Rain on the Parade: Canal Bicentenary

Yesterday, Sunday 16th October, the Shipley area had a big occasion — the Bicentenary celebrations for the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The canal was finally completed through to Liverpool in October 1816. But it’s worth remembering that its construction period dated all the way back to the early 1770s – when it was begun with cuts linking Skipton, Bingley, Shipley and Bradford… This area is key to the history of Britain’s longest singe canal.

IMG_1840To commemmorate the bicentenary, the Leeds-Liverpool Canal Society’s historic cargo boat, the Kennet is making a journey along the entire 126 miles of the canal. Having started off from Leeds on Saturday, it was coming through the Bradford area on Sunday.

Act 1: Shipley (or, The Silence…)

Getting off the train at Shipley station, in  a light drizzle, I headed past the Fox and across the main Leeds Road towards the little alley through to Gallows Bridge. Crossing the bridge to get down to the canal towpath, I then walked the short distance from there up to Shipley Wharf, expecting to see some signs of local celebrations. But the place was completely deserted.


Apparently, news of the bicentenary had not, er, floated any boats in Shipley — despite the town owing much of its history to the canal. To be fair, walking from Gallows Bridge I did pass a few stray people standing around under umbrellas, who might possibly have been waiting gamely for the Kennet…


… But it wasn’t until getting to the bridge under Salts Mill Road that I found the first clear sign of celebrations… a rosetted Rob Martin (former chair of Saltaire Village Society) waiting with his smartphone… His mission was to call the bell ringers in Saltaire Church as soon as he caught sight of the Kennet coming west…

Rob was sheltering sensibly from the drizzle, which was getting steadily heavier. He and I had a wee chat about what was happening in Saltaire. “You’ll find them under the bridge.” He said. “You won’t be able to get past.”

Act 2: Saltaire (or, Waiting for the Bells…)


He wasn’t kidding about finding people under the bridge. This was the huddle beneath Victoria Road as I  came past Salts Mill. Didn;t look like many people from a distance, but it turns out there was a whole world under there! Hall Royds brass band were pom-pom-pomming away to try to keep everyone’s spirits up…


And then past the bridge, lots of anoraked people were waiting on the towpath under rain gazebos (good bit of planning there by somebody!).


I tucked in and stood around chatting. The general point of agreement was that everyone was patiently waiting for something to happen, but nobody was really sure what it would be or when. It all seemed classically English, somebody pointed out. Standing around in the rain for no apparent reason, but merrily cracking jokes about our own foolishness…

With no sign of the Kennet, still — and not even the church bells to herald its arrival — I decided to nose around the temporary signage that had been posted on the towpath, sandwich-board style, to mark the occasion… This was my favourite bit…


As this colourful diagram-map confirms, we were standing alongside one of the oldest stretches of the canal (which of course predates Saltaire itself — it’s a key reason why Titus put the village here). Although apparently a stretch at the other end was also completed around the same time. It was a bit disappointing, though, that the signage (which seemed to be generic to the whole canal) didn’t do anything further to highlight the specific local history and significance of the waterway…

But never mind that — someone had convinced the Lord Mayor of Bradford that this anniversary was locally significant, and he here was now, complete with Bradford-crested brolly…


And where the Lord Mayor goes, cameras also go. Just along the towpath I found a soggy-looking camera crew from BBC Yorkshire. They were there for Look North, they told me. Saltaire was clearly the scenic choice for telly…


After much damp waiting from all concerned, the bells finally sprang into life and – shortly afterward – the Kennet hoved into view, heading slowly west… They looked at first as if they were going to try and moor in front of the brass band, just past the bridge…

IMG_1865… But then they seemed to decide that there were too many people huddled in there and it would be better to head a bit further along to a more open bit of towpath… Which is understandable but rather ironic given that the huddle was there to greet the boat…

IMG_1872So here’s the scenic shot, complete with Kennet, Salts Mill, and lots of brollies…


