It is ten years ago today since my hometown Cockermouth in Cumbria flooded to a depth of over 10 feet in areas closest to the River Derwent. As its name suggests Cockermouth lies at the confluence of the Rivers Derwent and Cocker, in an area known to be inhabited long before the Romans arrived to set up the fortified town of Derventio.
Cockermouth town centre has flooded many times in the last millennia and at least three times in the last 100 years so it is not a new phenomenon. Nevertheless, when the water strikes it is devastating, financially for the community and personally for many people in the lower lying areas. In 2009, unprecedented levels of rainfall (since surpassed in 2015), had fallen over the high fells of Cumbria, cascading down the rivers, carving a trail of destruction, wiping away roads and bridges, eventually to flood the market towns of Keswick and Cockermouth. More than 900 properties and over 1400 people were affected in Cockermouth alone, as the rivers burst their banks and a creeping tide of floodwater seeped towards Main Street. Across Cumbria £276m damage occurred as a result of this event
By mid- afternoon, Thursday 19th November 2009, in continuing torrential rain, I left my place of work, Cockermouth auction mart to try and get home along the A66 towards Penrith. It was clear that this was turning into major incident. I just needed to get home knowing there were pinch points along the A66 towards Keswick where the Lake could over top the road.
As I got to Bassenthwaite Lake, the water had risen and the A66 was impassable. I did a u- turn and scooted back through Dubwath and Bassenthwaite village heading over the fell road to Caldbeck and Hesket New Market before eventually making it home an hour later. I was lucky.
In Cockermouth, Keswick and along the banks of several rivers there were scenes of devastation. A network of support groups sprang into action. Emergency services began to rescue people trapped in their homes, checking properties to ensure no one was left in danger. Drop- in centres were set up to help those whose homes were under water. Also, food banks and even clothing banks for those who left home with nothing.
It would take many months to recover and yet the local community stoically made a point of turning on some Christmas lights once the waters had receded, even though the shops were wrecked and empty. Sadly, a policeman lost his life in Workington when a major bridge collapsed. Many families were unable to return home for months, living in rented accommodation or hotels.
Research would suggest that the county lost more than £2.5m in tourist trade with nearly all businesses being affected across the county and sadly 6% of whom ceased trading. It prompted the development of a new state of the art £4.4m flood barrier system that could never be over topped. Only six years later the barrier was over topped during Storm Desmond, as new record levels of rainfall flooded Cockermouth. Many properties and much land was once again under water.
Floods in Cumbria will continue to happen. It is inevitable. But if we continue to build houses on flood plains and the government fails to invest adequately in the right flood management solutions in the right place, then we will keep letting communities down.
Currently there is a lot of talk in the media about Natural Flood Management (NFM), mainly due to the dreadful flooding in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. After Storm Desmond many hailed NFM as the next big thing. That is slowing the flow of water higher up the catchment, reducing the pressure of flood water lower down the rivers, where bigger towns, villages and even cities tend to be situated. Some thought that this would negate the need for riverbed management or “dredging” as it is colloquially known.
Local communities were aghast. Common practice for generations had dictated that river beds close to communities would be cleaned out on a regular basis to ensure deeper river channels were not clogged up with stone, gravel and silt washed down from the upper valleys. In the river Cocker sink- holes more than 25 feet deep were routinely dug out on a 5- or 10-year cycle to act as gravel traps, slowly but surely filling up again and preventing further depositions downstream. This practice had been outlawed several years before the 2009 storm. All the bridges on the river Cocker above Cockermouth had gradually clogged up with gravel and slate as the river ran shallower and shallower. During the 2009 storm and again in 2015, many bridges were washed away, unable to cope with the volume of water and the shallow draft of the river.
But here is the good news, “slow the flow” interventions further upstream really do work. The Farmer Network is one organisation involved in several Natural Flood Management projects in Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. In the right setting, leaky dams, grass bunds, tree planting and a range of other solutions all work. In some areas it is appropriate to re- wet the land, in order to hold water. In other areas it would be best to keep soils better drained, aerated and dry to act as a sponge to soak up heavy rain and flood water. Some of these interventions can hold back water and are small in scale, but add together several thousand of them across a long Cumbrian catchment, and the sum of all small parts really does add up.
