Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Stories from the Flood

This month I was a writer-in-residence for Words Across Northumberland, a project facilitated by Hexham Book Festival. Two writers, the novelist Susan Fletcher and I were stationed in parts of the region that have been severely affected by flooding in the last decade. Susan Fletcher recorded her experiences in Morpeth and I spent time in Rothbury, a small town in the Northumberland National Park. 

The River Wansbeck looked demure the day I arrived in Morpeth. It was hard to believe these waters could have caused such devastation a few years ago. But breakfasting in a cafe before starting work, I saw a gloomy forecast in the Mirror

The moorlands with their low population make the Northumbrian landscape one the most tranquil in the country (CPRE Tranquillity Mapping Report). I grew up in the region and have often gone walking in the hills. However, I've never travelled along its winding roads in a Mobile Library van, so I was excited about the opportunity to start my residency with a guided tour from the Northumberland Mobile Library Service. 

There are several Mobile Library services in Northumberland: the one I travelled with operates from Morpeth Library (which lost 20,000 books to flooding in 2008). Morpeth Library incorporates the Northern Poetry Library, one of my favourite haunts as a teenager. I was pleased to be back and it was satisfying to be able to leave one of my own books behind as a donation for their collection. 

Northern Poetry Library

The Mobile Version

The Mobile Library is much less spacious, but the space was found for a writer-in-residence, packed in among the books. Keith Bruce manoeuvred the hulking library - not unlike a New York taxi in colour, but far less agile - out of Morpeth, and drove over the moors towards Rothbury and up the Coquet Valley, stopping in each village. As he navigated the winding lanes and potholes Keith told me his own stories on flooding in the region. 

Easy Read

The Mobile Library is clearly an important service, especially for older people, as it brings fresh supplies of literature and a little kindly contact every fortnight. We also stopped at a number of schools, and managed to escape from the eager children with a few books still left in the van. I was lucky to get an insight into how the system works, not to mention having a beautiful ride on a bright summer’s day, past hedges bursting with blossom, cow parsley and campion. Mr Dixon, author of Upper Coquetdale (available from the Mobile Library) quotes a traditional verse:

If life were like a day in June,
                 And we had choice of England wide,
         Who would not spend an afternoon,
           And evening too, by Coquet-side.

A break for lunch at Harbottle

Stopping for squirrels

The River Coquet at Rothbury

Rothbury Library

After seeing the Coquet valley at its most idyllic, I was in for a shock in Rothbury next day - where the effects of the floods of 2008 can still be seen, five years on, in the building work on the bridge. 

As I listened to the people who came to the library to tell me their stories, it became clear that the floods have an enduring effect on daily life in Rothbury. While the disaster brought a friendly community even closer together, there are still challenges. Five years on, some old people still sleep in their clothes because they fear the waters will rise in the night and catch them unprepared. Some comfort is offered by a dedicated team of volunteer Flood Wardens who keep an eye on the river as it rolls down from the hills after heavy rain. I was very moved by the bravery the Rothbury residents showed as they told their difficult stories, refusing to be pessimistic or self-pitying.

Armstrong Cottages, one of the worst-hit buildings

Thank you to everyone who came and shared their experiences. Now comes the writing up – a poem based on the river, which will be published this autumn.

Many thanks to Keith Bruce, Claire Watson and Diane Wright, and the other staff of Northumberland Library Services, for making me feel so welcome and for sharing their stories too.

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