The Kennet was decked out in bunting celebrating the “uniting” of Yorkshire and Lancashire through the completion of the canal. Red roses on yellow, and white roses on blue. And rather wonderfully, there was a big red and white rosette (a giant version of the ones that volunteer stewards like Rob were wearing) carefully sequestered in its own waterproof plastic bag…

The boat crew got off and the official ceremony got underway. Rather disappointingly, though, the ceremonials seemed to consist entirely of a photo op for the Lord Mayor. He duly posed for various shots with other someones, and with the costumed lady bargee to advertise the Canal Society’s Navigator beer… although to be fair I’m not sure the Mayor was quite sure what this bit was about…


Anyway, the pictures were taken, the camera crew packed up, and everyone sort of drifted off. No speeches. No celebratory brass band serenade for the boat and the Mayor. Just a sort of general uncertainty as to what was happening. As I say, it all felt rather endearingly English…

Act 3: Hirst Lock (or, Something Lasting)

Drifting away from the general shuffling at Saltaire, I continued walking west, up to Hirst Lock. Here, I came across a lasting piece of signage marking the bicentenary…

IMG_1887This rather elegant noticeboard (helping to mask the eyesore view of the neglected old garden centre greenhouses beyond) has historical information about the canal’s significance in the area, and recommendations for walking routes. It’s a nice addition to the visitor offer in the Saltaire area, but it’s the work not of Bradford Council or UNESCO — but of that fantastic group of neighbourhood volunteers, the Hirst Wood Regeneration Group.

Here on the lockable ‘news’ panel on the new noticeboard is news that HWRG have won, just this last week, a national award from Biffa — the waste disposal company — whose sponsorship enabled the construction of Hirst Wood’s new Nature Reserve (which opened last year on the other side of the canal). Well done indeed!

This year, HWRG have been continuing to maintain and develop the nature reserve, while also taking very seriously their “adoption” of a stretch of the canal — from Dowley Gap aqueduct, through Hirst Wood itself, Hirst Lock, and down towards Saltaire as far as the sports club. This adoption is apparent not only in the new signage and walk routes, but in strategically placed benches at intervals along the towpath, carved with the HWRG initials.


These benches are a really welcome addition for walkers, enabling them to sit down and take in the surroundings for a bit. This sterling work by HWRG seemed somewhat overlooked, though, by the official celebrations. The Kennet duly arrived at Hirst Lock…


…and then motored on straight past, with a few merry waves to the bystanders…


Yet with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps, Hirst Lock would have been a much better place to have the official brass-band welcome and Mayoral moment — not only to acknowledge the new HWRG contributions to the canalside, but because there’s so much more space for onlookers! Instead of being crowded in a huddle on the towpath under the bridge, people could have spread out and appreciated the occasion a bit more. And the act of the boat going through the lock is also much more visually engaging for spectators than what had happened at Saltaire… But what do I know?


As the Kennet disappeared off towards Bingley, the sun finally started to appear through the clouds, and Eddie Lawler rounded things up with a rendition of his beautiful new song, “Canal Child” — written specifically to mark the occasion (“I’m a canal child, born on a boat, brought up to keep the whole family afloat, for one hundred and twenty six miles…). The lyric celebrates the children who worked the canals back in the 19th Century, and the original idea was that Saltaire Primary School would sing the song with Eddie — there’s a verse or two specially written for them to sing chorally. In the event, though, not enough of the children’s parents were able to commit the time on a Sunday to bringing their kids and picking them up again, so (rather disappointingly) this plan had to be shelved. The song will instead be recorded with the kids this week, at school, as a video document instead.

Still, Eddie performed the song beautifully on his own, and against the appropriate backdrop of HWRG’s other new piece of canalside signage — a colourful mural also created with Saltaire Primary School children (which shows Bingley Five Rise to the left, Hirst Lock to the right, and canal boats in between). It’s a lovely, vivid piece of work in bold colours, which would not (at least in my view) be out of place in a modern art gallery. And it’s also fully waterproofed!

