Water stories at Saltaire Festival


If you’re at Saltaire Festival this weekend, do check out “The Power of Water” — the exhibition of flood photos that’s on display in an amazing attic level gallery at Salts Mill. I’m told it’s a great exhibition, although alas I’m elsewhere this weekend and can’t get to it… and last weekend, the first of the festival, I was a little preoccupied with my own reflections on water power, in the form of Too Much of Water…

IMG_1628This is me in Roberts Park last Saturday, mid-performance — as snapped by Barney Lerner. All the pics in this blog were taken by audience members and posted to social media, where I grabbed them from. (I had an ‘official’ photographer present too, but I’ll save those pics for a page on the ‘Performances’ tab on this site.) As you can see from this image, the audience consisted of both adults and children (there were a lot more adults standing behind the seated kids), and I’m personally really pleased that the show seemed to hold the attention of both older and younger spectators.


Too Much of Water is a half-hour storytelling performance based on interviews I conducted with a range of people affected by flooding in the Shipley area at Christmas.

IMG_1630To capture a sense of what happened up and down Shipley ward — between Branksome Drive in the west and Lower Holme to the east — I used a bolt of blue cloth to stand in as the river (as seen here in close-up shots by Vanessa Hawkin), and miniature wooden figures to represent some of my interviewees. The resemblances weren’t great, because the figures were store-bought and I just had to arbitrarily assign identities! Much more recognisable were the landmark buildings represented by card models made by my good friend Stewart Gledhill (thanks Stewart!), the chairman of Higher Coach Road Residents’ Group (HCRRG).


IMG_1637In this shot above, that’s Baildon Bridge and Woodbottom club to the left (east), then the four houses of Aire Close, then New Mill, the Boathouse Inn and Roberts Park’s Half Moon Cafe and cricket pavilion, then Hirst Mill at the far end (a bit too close to Saltaire because [a] none of this was to scale, and [b] I messed up my placements a bit in this particular run of the show…

IMG_1632These images might make it look as if the show didn’t take the flood very seriously, but thankfully this was not the reaction of audiences. The story I told sought to deal with some of the devastating consequences of the flood, but with a lightness of touch that I hoped would hold people’s interest and attention. I worked very hard on the writing of the script, especially, to get this balance. I hope that a certain sense of wit was also apparent in my costume — Christmas jumper and waterproof trousers… I was sweating like a pig in these, truth be told, especially on the Sunday…

IMG_1638This picture from one of the performances on Sunday (as snapped by Nicola Murray). I’d had to reposition myself because the sun was so bright. On the Saturday I had my mini-Aire directly parallel with the real thing (and the real Boathouse behind me), but on Sunday the sun was burning right above the Boathouse and would have blinded people, so I shifted round so my back was to the path to the footbridge. Anyway, I’m just glad that — title or no title — we were not affected by rain.


IMG_1643Audience responses on both days were really positive, and I even had a few people asking where they could send donations to flood relief charities. (I recommend Yorkshire Voluntary Flood Support.) Some of my interviewees also turned out to see the show, and it was really great to see them — weird as it must have been for them to hear their personal stories recounted in this way. A huge thanks to all of them.

Thanks too to those people who have been interviewed by me this year, about the floods, but didn’t make it into the show at all. I had way too much material, and had to make some tough decisions about what to include and not. But who knows, maybe some of the other material will find its way into another show…

Thanks to everyone who came. It was great to see you all.










When is a flood not a flood? (Two tales of wet flats)

This Tuesday I was treated to stories of “water inundation” at opposite ends of the housing spectrum. I’ll explain why I’ve used that term in a moment, but first let me introduce you to Andrew Mason, an old friend of the Multi-Story Water project (we had an actor playing him back in 2012) who kindly spared me some time to discuss flood damage…

IMG_1551Andrew, who grew up in Shipley, is the property developer behind the Victoria Mills apartment complex on the south bank of the Aire, between Saltaire and Baildon Bridge. He built the place about a decade ago — converting existing mill buildings and also constructing from scratch three distinctive, curved apartment blocks: Northern Lights, to the left in the image above; and VM1 and VM2, in the background of the shot below, which stand on the bank of the river itself.

IMG_1540Victoria Mills was badly hit by the Boxing Day floods last year, and eight months on, the site is still in the process of rebuild and recovery. Actually, the first six months were occupied largely by endless debates with the insurance company, due to the extent and complexity of the damage, so the repair work only really began in the last couple of months. In these images you can see work continuing on the site’s bar, VM Lounge. As is apparent from the watermark on the windows in the shot below, the place was under 1.8 metres of water on Boxing Day.

IMG_1547VM Lounge has been completely redesigned following the flood, and like other businesses and homes in the area, there’s been something of a learning curve… The refit will be consciously more “flood resilient” than the bar’s previous incarnation, in terms of its fixtures and fittings: the pillars below, for example, will be left as exposed (albeit coated) masonry in the new design, partly as “post-industrial chic” and partly because this will avoid the need ever to repeat the process of stripping away flood-soaked plaster from the brickwork.

IMG_1548Despite this new eye to resilience, though, it’s important to note that VM Lounge and the grassy courtyard area it fronts onto were always designed and expected to flood in the development’s original plans. The rationale for putting the bar at this lower level was that, well, at least nobody lives there. If this gets wrecked, it’s less serious than someone’s home being impacted.

