Storm Frank strikes Cumbria and southern Scotland and we batten down the hatches, again. The winds whip up during the night, rattling windows, unseen. We are newly aware of geography, of the rivers of northern England. We mastermind on the jet stream, on Atlantic weather systems, rainfall intensity and river catchment because they impact on us: with homes and businesses flooded and travel disrupted. Don’t travel today if you don’t have to, Radio Cumbria advises. Once more, there’s concern for Keswick, Braithwaite and Glenridding as the winds gather strength and up to 130 mm of rainfall is expected. And nearby Glencoyne, How fare the farmers at Glencoyne?
Winter sunlight fires the windows along the riverside walkway below Miller Bridge. The novelty of sunlight, welcome after weeks and weeks of darkness, of unremitting rain and floods. A sigh of relief and a brief respite. Boxing Day saw relentless rain, but the most intense rainfall struck Lancashire and Yorkshire. In Kendal there are sandbags in readiness to protect shops and homes, although skips full of ripped-out flooring tell they’ve already suffered significant damage. For the first time in weeks the low winter sun glosses the river and a flotilla of goosander swims below the waterside cafe, closed after flooding.
There was a glorious full moon on Christmas Eve. Christmas day was dull and rain quickly set in once more on this wettest December for 150 years, with more flood alerts for Cumbria on Boxing Day and the army and the Environment Agency in readiness. Up on Kendal Race Course there’s a traditional hound trailing meet. I wrote about the meet of Boxing Day 2006 in About Scout Scar. At the time, there was a hawthorn standing isolated on the Race Course. Easter Sunday 2008 and there’s snow on the ground and ewes about this dead hawthorn known secretly as the lava-tree.
December sun, a rare appearance during the Cumbrian floods of 2015. With a brief respite from rain I hoped to see how the Lyth Valley fared. Up on the Scout Scar escarpment the wind was so strong it was impossible to hold my camera still. Looking south-west and into the wind I could see nothing on screen. I had to look through binoculars, find the barn on Helsington Pool beside the road that cuts across the valley, and the channel of Helsington Pool. Then shoot blind. The ground is so saturated that flood-water lingers, but not so deep as on 6 December when I missed the drama. Let’s look again.
Last week to Lancaster, for another meeting with Lucy Frontani, design and production manager at Carnegie Publishing. Bringing a book to life is exciting and I love it. Together, we make Cumbrian Contrasts into something beautiful . It’s like choreography. I give her the elements, my story in words and images, and Lucy brings everything together, finding colour harmonies so subtle the echoes ripple across the page. She’s a magician, creating space where there seems to be none. White space is like silence in music. With white space the story speaks and the reader may rest, draw breath, pause and reflect. That’s how I like to read, so that’s the reading experience I choose.
The life-giving rivers of Cumbria, traumatiised . Picture the ecology of our rivers before we inflicted climate change upon them. The Eden, whoever named that river, asked a voice on radio Cumbria as the river blasted Carlisle. What were they thinking of? The blissful garden that John Milton evokes in his poem Paradise Lost? Lost, and we lost it. Eden Bridge is closed, unsafe, no way back to Eden or into Carlisle by Eden Bridge. Like the pedestrian bridge across the Kent that leads to St George’s Catholic Church. Although the Church is open , the churches are welcoming and focused on flood relief
A morning without rain, hurray! Good to be out, but no getting away from the floods. Flood waters lie on either side of the road to Cartmel and the December morning is dark and gloomy, a washed-out sun reflecting off floodwater the only light. A beautiful light if the floods were not so grim. We meet at Cartmel Race Course, glad to be out, companionable, looking for colour even if we have to search for it. There are stories of cattle and sheep being drowned in the floods, stranded and swept into turbulent rivers. Heading for Howbarrow, we’re on higher ground and there would be vistas on a clear day.
My new book, Cumbrian Contrasts, highlights the source of a river as the source of life: the Derwent, the Duddon, the Kent and the Eden. In December 2015 the Paris conference on Climate Change coincided with relentless rainfall and floods across Cumbria- the destructive force of rivers causing havoc. Carlisle feels the full force of the River Eden. I wrote about the floods of February 2004 in About Scout Scar. Then there was 2009.
Think of the Lyth Valley as an inlet, an arm of the sea, was wetland once, is prone to flooding. The farmers are used to it and adapt. Cumbria gets Atlantic weather, but not rainfall like this. It’s unprecedented. It’s raining heavily when Farming Today comes on the radio and this morning it's from Kendal and the Lyth Valley, Savinhill Farm with its speciality White British cattle and its Middle White pigs and Saddlebacks. It took that broadcast from Savinhill to make me look again, to think into my images. Forget the art of photography, this is misery for farmers in South Cumbria.
The River Kent has burst its banks. A month’s rainfall in 24 hours. On the morning of 7 December structural engineers will be out assessing bridges over the River Kent in Kendal. Victoria Bridge, Miller Bridge, Nether Bridge and Stramongate Bridge closed Sunday night. Only Romney Bridge remains open. The priority is to ensure bridges are sound, and to restore power to households, to hospitals. We are deeply indebted to all who work in dreadful conditions to ensure our safety and comfort.
Throughout the night, Radio Cumbria broadcast the drama of an extreme weather event; relentless rain and strong winds after weeks of rain. Search helicopters were out there in the darkness, with the Mountain Rescue, working in winds of up to 80 mph. As dawn broke the worst of the weather was passing through but some rivers were yet to peak. Down in Kendal, railings beside the River Kent showed how high the river had been. Some of those living beside the river had seen their homes badly flooded. Some families had been evacuated.
Jan Wiltshire is a nature writer living in Cumbria. She also explores islands and coast and the wildlife experience. (See Home and My Books.)