IMG_1928As onlookers began finally to disperse, a group of the Hirst Wood Regen volunteers lined up for a celebratory group photo in front of the mural. Third from the left is the HWRG’s dynamic secretary, Pauline Bradley-Sharp — and third from the right, local Green councillor Kevin Warnes, who actively supports the group. I’m afraid I don’t know the other folk here, but nonetheless, I salute you all! Fantastic work making the canal and its surroundings seem loved and cared for. 

The Kennet will continue its journey across the Pennines all week, arriving in Liverpool next weekend. No doubt there will be more celebrations in other locations along the way. For me, though, this was a day that highlighted the value of hard work and longer-term thinking over empty ceremony. And the importance of carrying an umbrella.



“Week of Action” at Saltaire WI

This Thursday, I dusted off my one-man show Too Much of Water for the first time since Saltaire Festival last month, and presented it at St. Peter’s Church for the October meeting of the Saltaire Women’s Institute (WI)…. It was a very thoughtful, attentive crowd.


I’d been invited by Ruth Simpson, who is the “Climate Ambassador” for this WI branch — a title which she herself finds rather falsely grand, but which indicates the organisation’s commitment to working environmentally, and to do what it can to mitigate climate change. Ruth gave a short but moving talk at the beginning of the meeting, to provide context for my performance — explaining that this is the Climate Coalition‘s “Week of Action” on climate change. Apparently, the coalition — in which WI is an active partner nationally — used to be called “Stop Climate Chaos” (in fact it still has that name in Scotland and Wales) but was rebranded to de-emphasise the “fear factor” implicit in the word chaos. Instead of playing on fear, the policy now is to emphasise the need for collective action on behalf of the things people love. Ruth spoke about how her own sense of engagement with these issues is motivated by a concern for things she cares about personally — the local, natural environment being prominent among them.

This is where Too Much of Water seemed to fit in well, because the performance — in telling the story of how the Boxing Day floods affected a range of people locally in the Shipley area — emphasises the kind of simple, personal, domestic details that tend to get overlooked in mainstream media coverage of flooding. It also concludes with some verbatim comments from my interviewees detailing their own conversations about how the climate seems to have changed over the years (less snow in winter, more rain, less distinct seasons, etc.). There was audible agreement from the audience on these points during the performance — and afterwards I was told by several people that, although they wouldn’t consider themselves “eco-warriors”, the piece had really made them think about how local, personal experiences connect with the big picture of the need for action on what is happening globally with our climate. This was pleasing to hear, because Too Much of Water was written with these concerns very much in mind, but — because it was originally a festival piece for the park — I also didn’t want to bang people over the head with a “message”. I guess the aim is to gently invite people to think further, for themselves, about these issues.


Among the other people present on the evening were Elaine Gilligan, from Friends of the Earth, who briefly spoke to underline some of the points made by Ruth and myself, and engaged in conversation with members during the informal exchanges over refreshments that followed. I hadn’t met Elaine before, but we had a good chat ourselves, and she was very complimentary about the performance (always nice to hear!).

A number of WI members introduced themselves to me, including one young woman whose name I didn’t get, but who apparently reads this blog regularly! So hello, if you’re reading this — do make yourself known by leaving a comment below, if you like! And sorry I got distracted away from speaking to you properly.

I was distracted, I think, by Stewart and Pat Gledhill, of Higher Coach Road, who had been kindly and quietly helping to pack up my stuff, post-performance. Stewart made the wonderful little card models of local landmarks that form an important part of the performance, and since he and Pat had been unable to see the piece at the Festival (they were away in Scotland that weekend), I had invited them along to see it this evening.  I was very pleased to find that they liked the piece a lot! Stewart also took the pics included in this blog. Thanks Stewart and Pat, for everything!



Too Much of Water will appear again on December 6th, at Armley Mills Museum in Leeds, and December 7th, at the John Thaw Studio Theatre, University of Manchester. I also have gigs for it in Exeter and Cambridge in November, so the Shipley/Saltaire story is travelling afar… If you’re interested in bringing it back closer to home, just drop me a line (stephen.bottoms@manchester.ac.uk).