Inevitably the responsibility for this work falls on farmers and other land managers. It is their land that is affected and used for temporary flood water storage. This is where it gets difficult. Flood water, when it recedes, always leaves a dreadful mess, including sand, silt, gravel and all manner of detritus for the farmer to clean up. There is also the issue of crop losses and damage to the soil. This is a fantastic public service if indeed the flood measures are designed specifically to flood the land, to save more damage further downstream. Is the farmer or landowner recompensed for this? Inevitably the answer is not well enough.
There have also been serious difficulties for farmers in getting permission to clear the damage and try to reinstate then land to full production. Frankly there have been too many organisations with interests in catchment management all with an opinion, when clearly the right solution would be to have one managing organisation effectively bring catchment management together and able support those affected by the floods. The situation as seen in 2009 when a landowner had several different organisations telling him what he could not do, and not a single body able to make a decision as to what he could do, to repair his land, must never be allowed to happen again. Repair and recovery needs to be managed swiftly with decision making at a local rather than national level and in a spirit of cooperation.
Let’s get back to dredging ( i do detest that word). There are many locations where engineered solutions and riverbed management can be vital and this work is being done in Cumbria to a limited but effective degree especially since Storm Desmond in 2015. It creates much angst for environmentalists who hate the thought of the riverbed environment and habitats being disturbed. It is also undoubtedly costly to perform. In the past it has been allowed only under licence, which is prohibitively expensive, and certainly not encouraged by government. Yet under pressure from flood affected communities and farmers, it has been allowed and it has been effective in Cumbria.
The unequivocal message is that any flood management solution is only effective if installed and performed in the right place. After the flurry of publicity regarding NFM following Storm Desmond, we are now beginning to see a more balanced view, although others may argue differently.
A one size flood management system does not fit all, and anyone suggesting this is sadly misguided or pursuing their own agenda. This includes those who talk of widespread afforestation, re- wilding and getting rid of Cumbria’s hill sheep as a flood management solution. Absolute rubbish.There are numerous options to combat floodwater all with merit, but only in the right location.
Following Storm Desmond Cumbria Strategic Flood Partnership was created to bring together all groups with an interest or indeed an interest in combating flooding in Cumbria. It has designed a flood hub, including a website to detail schemes, surveys and policies that are being developed within the county. However, to give CSFP a fighting chance, in future there needs to be a change in mindset at Government level, much more investment and more community engagement, the full length of Cumbria’s catchments. The key in all of this is to ensure that whatever the planned solution, it must be joined up with others and not created in isolation. There is a lot of work still do with limited resources.
Underpinning all of this is the need to ensure that we have healthy, well- managed rivers, productive catchment areas, and the right flood management solutions, in the right places, all working together. It can be done but is only achievable with the benefit of investment, knowledge, education and cooperation.
Failing that, our future choices may be limited to living higher up the hill and away from the flood plain. Having a home full of dirty water is a nightmare. Having it happen on a regular basis or simply waiting for the next time, must be an unimaginable stress. There are communities in Cumbria constantly living with this pressure. Storm Desmond in 2015 repeated the devastation to an even greater degree. It is clear that we need to do much more.
Last Saturday, I like many watched in dismay as England were beaten in the rugby world cup final. South Africa were big, strong and dominant in the set piece. It was a shock to see the England scrum going backwards to be penalised six times. I also watched as our tight- head Dan Cole was twice lifted upwards, illegally I would suggest. These days referees favour the team going forwards and it would have taken a brave and educated man to make the reverse call against the Springboks.
I have been annoyed by some of the criticism on social media from friends purporting to be scrummaging experts. In reality few will have experienced any form of competitive scrummaging and certainly not in the front row. I thought Dan Cole made a heroic effort having to play 78 minutes with no back up, He had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. The scrum is a lonely place when you are under pressure and being beasted. You have to take it like a man and battle for all your worth. A proud prop never ever gives in, right to the death. Dan Cole did this in the world cup final.
