There’s a surprising word that keeps cropping up when speaking to residents of the South Yorkshire village of Fishlake as they reflect on continuing impact of the flooding that upturned their community almost a year ago to the day; guilt.
As each person explains the hardships they have been through, they go on to express – completely unprompted – how bad they feel that other people in their community have had it worse.
This shared willingness to put their own problems in perspective and empathy towards the challenges facing their neighbours perhaps offers a good indication of why dozens of people living in the close-knit village near Doncaster have joined together to write a book about their experiences in the past 12 months where the initial shock of the floods has been followed by considerable delays in rebuilding damaged houses because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The November 2019 floods caused devastation in Fishlake – with around 170 homes and businesses flooded. In South Yorkshire, around 1,600 properties were impacted by the floods, with the majority in Fishlake and Bentley in Doncaster. 1,200 homes were evacuated and key road and rail infrastructure was also affected.
The village become the centre of media attention, with visits from Boris Johnson and Prince Charles taking place as the initial clean-up operation got under way.
But while the cameras have disappeared, the arduous road to returning to normality is still continuing for residents, many of whom are still waiting for repair work to be completed on their properties.
They have now joined together to write a book called Flood: The Story of a Village Under Water about their experiences of the past year, collating the stories of more than 50 people. It had been hoped the book would be ready for the first anniversary of the flooding this week but - as with so much else in life - Covid has caused delays which mean the target is now to publish the book early next year.
While multiple volunteers are now involved in the different aspects of creating the book – from interviewing contributors to researching technical information and raising funds – the original idea came from graphic designer Neil West, who has lived in the village for 12 years.
West and his family had to deal with water five inches deep flooding their house – something he is quick to point out was “much less than an awful lot of other people”. However, various complications with repairs on his property has meant the work is still ongoing.
“For the past year we have been sleeping upstairs in the house but it is still pretty much a building site,” West explains. “My design studio in the garden has been turned into a living room. We have been eating microwave meals on paper plates for much of the past 12 months. We have a makeshift kitchen in a spare bedroom and the fridge freezer has moved from room to room. Even making a sandwich is a challenge.”
He says the idea for the book came to him on the first morning of the flood as he saw lorries arrive with sandbags and then leave shortly afterwards, still with the sandbags on after they realised it was too late for them to be of assistance. “I thought I wish I had my camera with me. I thought if I did a book the neighbours might be interested. When I finally got down to the church, which had become the hub where donations were being dropped off, I was astonished by what had come in. I bumped into a bloke I had never met before and he said we are trying to think of a way of thanking these people. I mentioned to him I have had this idea of doing a book and that was how it started.”
West says while creating the book has been more time-consuming than expected, it has undoubtedly been a worthwhile exercise for all involved in it.
“We wanted to make an historical document for the village. I have been told by other team members that the people who are writing their stories are finding it very cathartic. We are bringing all these stories together – people had no idea what was happening on the other side of the village. In other parts of the world being are dying in flooding and I almost feel guilty producing this book. We have suffered hardship but thankfully nobody has died. At the same time, our number one priority is thanking the people who came to help us and this can help with that.”
Among those to help with the book is Justin Smith, who says it has been a bright spot in an otherwise very difficult couple of years. The former marketing director for a biotech company saw his marriage end in early 2019 and had just been made redundant when the floods arrived last November.
“My last working day was the day the house was flooded then obviously this year it has been the pandemic and there has been so little work around,” he says. “It has been the worst two years of my life.
"I have just managed to hopefully sell the house to friends in the village. The way it has worked out is pretty typical of village life in Fishlake - I’m going to rent the house they are currently in which means I can stay in the village. I’m sad to be leaving my home but at least it enables me to remain in the village where I have got an awful lot of friends.
"Hopefully 2021 will be a hell of a lot better year for everybody.”
He says his memory of the night the floods hit remain seared into his memory.
“I think we had a month’s worth of rain in that 24-hour period. All that day on Friday 8th, I was monitoring the river levels rising and it was getting more and more scary. Then at about 6pm I checked the next site up the river and that was recorded as falling. I thought we had escaped.