After the Bradford flood: who scrutinises the scrutinisers?

Just before I get to Bradford… a wee nod to the fact that, this last Wednesday, September 28th, I was busy in Leeds with a fine group of actors, remounting the promenade performance After the Flood. An attempt to reflect on the impact of the Boxing Day floods in the city, from a number of different angles — including the ‘expert’ view on how to mitigate future flood risk — this piece was originally created for the Leeds Waterfront Festival in June (Multi-Story Water in collaboration with Simon Brewis’s Common Chorus Theatre). This week’s one-day-only revival enabled us to show the piece to some important people, and to get it documented for a film version we’re planning. For more info and images, look under the ‘Performances’ tab above…

Kat Martin as "Poppy", a Kirkstall flood victim

Kat Martin as “Poppy”, a Kirkstall flood victim

The following day, 29th September, Bradford Council published its “Flooding Scrutiny Review“ – a “Report of the Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee” (henceforth, COSC) into how the council and its officers had responded to the Boxing Day floods in Shipley, Bingley, Keighley, and other affected areas of the Bradford district.

Or at least, I think it was the following day… The document is dated, on its cover page, “Wednesday 29th September 2016″, but since the 29th was actually a Thursday it’s difficult to know what exactly we’re talking about here. And the Bradford Telegraph and Argus was reporting on the Scrutiny Review a full week earlier, on September 22nd.

Unfortunately, this glaring, front-page error is far from being the only mistake in a poorly proof-read document that is littered with typos. The Committee’s apparent lack of scrutiny and due care with respect to the publication of its own report seems sadly symptomatic of their general approach to the overall task. That’s a pretty strong claim on my part, but let me break it down: 

1. “In-depth review”. 

The report tells us that, at a Council meeting on Tuesday 19th January (and yes, that actually was a Tuesday), the COSC should “undertake an in-depth Scrutiny Review into the effectiveness of Bradford Council and its partners in dealing with the floods…” Well, if this review is in-depth, I hate to think what “light touch” looks like. The entire report, once you remove front matter and appendices, is less than 10 pages long (in not-very-dense type, with lots of spaces). We quickly learn that the Committee’s “scrutiny” actually consisted of three “listening” exercises:

i. Looking at responses to an on-line survey, which was open to the public between April and July, and produced “75 responses”. This figure is also broken down into the areas that the responses were received from (15 from Bingley, 11 from Shipley, and so on), but the total of these figures only adds up to 62, so who knows where the other 13 went… (again, poor proofing…).

ii. Attending two information-gathering sessions, held on 21 and 26 July in Shipley Library and Saltaire’s Victoria Hall, respectively. (So, nothing in Bingley, Keighley, etc.) The latter was held at 2pm on a Thursday, automatically excluding anyone who has to work for a living.

iii. Attending one further information-gathering session, held on 25 August, this time with the Council’s relevant flood management officers and “external officers” (presumably people from the Environment Agency, etc). 

What the Scrutiny report does is simply present a blow-by-blow account of what people said to COSC members in each of these three contexts. Nowhere in the report is there any actual analysis — or, dare we say, scrutiny? — of what was being said to them, by whom. The process seems simply to have been “you tell us something, we’ll write it down, and then we can say we’ve scrutinised the situation.” One is obliged to ask what, if anything, COSC was doing on this report between January and July, since everything in the document appears to have simply been collated in July and August.

The document ends with half a page of “Concluding Remarks” and one page of “Recommendations” — although these are mostly just broad aspirations. Since there has been little to no real, informed analysis of the situation, these brief recommendations can give little indication as to how the suggestions involved should actually be achieved.

