The deluge of community spirit helping flood-stricken town get back on its feet

West Yorkshire was one of the worst affected places by the recent downpours. Chris Bond went to flood-hit Hebden Bridge to see how the town is coping.

TRAVELLING west from Halifax along the upper Calder Valley through Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge over towards Todmorden, it’s easy to see why people want to live here.

The lush valley walls that frame these stone-built Pennine towns are a stunning sight and help make this one of the most impressive locations in the north of England. But this beautiful landscape can be beguiling as it proved on Monday when torrential rain, falling on already saturated ground, sent water cascading down these steep-sided hills and flooding the valley floor for the second time in less than three weeks.

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Last month, more than 500 homes and businesses in the three towns were damaged by flooding after a month’s rain fell in 24 hours, and the sheer volume of water from the latest downpour overwhelmed drains and caused a canal to overflow.

It’s been a fraught few weeks for many people right across the country as the atrocious weather has brought havoc to people’s homes and businesses, during which time Met Office flood warnings have become an almost daily occurrence. Heavy rainfall has seen numerous events cancelled, including the two-day MFest music and food festival at Harewood House, with the Great Yorkshire Show becoming the latest victim when organisers were forced to cancel the show after one day because of the hazardous conditions underfoot.

Even by the UK’s unpredictable (and frequently disappointing) standards it has been a thoroughly miserable start to the summer. Last month was the wettest June since records began, with double the average rain falling, and the second month this year to see record-breaking amounts of rain after April’s downpours. June saw long, prolonged rainfall along with exceptionally heavy showers, and ended with freak storms which battered large swathes of the country and the exceptional weather has continued into July.

Hebden Bridge, along with its neighbouring towns, has been particularly badly hit. Just days after Prince Charles visited the West Yorkshire town to see the impact of last month’s flooding and what could be done to help businesses, the carnage returned. Even those who live on higher ground and are usually immune from the main types of flooding, rivers overflowing or drains backing up, were affected as the sheer force of Monday’s torrential outburst swept an estimated 500 tonnes of debris past Hebden’s hillside doors.

In the town centre the flood water reached over a metre deep in places, but just a couple of days after its streets had been turned into rivers the clean-up operation has brought a semblance of normality back to life here. So much so that at first glance you wouldn’t have thought the town had just been hit by two of the worst floods in recent memory. It’s only when you look closer and notice the sandbags piled up next to doorways, the mud-splattered shop fronts and the defiant “business as usual” signs in the windows that you realise the people of Hebden Bridge have been through the mill.

The town is renowned for its independent shops and strong community spirit and it has had to call upon the latter in large doses in recent weeks. Joe McGarraghy runs the Pennine Wine and Cheese Company, on Bridge Gate, which was hit both times. On the first occasion he says about a foot of water came into his shop. “We closed for a few days to clear up all the silt and mud that came in,” he says. But just days after re-opening the floods struck again. “A guy stuck his head round the door and said ‘you might want to put your sandbags down’. The road quickly became full of water but because we were in the shop we were able to start bailing the water out when it started coming in, we were better prepared the second time.”

He says the extent of the first flood took people by surprise. “The first time we could have done with a bit more warning. There were flood warnings but we didn’t expect the deluge we had.” Joe has run the shop for the past two years and although the flood damage has cost him about £3,000, he at least is insured and has been able to open up again. “People are devastated by what’s happened. Some people had just reopened after the first flood only to be hit again.”

His concern now, along with many other business owners in the town, is what happens next. “The town has been very quiet the last few days and the biggest concern is when and if business will get back to normal. We reopened as fast as we could but if things don’t pick up then it’s going to be a tough couple of months,” he says.

Marcus Doyle, who co-owns the Yorkshire Soap Company on Market Street, says they had about two feet of water in their shop following the first flood. “The next morning on the Saturday we all came in with our families and people’s partners and cleaned the place up.”

They closed for six days during which time they repaired their flood damaged shop and replaced the stock they had lost, only for the floodwater to return.

“You could see it happening in front of you,” says Marcus. “First the rain came down and the drains filled up and then it reached the kerb and spilled on to the pavement. It was surreal, I know people say this all the time but it was like something out of a film. It was like watching rapids running through the centre of Hebden Bridge.”

But this time they created an effective flood barrier at the door using floorboards and silicone which meant hardly any water was able to get into the shop. “I have no reason to praise the council but they were very good and they’ve helped with the clean up,” he says.

The local community has also pulled together. “People are talking to each other and doing what they can to help each other out, even if they’ve been flooded themselves. A scout group has been going round asking if we need soup or sandwiches and on the Saturday after the first flood so many people were offering to help us that we eventually said ‘no’ because there wasn’t anything else to do.”

What he and all the people need now, along with a spell of dry weather, is for visitors to come back to the town. “My biggest fear isn’t the loss of money or the flood water, it’s that Hebden Bridge will lose customers,” he says. “Hebden is open and it’s as unusual as it has ever been – that’s our message to people.”

It’s a view echoed throughout the town, and although some shops are closed and it may be many weeks or even months before some of them are back in action again, the majority, like haberdashery shop Ribbon Circus on Albert Street, are open for business. Owner Helen Baron says her cellar was like a “swimming pool” following the first flood and as well as losing stock she had to get rid of work benches and cupboards damaged by the water.

She has managed to stay open despite being affected both times and she, too, praises the “incredible” spirit among the local community.

“I’ve had hundreds of people popping their head round the door to say ‘hello’ and asking if I need any help, even people I’ve never seen before and it makes you realise what a special place this is.”

The local authorities have, for the most part, been praised by residents and shop owners for providing people with sandbags and tackling the dirty job of cleaning up the streets. But attention has turned to the flood defences and Calderdale Council and the Environment Agency are proposing a joint working group that will include British Waterways, Yorkshire Water and the local community to look at all Upper Calderdale and consider the options for reducing flooding risk in the future.

In the meantime, Rebecca Yorke, who works for Hebden-based Pennine Prospects, says the town needs visitors to come back and show their support. “It’s been tough for everyone but the way people have helped one another has been brilliant and hopefully those shops that are closed will come back bigger and better. People often say what a lovely place Hebden Bridge is and for anyone who’s been here in the past and loved it, now is the time to come back.”

Yorkshire’s flood misery

The North Yorkshire County Show and MFest, at Harewood House, are among the events that have been cancelled due to the bad weather.

June 22 – More than 500 homes and businesses in Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge and Todmorden were damaged by flooding after a month’s rain fell in 24 hours.

July 9 – More than 1.5 inches of rain fell in the upper Calder Valley in three hours overwhelming drainage systems.

July 10 – The Great Yorkshire Show becomes the latest victim of the weather when organisers are forced to cancel the show after torrential rain left the showground unsafe. It is the first time the event has been cancelled due to the weather in its 154-year history.