Indeed, the courtyard is specifically designed as a “compensatory flood storage” area — meaning that, in order to get planning permission for the development, Andrew and his colleagues had to provide a contained area on site for high water to flow into (in order that the defended buildings don’t just displace all the water downstream). In short, the courtyard is designed to become a temporary lake, while the actual living spaces are higher up, safely out of harm’s way. At least in theory…. Yet at 4pm on Boxing Day, while away at the coast in Whitby, Andrew received a call from a resident informing him that apartments were under water…

IMG_1541What went wrong? Well, this picture above tells something of the story. The wall to the right (which supports the walkway from which I took the first shot above of VM Lounge) is a flood wall. It’s designed to store displaced water away on the other side, where the bar is, while keeping this grassy tennis court area safe and dry. So it was thought safe to install apartments at ground level in the block you see here (Masons Mill) and in the one facing it (Old Mill). It was these apartments that were hit on Boxing Day.

Interestingly, though, the insurance company insists that these apartments (unlike the bar), were not “flooded”. Rather, they were affected by “a water inundation event”. The technical difference, Andrew tells me, is that flooding is what happens when the river flows into your property… whereas in this area the water came up through the ground. ”Like something out of a science fiction movie”, Andrew remarks.

Basically, the land in this area was so completely waterlogged during the flood that pressure from the swollen river pushed water up through the ground itself. The irony is that Andrew’s tennis courtyard was particularly vulnerable, because — in line with the best current design thinking — it was created to provide “sustainable urban drainage”; i.e. to let water sink down into the ground rather than it simply draining off impermeable surfaces and being channeled away elsewhere (back into the river). So for instance, the tennis court itself is made of “tenniscrete”, a form of porous hard surface that allows water down through it. Yet the twist here, of course, is that what goes down can also come up. The ground’s porosity also allowed water to rise through it. It’s an issue that, Andrew notes, nobody thought to raise when the Victoria Mills complex was being designed — not the architects, not the engineers, not the Environment Agency. And now it’s too late to do remedial work to solve the problem. All that can be done is to make those ground floor flats, like the bar, more resilient to future “inundation”.

Now meet my other interviewees from Tuesday. Jenni Mynard and her son Dylan…

IMG_1555They’re pictured here on the bench at Dowley Gap locks, on the canal, which is just a five minute walk from their home in the Crosley Wood housing estate (at the east end of Bingley – close to Baildon and Shipley). If Victoria Mills styles itself as luxury apartment living, Crosley Wood is the polar opposite — a council estate, now run by Bradford’s social housing quango In Communities, which nobody who lives there has a good word for. The three concrete tower blocks that make up the estate were built back in the 1960s, and should probably have been demolished long ago…

ireland to crosley woods 207

Although the setting for the estate is beautifully green and wooded, and right next to the canal, the buildings themselves are in a terrible state. Jenni and family had a “water inundation event” of their own only a few weeks ago, when the badly plumbed piping under the kitchen sink sprang a leak and deluged the floor, leaving them paddling around in several centimetres of water. Jenni knows of almost identical incidents that have occurred in neighbours’ flats — and she has also had water pouring through her bathroom ceiling from a leak in the flat above. (Her own leak, of course, flowed down to the flat below… so there’s a kind of cascade effect – like an indoor waterfall!) But the real problem in terms of “living with water” in these buildings is the persistent damp from condensation in the external walls and in the walls around ventilation shafts. Dylan has lived his entire life at Crosley Wood, and has an asthmatic condition that his parents are convinced is related to the black mould spots on his bedroom wall. Yet every attempt that the Mynards have made to get In Communities to pay serious attention to the condition of the flat — or to relocate them to alternative accommodation — has fallen on deaf ears.

Despite these struggles, though, Jenni and her family remain the most positive and community-minded people you could wish to come across. For instance, she and Dylan were active in the flood clear-up attempts organised by Bingley Flood Support in the aftermath of the Boxing Day deluge. They could see that other people needed help, and — as Jenni says — that is what community is for. Her approach is perhaps summed up by a phrase that’s been quoted to me by several other volunteer flood responders this year: “Do as you would be done by.” (These words are, of course, from Charles Kingsley’s Victorian children’s novel, The Water Babies – which is itself set in West Yorkshire, in Airedale and Wharfedale.)

I got to know Jenni and Dylan a little during recent visits to Crosley Wood’s regular Wednesday afternoon community meal (in the prefab hut that passes as a centre for residents). My colleague Lyze, and Paul Barrett of Kirkgate Centre, have been engaging with that group for some time now. I’ve been wanting, somehow, to reflect creatively on the circumstances that residents find themselves living in, and it occurred to me that Jenni’s story might make a good one focus for a short documentary film. She’s so passionate and articulate about their circumstances – and Dylan so sly and funny –  that the film will require no editorialising commentary from me. We spent two days this week shooting footage in and around Bingley, at Crosley Wood, and inside their flat — working from a rough outline plan that uses water as a connecting thread (from the Bingley Five Rise to the Crosley Wood ten-rise…). Maybe, just maybe, it will make somebody pay attention to their situation?

IMG_1561The final scene of the film will be a playfully imagined escape from the flats, as Jenni and Dylan disappear off into the sunset towards Saltaire, along the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. My colleague Trevor Roberts had one of his Canal Connections boats, the Out and About, coming through Dowley Gap locks on Tuesday evening, so we hitched a little ride… (That’s skipper Katrina at the tiller – she let Dylan have a go too.)