2. The Council doing itself a disservice… 

Quite the strangest thing about this report is that it seems simply to assume that the Council’s reaction to the floods was inadequate. One of the “key findings” is that “it was clear from the [online survey] responses that the only assistance that residents felt they had received was from Flood Support Groups…”  Now, it is certainly a very good thing that the amazing work done by voluntary groups in Bingley, Shipley and elsewhere is given due recognition in this report, but the implication of this wording is that flood victims universally felt they had received no support from the Council. And I can confidently say that this is simply not true. 

Many of the the people I have spoken to personally this year, as part of my research into the Shipley area flooding, have volunteered the opinion (without my even asking them) that the Council was actually very helpful to them — whether it was in terms of, for example…

- the provision of skips in which to dispose of flood-damaged goods

- the £500 council tax rebates that they received, often very quickly, directly into bank accounts, to help with short-term repairs and clean-up

- the later offer of £5,000 flood resilience grants to help with flood-proofing at-risk properties against future incidents

- the efforts made to clean out blocked gullies, etc., to ensure better surface drainage in flood-risk areas

I’ve had all this reported to me by affected residents. And in point of fact, all of these forms of support (and more) are acknowledged in the report’s section on information gathered from Council officers. But the Councillors on the committee appear to have made the assumption that the officers weren’t doing a good enough job, because they had been told people felt unsupported.

And yet… it doesn’t take a genius to see that if you hold an online survey of responses to the Council’s handling of the flood, the chances are that the people responding to such a survey will be — almost by definition — the people who have felt let down. And many of them no doubt had a right to feel let down. But that doesn’t mean that everybody felt let down. It’s simply that people without complaints don’t tend to fill in reports of this sort (or, indeed, to attend public meetings on a weekday…). Had the members of COSC actually made the effort to go out and speak to people where they live (as I have, and as have council officers and EA officers, in fact – because I’ve seen them doing it) they would have gathered a more balanced picture.

3. Communication, communication, communication…  

The most persistent strain throughout the report is the belief that communication with the general public, from the Council and EA point of view, needs to be improved. “Marketing and communications are a key area for improvement”; “Bradford Council and its partners needed to be more pro-active [in communicating] key information”; “For communication to be effective…”; etc. Indeed, one of the final recommendations is that “Council staff involved in emergency planning receive training on communicating key flooding messages…”

This really is the pot calling kettle black, given that the report itself exhibits a very poor model of communication — both in the efforts that COSC actually made to communicate with the public during the review (an on-line survey and two public meetings is surely the bare minimum required), and in the slapdash way it then communicates its alleged findings. Indeed, one of those findings is so badly written that it is literally incomprehensible:

Members were also concerned about the confusion surrounding the use of flood resilience grants, as well as half of the properties affected by the floods had actually received flood resilience grants and that that had of the properties that had been flooded had actually applied for flood resilience grants.” (p.11)

We are given no information as to what “the confusion” around these grants might have consisted of, but we are certainly left confused by the sentence.

Embarrassingly, the poor writing even extends to the Committee’s recommendation to an external partner, the Environment Agency:

Recommendation 6: This Committee recommends that the Environment Agency ensures that all residents and businesses that have been affected by the flood are on the flood alert system and that flood alert messages should be circulated much early.” [sic] (p.13)

Leaving aside that typo, this statement exposes just how little the Committee has actually comprehended about the tricky realities of flood risk communications. Reacting to complaints from members of the public who wished that they had received automated flood alert calls sooner, COSC simply passes this on as a recommendation. But I have spoken to residents who knowingly chose not to react to the phone calls they did receive — partly because of the “cry wolf” problem that occurs when you have received a call, in the past, that proved to be a false alarm. The fact is that, even with the best scientific tools available, rainfall remains an inherently unpredictable phenomenon (you never know exactly where or when a cloud will decide to burst…), and so flood risk predictions necessarily have an element of educated guesswork about them. If calls were to go out earlier, there would be less accurate data involved, and thus more guessing…  Calls would thus run the risk of being more inaccurate, and this would further increase the likelihood that people will ignore them when there is a real problem coming. This is fairly simple stuff to understand (I am not a scientist, by any stretch), but the Committee doesn’t even seem to have considered it.

