Rising from the flood

Think you're having a bad winter? Greg Wright visited a Lakeland community that is recovering from the floods of 2009.

AS the waters rose, the feeling of fear must have been palpable. They've seen dramas brought by the elements a thousand times in Newby Bridge, but nothing has matched the horror of a November night in 2009.

Torrential rain made the River Leven break its banks. A marker on the village's bridge that showed the previous highest flooding, in 1882, was soon submerged.

The Swan Hotel, which has welcomed travellers since Jacobean times, felt the full force of the floods. The 52-room hotel had to be evacuated, and when the water finally receded, its interior was a mass of debris and upturned chairs. It would be hard to overstate the misery caused by the Cumbrian floods of 2009.

Across the county, more than 1,000 homes and businesses were flooded after 12 inches of rain fell in a single day. The collapse of the Northside Bridge in Workington, which killed PC Bill Barker, served as a terrible testament to the power of nature. The Association of British Insurers later estimated that the cost of the floods had exceeded 200m.

Insurers handled about 36,000 flood and storm damage claims. Once the national media interest in the floods waned, locals quietly got back to rebuilding their lives. In a place like Newby Bridge, which is popular with tourists, attractions like the Swan faced a race against time to get ready for the summer.

Newby Bridge is a tiny place at the southern end of Windermere which stands beside what used to be the old Royal Mail stagecoach route. You don't need to have an overactive imagination to hear the clatter of weary hooves across the bridge. The River Leven acts as an escape route for floodwater from nearby hills. Thankfully, it is usually a gentle meandering presence. On a summer's evening, it seems utterly benign.

So how did villagers respond to the traumas of late 2009? In the case of the Swan, the owners embarked on a 4m refurbishment. During the floods, parts of the hotel resembled an indoor swimming pool. The re-opening in May 2010 was an act of triumph for a building which has managed to survive the natural and man-made upheavals of the last 400 years. The oldest part of the Swan dates from 1623, when it was built as a farm and alehouse.

The bridge crossing the Leven arrived in 1651, and, with the addition of a Georgian facade in 1766, the inn took on a new life as a stopping point for coaches. In the early 20th century, Newby Bridge was a base for gunpowder making and the manufacture of the washing whitener Dolly Blue. Entrepreneurs with an interest in explosives doubtless propped up the bar. Businessman Roland Bardsley bought the hotel – which had long been his favourite place for Sunday lunch – in the 1990s. Mr Bardsley loved to drop in by helicopter, and the hotel has a helipad for those who feel like emulating him.

The revamp after the floods has given the Swan the chance to re-invent itself. The inside feels like a plush city centre hotel – with its bold colours, hi-tech gadgets, fine cuisine, games room, gym, 10 metre swimming pool and spa. But when you step outside there's no doubt you're in the Lakes. A swift ascent of the nearby hill – Gummers How – gives ample opportunity to admire a landscape that inspired the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Beatrix Potter, whose former home, Hill Top Farm, lies close by. There's also the chance to stroll through the handsome Grizedale Forest or sail across the expanses of Windermere.

Lakeside Pier, which stands close to Newby Bridge at the southern end of Windermere, is an ideal point of arrival from Bowness. You can also hop on the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway, which runs for 3.5 miles along the old line that used to go to Ulverston and Barrow.

Newby Bridge will never be able to protect itself from the worst excesses of a British winter. Sampling the wines in the Swan, it was hard to believe, that, in the recent past, water would have lapped at our ankles. These folk will never be cowed by the forces of nature.

Greg Wright stayed at the Swan Hotel in Newby Bridge, at the foot of Windermere.

For reservations, visit www.swanhotel.com or call 015395 31681.

Double rooms are available from 99 per room per night on a B&B basis.

YP MAG 1/1/11