Thanks so much to Jenni and Dylan for a memorable and enjoyable couple of days filming. I really hope they’ll be proud of the results when we’ve finished editing the footage. Thanks to Andrew Mason, too, and of course to Canal Connections. Out on a boat, on a gorgeous summer’s evening like Tuesday’s, it was possible – at least temporarily – to forget the problems with wet flats…








Holiday postcard

This blog has been quiet in August so far, largely because I’ve been away for two weeks in the United States. Visiting friends in Alabama, to be precise (where, yes, it is a tad hot at this time of year). For one day-trip, we visited Florence, Alabama — which doesn’t look much like the one in Tuscany — where I marvelled at a piece of water engineering that utterly dwarfs anything in the Aire valley…


Greetings from Alabama – Wish You Were Here!                         (Photo courtesy of Angel Hundley)

This is me at Wilson Dam, historically the first of a whole series of massive structures to be built across the width of the Tennessee River… which winds its 652-mile journey through Tennessee, Alabama, Tennessee again, and finally Kentucky, where it intersects with the Ohio River… which then shortly thereafter flows into the mighty Mississippi, which then heads down to the Gulf of Mexico. So it’s kind of like the Aire, flowing into the Ouse, which then quickly flows into the Humber. Except it isn’t, because the scale of everything is *massively* bigger.

If you thought the controversy about Saltaire weir’s proposed hydro-electric installation was heated (check out previous posts under the “Saltaire Hydro” tab on this blog — although that scheme seems now to have drifted off into the long grass of oblivion), then imagine the local tensions that would have been caused by damming the entire width of the Tennessee in order to generate power back in the 1930s. In the process, of course, the constructors flooded the entire valley upstream of the dam — with incalculable effects on local wildlife habitats as well as human settlements.

Nowadays the official view on such mega-dams is generally negative, because of the adverse environmental impacts (notwithstanding the pressing argument for finding renewable energy supplies). But the arguments for dams in the Tennessee Valley are complex. The land was notoriously infertile, partly because it was so often subject to destructive floods that swept away sun-dried topsoil. So by harnessing the power of the river through a planned series of staggered dams, the idea was also that it would be contained and controlled better — creating reservoirs from which irrigation systems could be channelled to create more fertile farmland. The TVA system, as it is known (Tennessee Valley Authority) was developed in the 1930s as a cornerstone of the Roosevelt administration’s “New Deal” approach to tackling the Great Depression… massive amounts of federal money went into a building programme that no private company would ever have ventured, providing fiscal stimulus to the wider economy of the depressed Southern states (as people were put to work on the scheme). It was the very opposite of the austerity politics we’ve become used to in recent years in the UK.

IMG_1516Wilson Dam was centrepiece of the TVA system — both predating and inspiring the rest of it. (This one actually began as a World War I-era scheme, and is named after then-President Woodrow Wilson). Now a National Historic Landmark, the dam is viewed here from the South bank of the Tennessee – from Muscle Shoals (a town central to the history of popular music in the US, because of its recording studios). In the foreground is the section of the dam in which hydro-electric power turbines are still driven by the flow of water from the upper river. You can see the churn of water re-entering the river below. There are massive power-plant buildings on this side of the river, close to where this picture was taken.

Beyond that first section is the widest bit of the dam, which is basically just a long containing wall. Then at the far side, you can see a concrete construction jutting out from the dam. This is Wilson Lock — a huge lock big enough to raise and lower not just boats but full-scale ships. In fact, as you can see from the image below, the lock is actually two separate lock systems — a smaller, two-rise system to the north, and then the huge single chamber system. Certainly puts the Bingley Five Rise into perspective…


Mud of the Aire / Mud of the Somme… (Down at Denso’s)

This week I visited the Nature Reserve at Denso Marston’s, in Lower Baildon (Charlestown) to meet the warden there, Steve Warrillow. My visit was motivated by my research into how the Boxing Day floods have affected people and places in the Shipley/Baildon area. In my mental mapping, Denso’s is the most easterly point of interest on this stretch of the river —  with Branksome Drive and Dowley Gap at the westernmost end. Steve, though, is a fascinating interviewee and we talked about many things besides the flooding…


Here he is down on the riverbank, pointing out to me the extent of what was lost to the river as a result of the flood. He estimates that, last year, there was eight to ten feet more banking between the river and the main footpath through the reserve — but as you can see, at this point there’s barely any gap at all. Given that much of the nature reserve is a fairly thin strip of land between the Aire and Denso’s working factory site, Steve can’t necessarily afford to lose whole chunks of it to the river… although of course he is the first to admit that it is the nature of rivers to alter their course over time.


So severe has the banking collapse been, Steve notes, that he has decided to leave a small forest of Himalayan balsam in its (self-seeded) place, to provide a kind of safety barrier along the sharply sloping banking next to the path. (The balsam is of course visible in the photo above — as is, on the opposite side of the river, some of the flood debris still hanging in trees some seven months later.) Balsam grows tall enough that it masks and deters, but it is also of course (as discussed in my last blog but one) an invasive species that wreaks havoc with native plants and soil integrity along riverbanks. Some would no doubt be appalled that Steve has allowed so much of it to remain in place — rather than trying to pull it all up before it can release more seeds downstream — but he adopts a more philosophical attitude, seeing balsam as just one issue among many he has to deal with, rather than in terms of the tabloid-style hysteria that it sometimes attracts.


Away from the river, evidence of the flood is also to be found underfoot. This, Steve points out, is river sand — left behind by the receding waters. It’s the kind of stuff that householders affected by the flood tried to get rid of straight away, not least because of the likely contaminants in it (e.g. raw sewage from up at the Dowley Gap sewage works). But of course, in a more natural setting like this one, anything organic can be left to rot down and provide nutrients for the earth. The big problems Steve had to deal with on the nature reserve, post-flood, was the huge quantity of inorganic debris that was swept downstream and left on site — everything from cars and freezers down to plastic bags and tampons. There were also quite a few dead animals, large and small … organic matter, yes, but not what you want left about to rot!