AS an ex- tight head prop forward saluting Dan Cole’s huge effort, I thought I might try to explain exactly what it feels like as a prop forward when you are being beaten up by a technically proficient and far better opposition loosehead. Only once in my entire career as a prop forward was I ever in this position. It was in National league 3 playing at home for Aspatria against Plymouth in 1994. I should say that the scrummaging laws were different in those days, but the principles remain. Here’s what happened: –
It is a blustery day at Bower Park, Aspatria. We’re mid- table and entertaining Plymouth. I’m now a first team regular at tight head prop. This is my second season with the club and my second season as a front row forward. I’m certainly no great scrummager but I get by with the support of a massively strong pack of forwards. I try very hard to make up for my lack of technical proficiency by running with the ball and playing like another back row forward. I can only get away with this since the scrummage laws have tightened up. Your head must not dip below your hips meaning in theory the scrum should not collapse. Scrums still collapse!
I must admit that I don’t run too hard for the first five minutes of any game. I do not want to be blowing hard at the first scrum. I want to hit hard and establish my platform for the afternoon. Being inexperienced I need to get the first one out of the way and gain some confidence. I still worry a lot about this before games. I don’t believe I am good enough.
The Plymouth loosehead looks a big strong guy, and he is. It is their put- in at the first scrum. I charge in trying hit as hard as I can. He doesn’t take a backward step. I try to exert some pressure with my right arm by squeezing my elbow down over his left arm. I often have some success with this move. On this occasion I can’t move his elbow one inch. Not a good start. Alarm bells.
As their scrum half prepares to put the ball in, I go for a big downwards dip to try and stop their hooker from striking cleanly for the ball. My prop immediately collapses and as I am pushing downwards, I face plant hard on to the grass. It hurts – “bastard”.
We reset. This time I am wary of driving downwards at the hit, so I try and hit upwards. He seems to anticipate this and as we engage, he tries and succeeds to pull me down rather than I push him. For a second time, I try to drive up, but nothing happens. I can’t move him. They heel the ball and the scrum breaks up.
Next time we meet it is our put- in to the scrum. We engage in a thumping hit. Now I need to stay strong, but this guy is altering his body position constantly. Little shoulder drops, hip drives, changing the position of his head. I push down hard and clamp my right arm inwards to try and bend him. He responds by immediately dropping his body position. I feel like he might collapse the scrum and we are actually slightly going backwards so I don’t want to give a penalty, I then drive upwards and in doing so move my right leg forward, Immediately he has a window of opportunity and he too drives up. He nearly lifts me off the floor. I’ve never yet been airborne. I survive – just. Hell, this guy is making me uncomfortable. I’m definitely on the back foot and not enjoying this one bit.
At the remaining scrums in the first half I am decidedly under pressure. He never lets me get comfortable. In one scrum as I clamp with my right arm for all I am worth, trying to twist him. He simply lifts his own elbow below mine and raises my right arm up, relieving all the pressure I have been trying to bear. No one has ever done that to me before. Fuck me this guy strong, too strong. In fact, I’m in trouble.
At the next scrum I look him the face. Is he laughing at me? Nothing, no reaction, no acknowledgement. He is cool, calm and thoroughly professional. He knows he has the ascendency and he is in control. Just doing his job.
In the second half my losing battle continues. I’ve got my “sit on the right knee” get out of jail card that Syd Graham taught me. We engage and he sees me bring my right knee forward. Before I can get my shoulder on to it, he drives up and lifts me. Jesus, I can’t even get down to my knee, then he changes the angle and he is pushing straight and I’m going backwards in short steps. This is a bad scrum.
Our hooker Nigel Brown is annoyed “stop fucking paddling” he shouts as we break up. There isn’t much I can do. I’m being beaten by a much better prop. I need to run around with the ball and show what I can do. The problem this battling in the scrum has taken it out of my legs. I haven’t much energy to get on to the ball. I’m just running from scrum battle to scrum. We’re not losing them against the head, so technically I’m still doing my job but it’s hurting. I’m lucky to have Nigel up to his usual box of tricks. He’s negating their hooker, but he can’t do anything about my prop.
