Special Report: Life goes on as the buzz returns to flood-hit Hebden Bridge

James Wilthew of the Afghan Rug Shop which now has a huge hole where the shop floor used to be.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
James Wilthew of the Afghan Rug Shop which now has a huge hole where the shop floor used to be.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
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IN THE week that the nation returned to work after the New Year celebrations, it was business as anything but usual for the people of the Calder Valley on Monday as the mammoth mopping up operation in the aftermath of the festive floods continued.

For hundreds of the shops and businesses in towns like Sowerby Bridge, Mytholmroyd and Hebden Bridge that had borne the brunt of the county’s worst flooding in living memory, Monday January 4, 2016 was a day of reckoning.

Miriam O'Keefe social media volunteer.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Miriam O'Keefe social media volunteer.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Monday saw the first visits of the insurance assessors and tradesman who have an important part to play in the rebuilding of a community that is still existing in a state of shock.

More than a week after its town centre was swamped beneath six feet of floodwater, Hebden Bridge remains a badly scarred shadow of its former Bohemian self: a town famed for its hippy chic has now become more synonymous with the high-viz jackets sported by the drivers and passengers of the vans and lorries which straddle every pavement.

Along Bridge Gate, a thin coating of sandy sediment on the road and pathways offers lingering evidence of the Biblical nature of the water levels that swept away all Christmas cheer when the River Calder burst its banks on Boxing Day morning.

For greengrocers Bob and Maria Cowling, the one saving grace was that the flood held off until after they had managed to ensure their loyal customers were supplied with sprouts and satsumas.

“Fortunately we were able to get all the stock out in time, but only just. Just minutes after we moved the last rug the water came in.”

James Wilthew

“We’ve lost an awful lot of stock but it could have been worse, a lot worse,” said Mr Cowling. “The rain started in early December and we’d been getting regular text updates from the Environment Agency so we were on high alert.

“We were able to put some of the stock on racks when we closed up for Christmas but it did no good: the water was five feet deep inside the shop and a lot has been ruined.

“Fortunately the floors are granite or stone flags and there isn’t any structural damage: hopefully we are going to be open again within a week.”

With the town centre cut-off by the floods, the Cowlings were unable to get to the shop from their home near the top of Cragg Vale until December 27, and though their son, who lives in Hebden Bridge, had warned them what to expect, emotion still ran high.

Pub Manager Joanne Crossley as workmen clear out  flood damaged fittings from The Albert which saw flood water go over the height of the bar.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

Pub Manager Joanne Crossley as workmen clear out flood damaged fittings from The Albert which saw flood water go over the height of the bar.' (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

“It was heart-breaking, we’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mr Cowling. “We’d experienced floods before during our 10 years in the town but this was by far the worst ever.”

On Market Street, few of the shops and cafes escaped the inundation and many will remain closed for months as builders, shopfitters and dehumidifiers do their bit.

At the Afghan Rug Shop, there are no rugs to display because there is no floor on which to lay them: a huge 6ft-deep void now remains where once fine handmade wool and silk recently rested.

Owner James Wilthew said: “We only opened five months ago and never thought we’d face anything like this because the floodwater has never come this far up Market Street before.

“Fortunately we were able to get all the stock out in time, but only just. Just minutes after we moved the last rug the water came in.”

Once the void has been backfilled and a new floor laid, Mr Wilthew hopes to reopen in around six weeks, giving him plenty of time to start the online sales section of the shop’s website, a job he had struggled to find time to do.

Joanne Crossley, the landlady at The Albert on Albert Street, fears it will be Easter before the popular pub opens its doors to customers again because of the scale of the flooding damage.

Christmas baubles, ruined furniture and condemned stock are still strewn across floors covered in a thick layer of stinking sludge, a sight Ms Crossley is all too familiar with.

“I managed the Golden Lion in Todmorden in 2012 when that flooded and never thought I’d see anything like this again,” she said.

“I’ve only been here for four weeks: the flooding seems to follow me around!

“We only got to start the clean up today because we had to wait for the insurance assessors and brewery representatives. It’s a massive job because the water level was a foot higher than the bar.

“It was a fantastic pub: I’m sure it will be again by the time Easter comes around.”

Hebden Bridge has long been renowned for its ‘do it’ mentality and for all the financial hardship and practical strife that residents are suffering, the town continues to possess an air of cheery defiance.

There is an energised buzz running through the air at the Hebden Bridge Community Association’s hub at the town hall, from where the response to the flooding crisis has been co-ordinated.

A small army of volunteers, most of whom live in and around the town, have given up their time to offer expert and practical assistance to businesses and householders affected by the floods.

Miriam O’Keeffe has taken time off from her job with the BBC in Salford to help run the social media pages and websites that have provided an invaluable source of information for both fellow residents and the rest of the world.

“People have come in and said ‘Just give me the next job on the list even if it’s cleaning the toilets in the Town Hall’,” said Ms O’Keeffe. “They have gone and knocked on every door in the town, we have tried to cover everybody and make sure no-one is forgotten.

“People have come from all over the country: we’ve had youth groups and neighbours and friends getting stuck in.

“People are minding neighbours’ children, giving people lifts, lending their phones out, doing whatever they can to help: all those tiny acts of kindness are what makes this community so special.

“It’s really hard to imagine how difficult it has been until you see the people walking into the hub in shock, not knowing what they need to do start, who they need to speak to,” said Ms O’Keeffe.

“People are concentrating on getting businesses back up and running and getting back to normal: it’s going to take a long time but we’ll get there.

“Many shops are still open, others are opening all the time and a lot are selling off stock at discount prices. We would really like people to come back to Hebden Bridge, to come to our fantastic cafes and shops.

“It’s great to see lots of people walking around, we are really keen that everyone makes an effort to come here and spend their money.”

David Browning, the community hub’s acting director, explained that the association’s role is continuing to evolve as the town slowly gets back on its feet.

“We started out by focusing on distributing food and drink to anyone who needed it and are now spending more of our time giving advice on what people need to do to access grant aid and how to deal with the practicalities of getting their premises back in order,” he said.

“I’ve met some amazing people in the last few days. One lady came in and spend three days ferrying people to Todmorden and back in her car to use the cashpoint machines because none of the ones in Hebden were working.

“Another elderly lady popped in and donated £100 because that’s all she could do. People have done any number of things like bringing in baking and food for us to feed the people who pop in for advice and the volunteers who call in between jobs.

“Local motorcycle clubs have been working with the authorities to patrol the streets to make sure everyone is okay and keep an eye out for looters. Members of a local 4x4 club have been out to check on people who live in some of our more remote properties.

“The way this community has responded is very heartening. We’ve been flooded before and we will be flooded again but the people of the Calder Valley have decided that this is no time to feel sorry for themselves.

“The community has got off its backside to ensure that life goes on.”