Incidentally, that other point about residents being put on the flood alert system is again indicative of COSC’s ignorance of the facts it purports to be investigating. Several times the report refers to people needing to be registered onto the call system, but no mention is made of the fact that such automatic opt-in (i.e. you have to choose to opt out, not opt in, if you live in a flood zone) has been government policy since the Pitt Report of 2008. Where people did not receive these calls — on Branksome Drive, for example, in Shipley — it is because of an Environment Agency oversight in application of the system (for which they have already apologised). So this recommendation is, in short, a bit like telling your grandmother to suck eggs.

4. Who needs experts? 

For me, these last points about how poorly informed some of the report’s findings and recommendations are, seems indicative of a general lack of interest or trust in what the “experts” on the issue of flooding might have to say. The experts are, in this instance, the flood officers for Council and EA — i.e. the people who spend their professional lives dealing with the complexity of these issues of when and how to alert those at risk. Yet their comments are treated in this report as being of considerably less significance than the comments of the general public in the first two (all too sketchy) “listening” exercises.

I am not, of course, saying that the public’s concerns should not be treated seriously — they absolutely should. But the public is not the place to look for technical solutions. Right at the top of its “key findings” chapter, the Committee reports having been “made aware of various issues and concerns. Some of these focused specifically on flood prevention by looking into river dredging…” (p.6). It’s not surprising that dredging should be the first thing mentioned here, because it’s the go-to solution for anyone who has read a tabloid newspaper. In fact, the obviousness of this solution has become an article of faith for some, as is evidenced in the comments feed underneath the T&A article on the report: “Yes dredge the rivers to lower the water level, its so simple, why can’t the Councillors see that?” Yet anybody who has spent any time looking at the dredging question (and I am certainly no “expert” on this) knows that it is very far from being “so simple”: it’s expensive, rarely cost-effective, it can increase flood risk downstream of the dredged area; it is damaging to the ecosystem, etc. etc. But why listen to all that complicated stuff when the “solution” is so much simpler? As Michael Gove announced before the Brexit referendum, “people in this country have had enough of experts“.

Unfortunately, this line seems to sum up the approach of Bradford Council’s scrutiny report on the Boxing Day floods. Why get into any detail with our scrutinising? That would require us to actually learn something! We’ll just listen to what people say to us, in a small, arbitrarily selected set of listening contexts, and then write down a summary of what they said. Then we’ll write down some things we think might be a good idea, based on not having thought about any of this for very long. And we’ll call these recommendations. These recommendations might well suggest things to be done that have, in fact, been being done for years anyway (e.g. leafleting homes about flood risk). But who cares, as long as we can claim to have scrutinised something and given our own council officers a gentle kicking in the process, to keep them in their place. I mean, nobody’s going to read this report anyway, so we don’t even need to proof read it, right?

The depressing thing about all this is that it seems, basically, to represent politics as usual. And judging from the T&A article on the report, that’s also what we’ve had in the response to it. The Committee is Labour-dominated, so the leader of the council’s Conservative group says that the report doesn’t go far enough – “he said the council needed to prioritise flood prevention work far more.” And of course he would say that, because it’s his job to oppose Labour. Never mind that it was a Conservative government that cancelled flood prevention schemes up and down the country as part of its austerity drive… when there’s a political football to kick, just kick it.

When you have politics as usual, you have politicians sounding off at each other. What you don’t have, it would seem, is them actually thinking carefully about what a river is, what a flood is, or what the best-informed responses to an incident like this might be.

So much for scrutiny.