“I went to bed about 9pm thinking we are ok and at about 11.30pm there was a bang on my front door and somebody saying ‘You have got to get out now, it’s coming’. To this day, I still don’t know who it was.
“I moved the car up the road and started to shift bits upstairs. That was when I saw water in the cupboard in the hallway. From then, it rose pretty quickly.
“I took the dogs up to the pub and the landlady let me in, it was getting on for midnight. She got me a quilt and let me sleep in the corner of the pub for a night. By the next morning, the water was three feet deep in the house.
“It was pretty extensive damage. The most frustrating thing in the reinstatement process was it took about five weeks to get a payout from the contents insurance company.
"I was at my wits’ end and went to see a guy called Pat Hagan who was leading the recovery for Doncaster Council and I just broke down in tears, I was a right state. He was a great support.
“Not long after that Pat said ‘I have got a civil servant coming to the village, I want him to come and see you’. Then on December 21, he said I can now tell you the civil servant is Prince Charles. So a day or two later I was stood in my living room talking to Prince Charles. I was stood there thinking, ‘is this really happening?’”
After initially staying with friends and family, Smith was provided by his insurance company with a caravan to live in during the day on his drive while he could sleep upstairs in the property.
“The reinstatement of the house was scheduled to start on March 24 but because of lockdown starting the day before, that was delayed by two months. I felt a little bit guilty because my place was pretty much sorted by mid-July. There are still properties only now commencing their reinstatement.
"“The community spirit has been a big reason for the fact I want to stay in the village. Talking to my neighbours who have lived her longer than I have, they say they have never known the village feel so together. The sense of community spirit has been incredible with people pulling together and helping each other out.”
Another person involved with the book is Lisa Reid, head of governance at Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, who has lived in Fishlake since 2015 and whose property was also among the many that flooded.
“Looking out the window that morning, it was like being on a movie set. We were trapped in the house at that point. At 10am on Saturday morning, the water started coming up through the kitchen floor – the one thing you don’t think is going to happen. But we were much luckier than most people. We managed to flag down the emergency services and we were evacuated by boat with our little whippet.”
They were taken to the Central Club in nearby Stainforth, where volunteers were on hand to help out.
“I have never known generosity like it. I get emotional just thinking about it. Our little dog was totally freaked out and they were just brilliant with her, bringing her food and treats.
“There was a moment watching the TV and the news came on and the first shot was effectively the view from my bedroom - it turned out the footage was from a next door neighbour.”
The resulting damage meant her home needed a new kitchen – the work was delayed for four months due to coronavirus but finally started in August and has now been completed.
“It is this enormous shock - I have never experienced anything like it and I hope never to again. For me there is guilt there – for a lot of people who weren’t flooded at all or not damaged much, we think we are lucky. Our next door neighbours were absolutely devastated.
"We tried to do what we could to help people. It mainly involved making cups of tea and being there with a hug. We had a fairly usable kitchen so when people were trying to pick up the pieces we could offer people a cup of tea and something to eat.
“It is difficult when you flood then are in a pandemic situation and don’t have that human contact. The good thing about experiencing it as a community is we know you people feel or can imagine it. We are in this together and we have been able to look after each other.
“I have never even met the people I am working on the proof-reading with apart from over Zoom.
"I personally hope the book will help people come to terms with what has happened. I think the act of telling your story can be cathartic. In a way, it helps people to move on. I hope there is some healing there.
"Doing the book has been like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle - we had no idea what was going on two to three doors down.
"Your home should be your safe place and when that isn’t the case and the reason is a natural disaster, there is an added element of absolute powerlessness. But you can’t change what happens to you, you can only change the way you react. The fact the community has decided to write the book and want to tell our own stories is really quite a powerful way of dealing with what has happened to us. Fishlake is an amazing place to live and we have an even stronger community spirit than we did before.”
Book sales to help hardest-hit
Money raised from sales of the book will go towards villagers experiencing financial hardship as a result of the floods.
More than £6,000 has been provided in grant funding towards the cost of publishing the book from the South Yorkshire Community Foundation, while a JustGiving page by has also been set up by the volunteers to help bring in further funds.
The Environment Agency began work to improve flood defences in Fishlake last month as part of £12m worth of repair work in the area of South Yorkshire that was hit by the floods last November.