When you’re dealing with a sizeable patch of land like this, which was ten feet under water at the worst of the flooding, and has plenty of trees to act as barriers/obstacles to things being swept along, its unsurprising that so much was left behind. Fortunately, though, most of the debris was cleared away quite quickly by a major volunteer clean-up effort in January — when the Friends of Denso Marston’s customary volunteer force was joined by others from the area including the Friends of Roberts Park, Hirst Wood Regeneration Group, and Mat Holloway’s ADRI (Aire Debris Removal Initiative). Steve recalls the amazingly positive initial response to the Reserve’s calls for help — but also notes that this positive burst of energy tailed off quite quickly… He has been frustrated, in the months since, by the thoughtless remarks of visitors wondering why everything is not as perfect with the reserve as they would expect it to be… (We can all have very short memories.)


Looking at the site today, it would indeed be easy to forget about the recent flooding, given that Steve and his volunteers have done such a great job cleaning it up and restoring it to former glories. This photo of the reserve’s wetland pond — the heart of its wildlife habitats — looks positively idyllic, and belies the hard slog that has gone into managing its restoration in the months since the flood. Moreover, Steve notes, the banking all the way around the pond is perilously soft, just as it is along the river.

He has been cheered, though, by the signs of wildlife making a resurgence on the site even after so much of it was rudely displaced at Christmas. In the reserve’s education hut (a new one now located some way up the hill, at a safer distance from the river than the old one, which was wrecked by the flood), Steve proudly showed me this display of dragonfly chrysalises that he has collected from around the site this year. There had been fears that the dragonfly population would be badly affected by the flooding and its aftermath, so this little exhibition is evidence of very good news…


Even so, the reserve’s dragonfly population is also indicative of wider changes in the natural world that would be foolish to ignore. If the flooding, as many have argued, is symptomatic of a changing climate in this 21st century, so too is the fact that Steve regularly observes dragonfly species on this site that he would never have seen twenty years ago, when the reserve was establishing itself. The warming climate is pushing many species north in search of more temperate climes. (Although the chrysalises preserved in this display appear to be from species that are more “natural” residents of Yorkshire.)


Also on display in the education hut is Steve’s personal collection of First World War memorabilia — set out to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme at the beginning of this month. Aside from being a keen birder and insect expert, Steve is fascinated by story of the Somme — as well he might be, given that his great-grandfather was one of the lucky soldiers to survive the slaughter (had he not… no Steve). Among the treasures collected here are his great-grandfather’s first-aid box (the black tin to the right of this shot, now displaying bullet fragments etc), and a still-unopened tin of Tommy’s rations (the gold box to the left). It’s pretty weighty! Steve has heard tell of one such box being opened quite recently, and its contents still being perfectly intact (presumably because it was completely airtight). So strange what changes, and doesn’t, over time.

Steve’s interest in the war extends to having booked a package tour to the Somme, which he is heading off on in August. It’ll be his second visit. We spoke quite a bit about all this, as well as about the reserve and the flood, and I mentioned that — on July 1st, the centenary of the Battle — I had been fortunate enough to witness the eerie presence of World War I soldiers on the streets of Manchester… I promised to post some pictures on this blog, so Steve could see them…


This was Exchange Square, towards the end of the day, as all the “soldiers” who had been positioned in different parts of the city, ever since the morning rush hour, gathered together for the event’s understated conclusion…The appearance of silent soldier figures in cities up and down the country that day was part of a commemmorative art event conceived by the artist Jeremy Deller (who in 2001 famously staged a reconstruction of the 1984 police vs. miners clash at the “Battle of Orgreave”). Titled simply “We Are Here” (after the song “We’re here, because we’re here…”; there wasn’t much more rationale for the trench warfare…), the piece consisted simply of perfectly attired actors standing — or sitting — as a silent presence within the everyday lives of commuters and shoppers. A little like the traditional “two minutes silence”, but played as an interruption in space rather than time.


Each soldier had a collection of “business cards” indicating the identity of the man he was representing (and thus, literally, re-membering). They didn’t offer them around, but if you went up to one of them to ask what was going on — or simply to ask who he was — then he would give you a card and simply walk away. Like a ghost.



It’s not just water that can sweep people away.

Thanks Steve, for a memorable visit.

Shipley’s weirs – a technical view

IMG_1436Yesterday I was back down at Shipley weir, immediately downstream of Baildon Bridge, to visit my old friend the heron (above), and to show around a colleague of mine at Manchester University, Andrea Bottacin Busolin. Andrea (male, pronounced the Italian way, because he’s Italian) is a civil engineer who very kindly took some time out to analyse some flow data for the River Aire (which was, in turn, kindly supplied by the Environment Agency). This investigation was in response to a question raised by Phillip Moncaster, of Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club (just upstream of the bridge). Put simply, if this weir was taken out of the river, might this reduce flood risk to the club and other local homes and businesses? Phillip’s hypothesis (discussed in more detail in this previous blog post) was that taking the weir out might lower the flow level of the water going under Baildon Bridge — meaning that in high water conditions the bridge would not so quickly turn into a concrete dam across the river…

This always seemed a reasonable hypothesis, but we needed to look at what the technical evidence for it might or might not be. And in practice, it seems, the data does not support the hypothesis. The bridge is a problem, yes, but taking the weir out won’t really help. Here’s why…

First: If you click on this link, it should open up a summary graph of the technical data. Don’t ask me to explain what it all means, because I’m not an engineer, but basically this is a representation of the downhill flow of the River Aire – moving from left to right across the page. The section analysed here starts somewhere near Crossflatts, and stops somewhere downstream of Woodhouse Bridge. It shows “river bed elevation” (that is, the level of the river bed) in relation to the “water surface profile” (the level of the water in different flow conditions).

