the Pennine Wine and Cheese Company, on Bridge Gate, which was badly hit during the first flood when about a foot of water came into the shop. It’s been a tough few months but he says business has picked up.
“Summer was poor to say the least and since then it’s been up and down, some weeks have been great and others have been really quiet. Christmas shopping seems to have started a lot later this year but it does seem to be picking up now,” he says. “Everyone’s been making an effort to tell people that we’re open and I think it’s starting to pay off, it’s definitely getting back to how it was before the floods.”
But apart from getting people to return to Hebden Bridge, one of the biggest headaches for shop owners and homeowners is the growing cost of insurance. “The main worry in the longer term concern is the insurance costs, we got quite lucky this year and shopped around and ours have gone up marginally but not as much as we thought they would,” he says.
But this may have been down to the fact that they didn’t make a claim. “We lost quite a lot of stuff the first time but the excess for flooding was extortionate and it wouldn’t have been worthwhile for us. But a lot of other people have had work done so I imagine they have big claims and I hate to think what their insurance premiums are like.”
Joe is among the shop owners who has taken up the offer of a grant for a flood barrier fitted to shop doors to hopefully help prevent flooding in the future. “In theory it keeps the water out but it’s not been put to the test yet. We’ve had three or four flood warnings since the summer which obviously puts everyone on edge, but, touch wood, we’ve been ok,” he says. “The worry is that if we can’t cope in the summer then what’s going to happen in the winter when there’s snow about?”
He says Calderdale Council has been supportive but adds that many local residents and shop owners would like to see the town’s flood defences strengthened. “People here would like to see some long-term plan for flood defences for the town, that’s the main bone of contention, but because of the size of Hebden it’s not something that will be funded by the Government, as I understand, which is a worry.”
Down the road on Market Street, Calder Gallery is one of the shops that was forced to close in June when 2ft of water poured into the front of the building. “It was pretty devastating, heartbreaking to be honest,” says Sue Allinson who runs the gallery, which reopened at the start of November.
“We’ve had to compromise, we’ve had to tile the floor which meant losing the beautiful wooden floor we had because we’ve had to make the front of the gallery as waterproof as possible. We also have a floodgate now so we’re as protected as we can be.”
Several sculptures worth thousands of pounds were damaged by the floodwater and Sue admits it’s been a difficult few months. “You’re constantly juggling with all the contractors coming in to do the work, so it’s been very stressful. We were closed for four months which basically means you have no income and you’re waiting for your insurers to pay,” she says.
Like many other shop owners, Sue is delighted to be back in business. “It’s been great to see that most people have been investing in their businesses and improving their properties. There are a lot of independent shops here and we all appreciate each other, it’s what makes the town so special.” She believes, too, that the town is back on its feet. “Hebden Bridge is very busy from what we can see, a lot of people come here rather go to the cities to do Christmas shopping because they know they’ll get something different here.”
After the floods some people did pack up their bags and leave, but this has presented opportunities for others. Ben Chapman runs the clothes shop Molly and Ginger with his partner Laurie Lea Sealeaf, which they opened in September.
“After the second flood the previous owner had enough and decided to move down south which meant Laurie was out of a job. We decided to open it ourselves, so the flooding did affect us but in a good way.” And he’s glad they did. “It’s been fantastic since we opened, Hebden’s really busy and although it’s taken a while almost everyone has opened again on this street.” But aren’t they worried about being flooded in the future? “It will probably happen once every 10 years or so but we’ve got a floodgate in and we’re doing everything we can.”
Local people you speak to here talk proudly about the town’s strong sense of community typified by the recent Valley of Lights festival. The event, organised by Totally Locally and funded by Calderdale Council, saw thousands of people line the streets of Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd for a series of lantern parades, to show that Calder Valley was open for business.
Beate Kubitz, who runs the knitwear shop Makepiece, says the festival was a great success. “In Hebden we had a flotilla of canal boats and a night market and it was all done on a shoestring in a small amount of time, it was just magical.”
She says that everyone in the town whether they were flooded or not has pulled together. “We had an art auction in September and we did a food festival in October where people donated their kitchens for cooking demonstrations. The WI have also been really supportive and we’ve had a poetry trail.
“Some people were back on their feet really quickly whereas the majority took a few months and it was tough to begin with. But even the shops that were flooded have been doing things, we’ve had pop up shops all over the place, we had the organic shop in the church for a while and one of the jewellery shops popped up in the art centre.”
Many businesses used the internet as way of keeping business going while their shops were out of action. “There’s an organisation here called Pennine Prospects that did a lot of social media training for businesses that weren’t online to help from a marketing point of view and encourage a sense of community,” she says.
“But it’s not just about saying to people come to Hebden, it’s about saying come to Hebden because there’s always interesting things going on, have a wander round and take a look at the poetry, have a look in the shop windows because you’ll be inspired by what you see in Hebden Bridge.
“It’s been hard, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, but it’s brought people together and at the end of the day it’s the people that make a place special.”