We’re in enemy territory, mid field between their 10m and 22m line. It’s our scrum put- in and we have a back row move called. Tank Richardson our powerhouse No 8 and captain is going to pick up from the scrum and there is a fancy run around involving our young flanker Mike Tinnion and Scrum half Graham Campbell. I know the back row are not going to be pushing that hard in the scrum because of the planned move. I urge our other flanker Martin Maughan who is pushing on me, to give it all he has got. I’ve also got the legendary Fred Story behind me in the second row. Despite is age and lack of fitness he is the strongest second row scrummager I have ever played with. He has bony shoulders and I have a bony arse which is often bruised after games because Fred pushes so hard.
We engage and there is a quick feed from Graham and lightning strike from Nigel. We have won the ball, but Plymouth instigate a huge secondary surge. I sink my hips down desperate to keep a straight back. The straight back is everything here, I must stay strong and ride out the pressure. The ball is stuck between Fred’s feet, but he is pushing behind me for all he is worth. He doesn’t yield an inch. Sadly, I am starting to yield. Fred is starting to lift my feet off the ground and my opposition prop has worked his head underneath my chest. It is slow motion but slowly I become airborne. My back is still straight, but my feet are at least two feet off the ground. My neck is still bound into the scrum and the pressure is enormous. I’m holding my prop in the scrum with everything I’ve got. I mustn’t let my head pop out. I feel like I want to scream loudly but can’t.
“Ease off Fred” I groan. “put me down” But he doesn’t. in fact, he pushes harder. It feels like an hour goes by as I am stuck in mid-air being concertinaed with my feet dangling. Eventually Tank manages to drag the ball back, the planned move is executed to perfection and we score a wonderful try in the right-hand corner which I don’t see at all. The Bower Park crowd goes wild.
I am now on terra- ferma and walking back to the halfway line with big Fred.
“Fucking hell Fred why didn’t you ease off”. Fred laughs at me,
“Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”.
Later in the changing room the banter starts. Lots of pig squealing noises. My teammates are letting me know that I am now officially a member of the Flying Pig Club. I’m more bothered by the fact that my opposition prop totally destroyed me. Had me beaten all ends up. I know I tried my best and never gave up in any scrum. I know I did take it like a man and would have battled all day and night if I had to, because that is the pride a prop forward must have. “You can beat me, but you will never beat me” is the attitude all props carry with them.
Now I have even greater doubts about my own ability. What if this starts to happen to me on a regular basis? What if I’m shown up for what I really am, a back-rower masquerading as a prop? Thoughts of comments made to me by many people keep ringing in my ears. “You’ll never make a prop”.
Despite the win I’m not in good spirits. On Monday evening on ITV Border news rugby round up. The opening credits feature that scrum with me in flying pig mode as Aspatria score the wonder- try. The clip is repeated twice more. I am so embarrassed, especially as the good- natured banter continues at training later in the week.
On Friday afternoon we are on our way down to the South to play another league game. Our coach Tommy Borthwick decides to put on the video of the whole Plymouth game. I hunker down for a long 80 minutes watching myself being obliterated in the scrum. On the screen it doesn’t look as bad as it felt at the time and I see a couple of opportunities for things I might have tried.
Later we’re at that point of the game where we score and course I’m up in the air. Again, there is a chorus of pig squeals and I have no choice but to laugh and shrug my shoulders. You are only as good as your last game. Despite my fears, in the next game I end up playing loose head prop for the first and only time for Aspatria. I did quite well and had the better of my prop. Who knew that could happen? It just goes to show, every game and every prop is different. You have to put the bad days at the office behind you and know that there will be games in future when the boot is on the other foot and you are the one inflicting pain.
As Fred Story rightly said, “Sometimes Adam Lad, you’ve just got to take it like a man”. As for the flying pig scenario. That game against Plymouth was the only time in my whole career as prop forward over many seasons that I was ever lifted off the ground. Never again was I forced to endure the pig squeals. I wish I had known that would be the case back in 1993!