Now, you can clearly see where Andrea has marked Shipley weir (aka Baildon weir) on the summary graph. It shows up as a small spike in the downhill flow. And if you look just to the left of that marker, you see two other spikes… Together, these three little spikes, roughly in the middle of the graph, represent the three weirs in the Shipley area — Hirst weir, Saltaire weir, and then Shipley weir. Now, watch what happens to those three spikes in this animation of the flow data as the water gets higher and then lower again…

(OK, yes, I added a little free music to it via YouTube, to try and make it a bit more exciting.)

As you can see, as the water level gets higher, the weir spikes gradually cease to affect the surface level of the water. The water gets so high that the weirs basically disappear from view. And this happens fastest with Shipley weir — so fast, in fact, that the weir quite quickly ceases to make much difference to the flow level. Saltaire weir takes a bit longer to disappear below the waves — and interestingly it seems that Hirst weir continues to make a bit of a difference even in very high flows. This explains the roiling wave effect that eye-witnesses saw at Hirst weir during the height of the flooding.

Now, based on this same data, Andrea was also able to provide a hypothetical animation of what would happen to the flow if you were to take out Shipley weir. He simply removes that third spike from the graph, and then animates the same flow data. This is what you get (again with dubious musical accompaniment…): 
As you can see, the pattern is almost identical to that in the first animation… demonstrating that in practical terms, the presence of Shipley weir makes almost no difference at all to the behaviour of the river during high flows and flood conditions. It’s really only in low flows that the weir makes a marked difference to the river’s upstream and downstream levels.

Now, Andrea was the first to acknowledge that the accuracy of this judgement is dependent on the accuracy of the data that he was given. And the Environment Agency is in the process of updating its survey analysis of the Aire as we speak. But there’s no particular reason to doubt his broad conclusions. I invited him down to Shipley yesterday simply so that he could see the weir itself, in situ (rather than as an abstract set of data) and so that he could meet Phillip. We had a good chat, which concluded aptly with Phillip’s wry observation that: “I guess we need to think of something else then.”


We noted rather grimly that there’s a lot of debris in the river again, especially around the bridge, just waiting to contribute to damming problems in high water conditions. And there was more of this to be seen as Andrea and I walked upstream to from Shipley weir towards Saltaire weir, using the riverside path. Look at this by the pipe aqueduct just upstream of Phillip’s club…

IMG_1437And then of course there’s the flood debris from last time, still very much apparent in the riverside trees….

IMG_1438Indeed, Andrea was intrigued to notice the amount of “lateral vegetation” along the river banks — by which he means the trees and shrubs that grow right out into the river, and catch hold of rubbish like this in high water. Vegetation like this, he noted, will provide some resistance to water flow which is difficult to represent in the simple graphs. It will be interesting to see if the EA’s new data set starts to take this kind of close-up detail into account, although – again – it probably won’t affect the broad conclusions about the weir.

Reaching Saltaire and its weir, its particularly apparent just how low the flow in the river is just now — enabling you to see the entire structural architecture of the weir…


We didn’t walk up as far as Hirst weir (pictured below from a visit the day before), but perhaps the most significant finding of Andrea’s technical analysis is just how much of a role Hirst weir continues to play in relative flow levels, even in high water. This is relevant to the continuing debate about whether the Rowing Club’s repair of that weir has adequately addressed the downstream flood risk issues associated with it.


Just for the record, here is Andrea’s slightly more technical summary of what his analysis shows:

“The graph summarises the results from the simulation of a 10 year flood under two different scenarios, with and without weir. I have also included a plot of the upstream flow hydrograph (discharge versus time) representing the boundary condition at the upstream section. You can see that the water surface elevation just upstream of the weir is different for the base flow at the beginning of the simulation, but the difference disappears as the flow discharge increases. The maximum water surface level for the simulated flood event is virtually the same for both scenarios. This means that the weir has no significant effect on the water level during high flows. However, the local flow contraction induced by the weir produces higher flow velocities just above the weir and higher turbulence intensity downstream of it, thereby increasing the risk of local erosion. This may not represent a significantly higher threat if the river bed and banks are sufficiently stable.”

Balsam-bashing, art-making, football-playing HCRRG!

Tis the season to be bashing. Or so I’m told. To be specific, that’s bashing Himalayan balsam – the invasive plant species that spreads like wildfire along riverbanks and tends to grow high and smother other vegetation as it goes… As this helpful guide from the Canal and River Trust explains, you have to do what you can to root it out annually, before the plant’s seed pods develop and further spread themselves along our waterways.


Here’s one bit of balsam, with those pretty purple flowers, located right on the banks of the Aire along the ‘Higher Coach Road’ stretch west of Saltaire. (That’s the Graincliffe aqueduct, carrying Shipley’s water supply across, er, water, in the background.) This particular piece of balsam is no longer in situ, because I pulled it up myself — working alongside Ruth Bartlett of HCRRG (Higher Coach Road Residents Group) one night last week. Ruth had taken it upon herself to organise and advertise nightly balsam- bashing sessions (just one of a number of community initiatives she has been involved with getting started), and every evening from 8 she was joined by different assortments of friends and community members to work along this stretch of the river.

