“We call ourselves the forgotten corner”: life along Yorkshire’s most-flooded riverbank

In the early hours of 27 December 2015, Stephen Porthouse was bolted awake by a sound that might not ordinarily have roused him: a steady trickle of water

Dyls Cafe, York, which regularly floods when the river is up.

York’s River Ouse had been up for several days, and though living just a stone’s throw from the water, Stephen had moved some furniture around but “naively” hoped it would never creep close enough to do real damage.

Unfortunately, a deluge of rain expanded the river, causing it to flow towards Stephen’s home and begin dipping slowly into the foundations of the house. Over the next twelve hours, it seeped up through the floor slowly before rushing in through the front - rendering the house uninhabitable.

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It’s a familiar tale to the handful of York’s business owners and residents who live and work along one of the city’s most picturesque - yet flood-prone - stretches. The King’s Arms pub is so accustomed to sharing its premises with the river, in fact, that it even has its own river “height chart” above the entrance.

The King's Arms Pub is nicknamed "The Pub that Floods" by some, given the frequency with which it floods.

And while a good dose of humour and grit have long been essential in these homes and businesses over the years, flooding in York is no longer an infrequent event.

All across Yorkshire, and indeed the UK, flooding is becoming increasingly frequent and increasingly destructive. Without intervention, experts estimate that entire swathes of the county could be underwater by 2050.

This need for intervention to help businesses and residents with flooding has been widely acknowledged, with talk of compensation and other financial aid often raised by MPs and councillors.

In spite of this, many flood-prone businesses feel that help has been too light, too slow to arrive and sometimes even non-existent.

Cafe owner Jan Dyl.

Housed in a former motor-house (now Grade-II listed) on York’s Skeldergate Bridge, Dyls Cafe is one small business that’s borne the brunt of flooding costs particularly hard.

Since taking over the family business eight years ago, Jan Dyls has lost track of the exact number of times Dyls has flooded, but estimates that “it could honestly be over 100 times... at one point we were flooding fifteen, twenty times a year”.

The majority of these occasions were not severe - with only the outside terrace affected. Yet the three that were - one in 2012, two in 2015 - were utterly catastrophic for the independent business:

“[In 2015] our flood defences totally failed, or rather, we didn't have the right flood defences...we got flooded in the inside, in our kitchen area… it pretty much wiped us out for nine or ten months”.

Stephen Porthouse with the flood defences he installed after his house flooded in 2015.

The cafe is unable to get insurance for flooding thanks to prohibitively high premiums, and though the council leases the building to Jan, their group insurance only covers building materials like tiling or brick:

“We can’t get any insurance for flooding, so we’ve got no flood cover, no loss of earnings... every time we’ve gone it totally alone”.

More than anything, says Jan, it’s the period in which the cafe is out of action that hurts the business the most.

Without a grant from the Local Enterprise Partnership in 2015 - covering 50 per cent of the repairs - Jan believes the popular cafe would have been forced to close its doors.

The 2020 floods in York brought waters very close to Stephen Porthouse's home once again.

Stephen was luckier when it came to claiming insurance - but only by the skin of his teeth. In October 2015 he was looking over the home insurance arranged by his mortgage broker and realised that it didn’t cover flooding.

He quickly remedied this with additional cover - fairly cheap at the time given the property hadn’t previously been flooded. Just two months later, his house was partially submerged.

In spite of a fairly stress-free insurance process, Stephen believes his home and a handful of others in the area have been left behind in the past when it comes to flood defences:

“We’ve seen the council put up defences in various places, and myself and five other properties that are at risk now have a little messenger group called “the forgotten corner”... we’re not a lot of properties but even if two or three of us flood it's still pretty bad”.

The emotional impact of flooding too, he says, is difficult - and somewhat surreal. Standing outside his home with his wife and two young children the day it flooded, he said he experienced:

“An odd emotion, it’s embarrassing…you’re quite exposed, you feel awful”.

Many predict that flooding will get worse in coming years, affecting more homes and businesses in turn.

Jan echoes this sentiment, admitting that the most recent 2020 floods - which fluctuated for weeks - were actually the worst to deal with mentally in spite of being less damaging than in previous years:

“This time in particular it was horrendous because of the longevity, you know, going through this this week in week out....not knowing when it’s going to go down and having no support... no-one was sleeping”.

Since the 2015 Boxing Day floods, both Stephen and Jan have had robust flood defences installed to protect themselves.

George Hinton, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said:

“Following the 2015 floods, the defences put in at each property [including Stephen's] were part funded by the government thanks to grants of £5,000 from what was then the Department for Communities and Local Government. This funding was administered by City of York Council. It included a flood wall, airbricks, waterproofing, four door barriers and valves.

We are currently working with Mr Porthouse on further property flood resilience as part of the wider York Flood Alleviation Scheme. Whilst the delivery of this may be affected by the current Covid-19 restrictions, its delivery will mean an additional grant of up to £7,500 per household. This means that since the flooding of 2015 Mr Porthouse will have been offered £12,500 by the government.”

While Stephen has not had his tested since the 2015 floods, the 2020 floods presented a very close call - with water reaching the side of the property.

Dyls’ flood protections, however, were tested - and luckily weathered the challenge.

Yet this is scant comfort to Jan, who is aware that any failure may spell the end for his business.

Over the years, he says, there have been many promises of government money to help the business out, but in spite of many enquiries on their side, nothing has come to fruition yet:

“We’re not getting anywhere which is really frustrating… I'm not expecting the council to pay for everything but at the same time there's got to be something available just to prop you up... the flooding is getting worse. And this five weeks of flooding constantly is unheard of”.

He points out that the handful of businesses at risk of future flooding are largely independents - and thus most likely to struggle to get back on their feet.

For many along this stretch of the Ouse, the future is wracked with anxiety, with flooding predicted to worsen and insurance premiums rocketing year-on-year.

Though Jan and his staff put their heart and soul into the business, nowadays he says they’re plagued near-constantly with the worry that closure may be just around the corner:

“There's no let up, you think at any point it could just fail and that'll be it”.