Beck memories on World Rivers’ Day

This Sunday, September 25th, was World Rivers’ Day. Not to be daunted by the fact that Bradford’s river is largely invisible — culverted underground through the city centre ever since the later nineteenth century — the Friends of Bradford’s Becks (FoBB) organised a special celebration in City Park to mark the occasion. It’s time that modest Bradford Beck (formerly mucky Bradford Beck) takes its place alongside the cherished rivers of the world! I was there to represent Multi-Story Water on one of the many stalls that FoBB had arranged around the edge of the Mirror Pool…

Steve and Eddie

Here I am at our “songs and stories” stall with my good friend Eddie Lawler, who performed, among other compositions, his song “Bradford Beck” — which calls for the river to be “resurrected from its rat-ridden cave”, and “to be a treasure, be a pleasure….” The song dates back almost 15 years now, to a time when very few people were even talking about the Beck, but it has now become kind of a signature tune for FoBB. (Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Geoff Roberts, of Aire Rivers Trust — thanks Geoff!)

rose starting walk

The central action of the day was at the FoBB stall itself, which served a number of purposes including being the starting point for a well-attended walking tour — presented by Rose Reeve and Pauline Ford — of the 15 plaques that FoBB has had installed in pavement sites over recent months, to mark the underground course of the Beck through the city centre. (See this previous blog post.) Along the way, walkers also encountered this little spot, just a block away from the City Park area…

bottoms and beck

Yes, it’s an open manhole cover! The only way to check out the Beck in the city centre… Still, the city seems serious about treating its watery heart a bit more thoughtfully in future, and the presence of the Lord Mayor of Bradford at the Rivers Day event was one sign of this. Here he pictured is with the Lady Mayoress and, to the right, Barney Lerner — Chair of FoBB and the main co-ordinator of the day’s events. Barney, who lives safely uphill from the local rivers in Baildon, recently retired from Sheffield University and is really dedicating his retirement to pushing for further progress for the Beck. (Go Barney!)

Mayor and Barney

The Lord Mayor’s speech, at the FoBB tent, concluded with him awarding a prize to artist Alex Pavey

Lord Mayor shakey Blakey

winning sculpture design

Alex is the designer of the winning entry in a FoBB-run competition to design a “listening sculpture” for the Beck — the sketch for which is pictured here to the right (and is part-hidden by her body in the photo above!). The competition organisers came up with a shortlist of the best entries, which were then put to a public, online vote — which Alex won. The challenge now will be the realise the sculpture in reality — completion is scheduled for some time next year. There will be various engagement activities around the building/opening of the sculpture, which Multi-Story Water will hopefully involved with. Our involvement might even lead on directly from what I was up to with Eddie…

I’ve been doing quite a bit of story-telling lately (see, for example, my last blog post on the Too Much of Water performance for Saltaire Festival), and as a contrast — on this occasion — I was story gathering… with a view to possibly using some of what came up in future presentations. Using a map of the Bradford Beck system that was kindly provided to me a while ago by Bradford Council, I was inviting people to locate themselves on the map, sticking on different coloured dots to represent different things…

Steve pointing

So a red dot was “where I live” (or used to live), a yellow dot was “where I work” (or used to), a green dot signified environmental improvements, a blue dot was for places associated with happy memories, and finally a purple dot was for problem spots or issues. I snapped the shot below relatively early in proceedings and we’d accumulated a good deal more dots by the end of the afternoon!

IMG_1718The map served as a real drawer for passers-by, many of whom were fascinated to see the city like this — with the river system (and possible flood risk areas) highlighted as central and prominent, rather than merely forgotten underground. Visitors to the stall with longer memories told me about their recollections of the 1968 flood, for example, when the city centre was partially underwater and the subway passages underneath main roads were completely impassable. Another visitor, remembering even further back, recalled the flooding in 1947, when she was a child. Her recollection was that a stretch of the Beck to the west of the city centre was not, at that time, culverted underground as it is now (so the culverting does not all date back to the 19th Century!). A brother and sister, both now in early middle age, recalled growing up in the vicinity of Bradford University and how, as kids, they would enter the Westbrook culvert and explore it with candles lighting their way… Since that time, the beck has been fenced over in the University area — perhaps partly to discourage such explorations — but also contributing further to the general sense of the river as something dangerous, poisonous, hostile, rather than something to be embraced. These now-grown-up childhood explorers clearly recalled their adventures with real affection and nostalgia… In today’s world, perhaps, we’ve taken the obsession with health-and-safety a little too far, at the expense of natural curiosity?