There’s something peculiarly satisfying about pulling up balsam. And actually pulling it up, rather than ‘bashing’, slashing, or strimming is really the best way to deal with it when it is mixed in among native plant species — as it certainly is along the Aire. At this point in the year it has grown to the point where the balsam’s stalks are easily identifiable and very graspable – resembling some sort of cross between rhubarb and celery — so you just grab it as close to the roots as you can and yank it out of the ground (while trying not to get stung by nearby nettles or spiked by thorns). It comes up really easily, although as Ruth pointed out, that’s partly because the roots have already partially disintegrated the soil they’re growing in (another reason why this is really bad to have along riverbanks, because it contributes to erosion). And then you just leave the stuff to rot down, safely neutralised…


Ruth’s balsam bashing initiative is just one of the recent activities undertaken along the riverbank and flood plain by HCRRG. Though still quite a new group (which, I’m proud to say, the Multi-Story Water project had a hand in getting going), they’re learning fast. Actually this balsam bashing has been a good example of ‘learning’. Ruth initially advertised on Facebook for volunteers to help clear both the balsam and some of the nettles by the riverbank — her thinking being that clearing some nettles would help us get closer to the balsam! But she immediately got a number of replies urging that the nettles be left alone, both for ecological reasons (they’re really an important part of the native riverbank ecosystem) and for community safety reasons — i.e. they help to keep local children away from the riverbank when they’re playing unsupervised (since the bank is slippy and steep in places, and prone to erosion – as noted above). Ruth duly amended her posts.

IMG_1248The wider flood plain area along the HCR estate continues to be a point of discussion and some contention this summer, with the Council mowers again refraining from cutting the grass on a regular basis. The evolving controversy between those residents who wanted a closely-cropped lawn and those who liked the wildlife opportunities created by the longer grass (e.g. watching birds dive-bombing for insects) was the subject of a number of posts on this blog last year — and the focus of our community-focused ‘Meadow Meander’ event. This year, as you can see from the image above, the grass hasn’t grown nearly as high as last year — another consequence of the flooding at Christmas and the fact that the ground remained completely waterlogged until well into the spring. But as a result of the discussions last year, HCRRG was able to establish a direct line of communication with the local parks manager who is responsible for the mowing on this stretch (John Dembycki [sp.?], based up at Northcliffe Park). And one consequence of this is that the estate now has its own football field!

IMG_1246This shot is looking back towards Roberts Park and Saltaire (see mill and church in background). Older residents recall that this relatively flat end of the field was used for local football matches in years gone by, but the ground had long since become too bumpy and boggy for that. But this year the mowers have made a point of cutting the grass at regular intervals on this patch, so that the ground was flattened and prepared for the installation of the goalposts that went in just a couple of weeks ago, along with the chalk perimeter lines. Local kids are, needless to say, already making good use of the pitch. This area of the field is immediately downhill of the area where children often tend to gather anyway, so it’s worked really well.

And so too has the recent introduction of weekly art-making workshops for the children, run by Spongetree’s Nicola Murray — pictured below with the enthusiastic Oliver…


Nicola lives down Green Lane, within walking distance of the estate, so it’s been simple for her to get along on a Wednesday afternoon in the after-school hours to work with kids on various arts and crafts activities — including here making fish sculptures from willow sticks and ribbon (all very appropriate to the riverside environment). Involving Spongetree in this way was again an initiative of HCRRG — with local kids often literally asking Ruth and others for “stuff to do” — and Multi-Story Water has been involved in supporting this activity too. We initially asked parents to sign their kids up to an organised series of workshops, but this seems to have been off-puttingly formal for most, so we abandoned that approach and decided to pursue the idea more organically… with Nicola simply rocking up each week and involving whichever children turned up in the activities on offer (and yes, she is thoroughly DBS-checked). That approach has proved popular, with numbers of kids in attendance growing steadily over the first few weeks. We’re planning to continue this part-way into the summer holidays, and see what the kids can create. They are also starting to articulate their own requests for things to do — den-making is the next big thing for them, it seems, although that might require a little more in the way of resources. Let’s see what evolves…


Looking for common ground

Last week I was at Baildon Woodbottom Working Men’s Club for an intriguing meeting between two very different men. Here they are below – on the left, the club’s secretary Phillip Moncaster, and on the right, Jonathan Moxon, a senior flood risk manager at the Environment Agency. They seemed to get on pretty well.


I’ve got to know both these men quite well over the last couple of years, but they had never met each other before this meeting. So you can imagine how weird it was when I saw them juxtaposed on television in January, in BBC’s Yorkshire’s Inside Out documentary about the Boxing Day flooding, with Jonathan saying that he was “disappointed” to hear how frustrated Phillip was with the Environment Agency…

Actually, describing Phillip as being “frustrated” by the EA would be the understatement of the year. His anger with them began back in November and December, before the floods even hit, for reasons documented on this previous blog post. Then come December 26th, both the Woodbottom club and Phillip’s own house were six feet underwater (he lives just upstream on Aire Close, right next to the river). He received a phone call from the EA flood service at around midnight on Christmas Day, advising him that the river was swollen but that it was thought to have peaked. It was on this basis that he decided further action was unnecessary that night — and yet the next morning he had to wade out of his house because the river had come up hugely overnight and was still rising…

From Phillip’s point of view, insult was then added to injury when some people from the EA finally showed up during the days after the flood, and wanted to ask him questions about what had happened, rather than offering any assistance with cleaning up the sewage-covered mess that the house and club had been reduced to. That conversation turned into the EA people having strips torn off them by Phillip, with some pretty colourful language being used (another understatement). Since then, he has made his views pretty vocally heard on TV — not just in the clip pasted in above, but on a couple of other programmes too, including Look North. 

