Flood-hit Cockermouth fights back - One year on
A year ago this beautiful Georgian market town was ravaged by floods but the spirit of its people means it is back and better than ever. Roger Borrell reports
‘People who say there is no such thing as community are wrong,’ says Jonty Chippendale as he strides purposefully down Main Street. ‘If anyone has any doubt about that they should come to Cockermouth.’
This is a town whose name resonates with the British public. For years, it will be associated with the tragic events of November 19, 2009, when unprecedented levels of rain swamped northern England.
The Rivers Derwent and Cocker, which drain the normally beautiful valleys of Borrowdale and Buttermere, couldn’t cope. They swelled beyond bursting point and an angry surge engulfed this pretty Georgian market town. The torrent brought destruction and despair.
About 2,000 homes and businesses were affected and some 120 shops had to cope with more than eight feet of flood water which ruined stock, shattered livelihoods and wreaked havoc in the bones of many fine old buildings.
The nation watched in horror as the drama of rescue crews evacuating local people from their homes unfolded live on television news.
A year later, Lancashire Life returned to see if the wounds of that terrible night were starting to heal. The impact of millions of gallons of water are still visible across the town but it is no exaggeration to say that its people and the town have shown remarkable fortitude to come through this ordeal stronger than ever.
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The retail centre, the town’s beating heart, has more than survived the experience. Most agree that when it is finished it will look better than before the floods struck.
This is little comfort to the 200 families who are still unable to return to their homes but it does bode well for the future of Wordsworth’s birthplace.
It’s a sign of the determination among the retailers that on November 18, 2009, the town’s chamber of trade had three members. Today there are 170.
One of those new members is also its chairman. Jonty Chippendale is guiding us around a town centre which still thrums to the occasional churn of a cement mixer. ‘This was a strange place to be - by day it was a building site but at night it was dark and empty. It was quite eerie.’
Jonty and his colleagues in the business community have worked hard to find real positives from this terrible experience. For instance, they took the decision that they wouldn’t just recreate Cockermouth pre-flood - they would try to give shop fronts an appearance more in keeping with the town’s Georgian heritage.
‘We didn’t want some sort of pastiche but we wanted to use this opportunity of removing much of the 1970s-style fascias which blight a lot of towns,’ says Jonty, a former estate agent whose family roots are in Clitheroe. ‘The majority of businesses have embraced this aim.’
It has been quite a commitment. While the insurance companies have paid to have repairs made there’s a fine line between putting things back as they were and carrying out improvements. That’s required investment by the shopkeepers.
However, they have been helped by the disaster fund, Government support and �50,000 which came from an anonymous source. Rumour has it the cash may have come from a Royal but no one is saying.
‘People are resilient. Right at the beginning we decided we were going to turn this into an opportunity and make sure Cockermouth came back stronger than ever,’ said Jonty.
‘The floods also brought us together. People made friends they will keep for life. The normal English reserve broke down as people shared experiences and asked if they needed help.
One or two whose businesses were under-insured simply walked away while others have relocated to better positions in the town. Few are vacant. ‘Cockermouth has definitely not been blighted by what happened,’ says Jonty.
He has been running The Toy Shop for 17 years. He and his son were inside as the floods came and, at one stage, he was knocked off his feet by the surge. Both struggled to get out and the shop they left behind was devastated. That’s hard to believe today as you stand in a light, modern and inviting business with a strikingly traditional fa�ade.
That impression is repeated as you walk through the centre and see shops transformed inside and out. One of the town’s landmark retailers is CG’s Curiosity Shop beside the newly � restored bridge which was ripped apart by a tree swept along in the current.
CG’s was a glorious hotchpotch of collectables with a rather worn fa�ade. Today it has the appearance of a swish antiques emporium - although a peep through the windows reveals that it has maintained its streak of eccentricity.
Another remarkable business is J.B. Banks, which has been selling hardware for 174 years and gives no appearance of having changed much during that time.
Vanessa Graham, whose grandfather ran the business in the early 1900s, and her right-hand man Ken Day, strung bedspreads in the window of the wrecked shop and got it back in business just over a week after the flood.
‘There was never any consideration of not carrying on,’ she says. ‘We just turned it into a salvage operation telling people that if we had it, we would sell it.’
The shop has 172 beautiful wooden drawers for storing all manner of household items. Ken removed every one, scraped away the muck and lovingly restored each one. The wooden floor is new but it looks like it has always been there. ‘People come in and assume we were unaffected by the flood,’ laughs Vanessa. ‘The only real change is that it looks a bit tidier!’
Vanessa is very upbeat, but the strain did show. ‘I only cried once,’ she says. ‘My shop was ruins and my house was flooded and United Utilities refused to switch on my electricity so I could have heating. They relented when I started crying!’
As you talk to people in the town, several become choked by emotion as they recall that night. ‘I think we all got so focused on putting things right that when the businesses finally re-opened we were all suffering from exhaustion. We were just drained,’ says Jonty.
Steve Hetherington, who runs The New Bookshop with his wife Catherine, says: ‘We live a little way out of town and we watched the shop being flooded live on Sky TV. The cameras were set up opposite the shop - it was a very strange experience.’
They’d renovated the shop 18 months earlier and had to start from scratch as flood water destroyed 14,000 new books. Today, it’s one of the smartest looking bookshops in the region and will soon be incorporating a coffee shop.
It’s a trend which has been repeated up and down Main Street, typified by Annabelle’s which was a rather dark, traditional dress shop. The flood provided the opportunity to create a chic, sophisticated designer dress shop which wouldn’t look out of place in Knightsbridge.
The ground floor of the famous Trout Hotel was swamped and staff and guests had to take refuge in the upstairs room. Assistant manager James Briggs said they gathered up as much food as they could, filled flasks with hot drinks and grabbing a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin before taking refuge.
Like many, they were eventually rescued by boat and the hotel closed for six months for repairs. While the water was confined to the downstairs, its impact spread upwards affecting the plasterwork throughout the hotel. It was a massive job but worth every penny.
Jonty says that the last time there was a major flood in Cockermouth was 1918 and he firmly believes that the combination of factors which caused the 2009 disaster are unlikely to occur again for another century - if ever.
‘Having said that, you can’t help wondering. It was raining particularly hard last week and I walked down to the river…just to have a look. You can’t help it and I noticed there were other people doing exactly the same thing.’
Video by locals of last year's flooding in Cockermouth shows the immediate effect of the water