fishing demo

Fortunately, a number of the other events and presentations at this World Rivers Day celebration provided interactive opportunities for curiosity and exploring new things… The Wild Trout Trust, for example, laid on a fly fishing demonstration in the Mirror Pool (or, at least, the small part of it that wasn’t drained on this occasion…). I don’t think anyone caught anything (!) but kids of all ages seemed to be having fun learning how to use that rod… Meanwhile, JBA Trust were on hand with their water flume demonstration (below), to show passers-by how water flow works, and how it is affected by installing different constructs that modify flow patterns (weirs, tunnels, etc.). On one level, this is quite technical, but its also a really accessible demonstration that people find genuinely intriguing…

JBA demo

Another interactive demonstration model was provided by the Environment Agency, on the stall next door to ours. This one has a miniature landscape in it, with a river channel, and you can use dripping trays to demonstrate the effects of rainfall on the landscape, where the water runs off to, and so on. The rainfall is heavier or lighter depending on how big the sponges in your trays are… Great fun. This model is populated, rather mysteriously, by Marvel superhero figures (I spotted Iron Man and Wolverine, for starters)

EA Rachel

In the foreground of the shot here, you can see photographs of the 1968 Bradford flood also on display… At our story/memory stall, though, there was also much discussion of the more recent floods in Shipley, Bingley and the wider Aire valley, and about the possibility of future events of this sort. Indeed, it wasn’t just memories that passers-by were sharing, but some very current concerns about recently-announced Bradford Council plans for building new houses — on green spaces to the west of the city centre, not far from the Beck and its tributaries. Were these flood plain areas, people wanted to know? Was there any joined-up thinking going on? In light of Bradford Council’s quite critical “scrutiny report” on its own handling of floods last Christmas – published just this week — there are clearly still some questions to be addressed… But that’s a topic for another blog.

A big round of applause, then, to Barney Lerner and all at FoBB, the Aire Rivers Trust, and other contributing organisations, for creating a memorable day in City Park. Let’s hope that progress on the Beck’s future can “kick on” from here…

Mirror pool and catchment poster



Flood memories at Saltaire Festival

Saltaire Festival 015

If you’re at Saltaire Festival this weekend, do check out The Power of Water — an exhibition specially created for the festival, and on show in an amazing attic level gallery at Salts Mill, which isn’t normally open to the public. The show’s title is intended to link together two significant historical landmarks — this year’s bicentenary celebrations for the completion of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, and the major floods that hit the Aire Valley on Boxing Day. The main emphasis of the exhibition, though, is on photographs of the floods — mostly selected from entries sent in by local residents. These are given wider context and resonance by the carefully chosen quotes on banners like the ones shown above.

Saltaire Festival 014

The striking thing about the way that the exhibition has been hung is that the photographs are unframed… They’re simply affixed to a wooden runner down the length of the roof space. Presumably this simple, lo-fi approach reflects the limited funds available for the exhibition (Saltaire Festival is run entirely by volunteers, and it receives only very limited funding from external sources). But for me there’s also something really apt about this method of staging. Given that the homes of many of these affected by the floods had to be stripped back to bare brick (see for instance this previous blog post), the distressed, unplastered walls of the mill provide a really pointed backdrop for the pictures themselves. The photos almost give the impression of having been salvaged from somewhere and put on display as forensic evidence… which, in a sense, they are.

IMG_1659Down at Roberts Park, there’s another blue banner advertising what’s on… I’m rather chuffed about the prominent place here for Too Much of Water, a one-man storytelling performance written and performed by yours truly. The piece, which I presented in the park last weekend, is based on interviews with some of those in the Shipley area affected by the Boxing Day floods. It provided some further reflections on the overwhelming power of water, while also seeking to entertain…. Not an easy balance to strike!

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.”