So what was the point of Jonathan coming down to meet Phillip? I must admit that I did worry, in advance, that it might turn into another uneasy confrontation – because god knows he has plenty to feel aggrieved about. (The club is only just properly back on its feet — although they reopened with a makeshift bar by the end of January, it took until last month to complete the replastering and refurbishing.) But my sense was that Phillip and Jonathan would get on OK if they sat down and talked it through — because communication is the only way to improve things, right?

Jonathan acknowledged that Phillip had had plenty of cause to be stressed and angry after Christmas. He pointed out, though, that the reality for the EA was that they simply didn’t have the staff or resources to cope with the demands placed on them right across the North of England following the Boxing Day deluge (and it doesn’t help that they suffered major staff cuts during the post-2010 government austerity drive). So the two people that had visited Phillip weren’t even from the Yorkshire area – they were simply colleagues who’d come up from down South to try to help the over-stretched Leeds office. They didn’t have the resources or kit to do anything more than gather information and try to see what help people needed.

As for the poor information that Phillip had been given on the telephone on Christmas night, Jonathan was clear that he shouldn’t have been told what he was told about the river having peaked. Yet the reality is that people under pressure in rapidly changing circumstances will sometimes make errors of judgement when trying to interpret the information they’re receiving. And again, limited resources are part of the problem here — insofar that the Agency can’t always get all the information that would be useful to make the best judgements, because they can’t be everywhere at once.

It was at some point in the middle of this conversation that Jonathan mentioned that a particular problem the EA faces in Bradford is that they have no volunteer Flood Wardens (whereas they have plenty, for example, in the Calder valley). Flood Wardens are just members of the community who volunteer to keep an eye out on what the river is doing, and report concerns directly to EA officers so that they have the most detailed information possible. I decided to jump right in and ask directly whether Jonathan was saying, “would Phillip be willing to act as a Flood warden?” And given Phillip’s widely broadcast grievances with the EA, my expectation was that he would laugh this idea off – as if he was simply being asked to work for free, or something.

But much to my surprise, before Jonathan even had a chance to answer my question, Phillip had answered it for me. Yes, he said, he would be happy to do that — because he does it anyway. By which he meant that, for years, he has been on the phone to the EA, to Bradford Council, and whoever else he could get hold of, trying to report his concerns with the river — and for years he’s been getting the runaround from call centre operators, passed from pillar to post. So when Jonathan explained that Flood wardens get to use a different phone number, which gets them direct access to flood risk officers and a proper, two-way conversation about what’s going on — well, that’s exactly what Phillip has wanted — to be able to talk to someone who is actually listening and can say more than just “let me take down your number.” (I mean, when Jonathan put it like that, my thought was, why would you not want to have that access, and that kind of response, if you care about the river? As Phillip so obviously does. … The irony is, I guess, that the EA doesn’t have enough resources to properly advertise the Flood warden scheme…?)


After we’d spoken for about an hour in the club, Phillip took us outside and across the river — across Baildon Bridge — to get a better look at the key problem. The club is directly upstream of the bridge. And in flood conditions, the bridge turns into a dam — backing the water up and sending it all the way out across the cricket pitch towards Green Lane. This is partly because of that thick, low, concrete-sided wall, and partly because even the space underneath the bridge can get dammed up very quickly with dead trees and other debris being swept downstream. Phillip pointed out one submerged tree, under the bridge, that has literally been there for months.

On the other side of Baildon Bridge, this is the view downstream towards Shipley weir…



Phillip has long felt that, if the weir could be taken out, this might reduce the height of the water going under the bridge, and mean that it doesn’t get dammed up so quickly — thereby potentially reducing flood risk. His concerns on this point were first documented quite a while ago on this blog. Since it seemed a reasonable argument, I have — for quite a while now — been trying to find out if there is any scientific validity for Phillip’s theory, and in fact it was Jonathan who kindly arranged last year for the EA’s flow data for this stretch of the Aire to be released to the University of Manchester (where I work) for analysis. Just a month or two ago, a civil engineer colleague finally found the time to look at this data for me. The conclusion he came to was that, while the weir does appear to make a difference to the levels of the river in low flow conditions, in high flow the weir makes very little difference to the water level because it basically disappears under the deluge. So this initial assessment appeared disappointing, from Phillip’s point of view.

But… (and here’s the intriguing part) … Jonathan himself is not all that persuaded by this engineering analysis. And the reason is not because he thinks my colleague at Manchester got anything wrong, but simply that the data the EA was able to provide to him in the first place may not have been as detailed or up-to-date as it could be. And crucially, the modelling won’t have accounted sufficiently for effects on the bridge… To Jonathan, the real issue here is what happens to the bridge in high water, more than what happens to the weir. What if, he asks, there turns out to be a case for the bridge itself to be raised or replaced? I should stress that this was purely speculative on Jonathan’s part, but the point he was making is that we might need to look seriously at all the possible options — even the ones that at first glance seem wildly ambitious and expensive — if we’re going to think seriously about future-proofing.

And here’s the twist. The Boxing Day flooding, while devastating for many including Phillip, has also created a new sense of urgency in government circles, and thus a willingness to look at new options. Jonathan’s approach is to try to use that “fair wind” to push for better data and better answers … and so just a few weeks ago, for example, he was able to order an up-to-date survey of river conditions in the Shipley area. And he was able to do this using a small slice of the government funding allocated to the Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme — on the grounds that, since Bradford is upstream of Leeds, anything that can be usefully done to better control high water upstream could have valuable knock-on benefits downstream.

From Jonathan’s point of view, the active concern shown by citizens like Phillip is exactly the kind of involvement that should be being better utilised and responded to by the EA and other responsible agencies. In the immortal words of the just-fired Chancellor George Osborne, “we’re all in this together” — and so it’s the job of agencies to listen to and work with communities, to find solutions that work for all of us, rather than just imposing “expert” solutions without consultation.

A case in point? Take another look at that picture above… Actually I’ll paste it in again…


See that new breezeblock wall that’s been built onto the old stone wall on the right here? It’s not a thing of beauty, and Phillip was skeptical about whether the site owner had permission to build it — he knew there had been some exchanges of letters about it. Jonathan’s attitude, though, was intriguing. The EA has some concerns about this new bit of wall, he told us, and would not normally sign off on something like this without further investigation (which may yet happen… does raising the wall level here negatively impact on flood risk downstream, for instance?). Yet in the aftermath of the Boxing Day floods, there is also an awareness that people want to take fresh precautions against future risk, and that the EA shouldn’t simply be in the business of frustrating people from trying to protect their businesses or homes. So there needs to be a degree of leeway with the regulations, and perhaps a degree of improvisational “make it up as we go” when dealing with individual cases of concerned citizens wanting to take action. Because that is going to be the only way to build trust and understanding, as opposed to tying people up in infuriating amounts of red tape.

I must admit, I left that meeting feeling quietly inspired. Here were two men, Phillip and Jonathan, who had every reason to be wary of each other, every reason to keep  their defences up. Yet after a “full and frank discussion” (as the politicians say), there really did seem to be a sense of goodwill on both sides and a concern to keep in touch and keep each other informed. With so much sound and fury and mistrust going on in wider political life at the moment, it was refreshing to be part of a discussion that seemed constructive and tentatively optimistic.

A huge thankyou to both Phillip and Jonathan for taking the time out of their busy days to meet up.

The Bradford Underground…?

Yesterday I was with some of the Friends of Bradford’s Becks, representing the Beck in the city centre as part of the, er, Ilkley Literature Festival’s contribution to this weekend’s Bradford Festival. Thanks to Geoff Roberts for this group photo of the contributors…


This was a poetry event, presented in Waterstone’s (in Bradford’s historic Wool Exchange), and hosted by FoBB chairman Barney Lerner (second on left). This year FoBB has published a book of poems about Bradford Beck, by a range of local poets, and has even recorded a CD of many of them being read. It’s all part of an ongoing attempt to raise awareness of the Beck, to speak of it in language even when it can’t be seen with the eyes…


It should be noted, though, that Eddie Lawler and I were cheating slightly, by (1) presenting song and narrative rather than poetry as such… (though nobody seemed to mind!), and (2) by offering “The Ballad of Little Beck” rather than a meditation on Bradford Beck itself. Eddie’s song written was for Salt’s Waters (a double act we have twice presented at Saltaire Festival), and features my narrative interjections about the ruined Milner Field House. (Soon to be part of a new downloadable audio tour available at www.saltswaters.co.uk)

Still, in an effort to direct our attentions back to the city’s main watercourse, Eddie and I headed outside following the poetry presentation (as heard by a small but appreciative audience). We set out to hunt down the trail of plaques that have recently been installed by FoBB to trace the underground route of Bradford Beck through city centre. This one below, located on Bank Street, is typical: it bears the FoBB logo and the name of a supporting sponsor (Feature Radiators) in opposite corners, with a striking visual in the centre. Each plaque has a slightly different choice of wording – this one speaks of the beck “whispering in the dark … waiting for a rebirth” — perhaps a return to daylight; a “resurrection from this rat-ridden cave”, as Eddie’s song Bradford Beck so memorably puts it…


The map below tracks the 15 plaque positions — and Eddie, his wife Olga and I tracked them backwards from number 15 (near the end of Canal Road) towards the first one by the Odeon cinema — which is built directly over the top of the Beck. We discovered, however, that only plaques 8 through 15 have so far been installed. We hunted high and low for the others, but they’re not in place yet.


Hopefully the others will be in place by September, when FoBB is planning a number of activities for World Rivers Day. Among them will be guided tours of the plaques route — and Eddie and I were scouting them out with a view to planning such a tour.


As this picture shows, the plaques can be unobtrusive — barely noticeable even, unless you’re looking for them — but that is part of their charm I think. They’re subtle reminders of the presence of something that is literally invisible… buried 2 or 3 metres beneath our feet. A tour will, I think, have to play with that question of the visible or invisible, absent or present… We will also be hoping, frankly, for better weather in September than we’ve had this weekend. Water is a wonderful thing, but when it’s drizzling out of the sky, it doesn’t half put a dampener on “festival” spirits…



This weekend at Leeds Waterfront Festival!

The Multi-Story Water project moves downstream along the Aire a few miles this weekend — to present two special promenade performances for visitors to Leeds Waterfront Festival. Both are completely free of charge for spectators, so do come along!

After the Flood jpeg

There’s another chance to see Seven Bridges - a hit at last year’s Waterfront Festival. This playful walking tour of the Leeds waterfront between Clarence Dock and Granary Wharf features Steve Bottoms and David Calder as “Don and Ron” (two rather questionable executives, planning for future redevelopment) and guest stars Eddie Lawler, on guitar and lead vocals.

SevenBridges jpeg

We also feature a brand new, family-oriented piece, After the Floodcreated in collaboration with Leeds’ Common Chorus Theatre Company. During this unique, self-guided tour of the area around Granary Wharf and the Dark Arches, spectators meet a series of characters seeking to come to terms with the flooding that hit the Aire Valley on Boxing Day. Some have been directly affected, others are planning for future defences. It sounds serious, but there’s a theatrical, visual, and sometimes comic emphasis that should make it accessible and entertaining to all.

Director Simon Brewis has written this great blog post about the process of working on this new piece. Check it out.

We hope to see you there!