Five years on from the Boxing Day floods, villagers still live in fear
Five years after the devastating Boxing Day floods of 2015, the villagers of picturesque Croston still view the weather forecast with a deep sense of foreboding.
Even though a £7m dam has been built to protect their homes along the banks of the River Yarrow, five “near-misses” in just over a year have seen dark clouds gathering again.
“We’re on tenterhooks all the time,” admitted Kath Almond, a parish councillor who endured a two-year nightmare after the 2015 deluge swamped her home.
“Every time it rains I still get very nervous. I keep wondering if the new flood measures are going to work, or if the river is going to come over again.”
Everyone in Croston had hoped the Environment Agency’s tailor-made flood risk management scheme would finally bring a sense of tranquility to their lives after a long history of water disruption.
So far, it seems, the dam upstream has done its job, preventing another catastrophe like the devastation caused by Storm Eva at Christmas time five years ago.
But residents have been left feeling jittery by a recent spate of worryingly high river levels through the village during prolonged wet spells.
Two of those scares came in October, four days apart, when the height of the water triggered the floodgates to close. A major disaster was averted, but only just, according to members of the Lower Yarrow Flood Action Group.
Now they are asking for adjustments to be made to the automatic system which controls the dam to make sure the river is kept in check and does not threaten roads and properties.
“It is obvious the dam has worked and we’re very grateful for that,” said Richard Guinness, another member of the action group. “In all those five events, only one house has been flooded.
“However on at least two of those occasions we have seen quite extensive flooding of some roads in the village. People’s gardens have been turned upside down, but thankfully not their properties.
“We want to know if there is any way they can look at the levels at which the dam operates to try and stop that.”
River measurements are taken at Castle Bridge in the village and are fed automatically to the dam. But the shutdown process operates in four stages, with a 90-minute gap between each one.
It can take four and a half hours to go from fully open to fully shut. And, by that time, villagers fear they could be flooded again.
The 2015 Boxing Day disaster followed unprecedented amounts of rainfall during November. They were followed by Storm Desmond on December 5 - which broke the UK’s 24-hour rainfall record in Cumbria - and then, with the ground still waterlogged, a series of other downpours made things worse before Storm Eva delivered the coup de gras over Christmas.
Combined they made December the wettest month on record and contributed to the 2015/16 winter being the second wettest since 1910.
In Croston 344 properties were affected, with many families having to move into temporary accommodation. Others lived upstairs and tried to salvage as many of their possessions as they could from the rising water.
While some were covered by insurance, others were not due to the high premiums demanded for properties in flood risk areas like Croston.
Inevitably some families decided to move out altogether. And five years on, evidence of the worries that people still have are all around. Piles of sandbags are in gardens and side streets in case families need to act quickly.
John Gregson’s home in Grape Lane is just yards from the river and, after spending 12 months living upstairs after it was invaded by the tsunami in 2015, he has taken extra precautions by fitting a flood barrier to protect his front door in case it happens again.
“We could have gone to live in the rented accommodation which they offered us, but we decided to stay here,” he said. “The entire ground floor was devastated. There was two-and-a-quarter feet of water in here.
“But since the flood works were carried out we’ve been OK. We’ve had water suddenly come into the garden once, but it went just as suddenly.
“It was a surprise because we thought the flood scheme would have prevented that. It shouldn’t, in theory, have happened. And we’ve never been given a full explanation.
“Until that happened I thought Croston was safe with the new dam, but now there’s a bit of doubt in my mind.”
For Kath Almond, the 2015 flood was the second time her home had been under water. It was the ninth time in 74 years that the village had been hit by “major” flooding events - 1946, 1966, 1987, 1999, 2000 (twice), 2008, 2012 and 2015.
“I was flooded in 1987,” she said. “That was one of the worst. It takes years to get right after something like that. It took me two years to get carpets down again because I said I wouldn’t risk that until the new flood defences were operating. Some people even took three years to get straight.
“I lost my husband at the end of all that. Living like that for almost two years with no plaster on the walls and no carpets down was something that took its toll on him.
“I’m grateful they’ve built the barrier and I think they are doing what they can at the moment. It will hold the water, but what they have to do now is adjust the gate so that it closes quicker and keeps the river a bit lower coming through Croston.”
Like badly-hit areas of Cumbria and West Yorkshire, the media spotlight shone on Lancashire’s worst flooding blackspots, with Croston getting plenty of attention as first Prince Harry and then Prime Minister David Cameron came calling.
The PM was armed with a promise to spend more on flood defences, firstly to shore up the huge gap in the earth bank where the waters had burst through on Boxing Day. TV shots of an Army Chinook helicopter dumping giant sandbags in the hole were shown nationwide.
Eventually the government came up with the money, although it had to be topped up by Chorley Borough Council, Lancashire County Council and United Utilities.
The upstream flood storage area sits behind a six-metre high earth embankment and is capable of retaining the equivalent of 520 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Croston’s history of flooding has not dented its popularity as a place to live, with a number of estate agent boards saying “sold” or “sale pending.”
Debbie Ormiston was one of those badly affected by the Boxing Day deluge, yet she still went on to buy the house she was renting at the time.
Debbie and her husband spent seven months living at first floor level in their home in Town Road, turning the family bathroom into a kitchen and the third bedroom into a sitting room.
“It was awful,” she said. “We managed, but with difficulty. We had no electricity for days, we couldn’t have showers. Downstairs the water was mid-thigh level. Some people were evacuated, but we stayed put.
“At the time we were renting the house. But we still went ahead and bought it after it was all over. It didn’t put us off - I love the village and the people are amazing.
“I still get frightened when the weather is bad - that will never go away. But hopefully these flood defences will do their job.”
Mary Rigby was another not put off by the Boxing Day disaster, nor Croston’s long reputation for being a flood-hit village.
She moved into the Smithy in Church Street three years ago, even though her property, which backs on to the Yarrow, was one of those under water in 2015. She is now pinning her hopes on the dam keeping the place dry.
“It wasn’t a big issue for me really,” she said. “I thought about it, I knew it had happened, but they’ve spent all this money on defences and it does work up to a point. It’s obviously not as bad as it was, but we still get the water coming up high when it rains heavily.
“It’s come right up to my back doorstep, but not over it yet. There are still worries. I’ve not been able to get home in the car a couple of times because of water on the roads and the fire brigade have been up the road pumping out a house. But hopefully they will sort it.”
More than 2,500 homes were flooded across Lancashire in December 2015. Residents in 229 separate communities were affected by the deluge.
A climate scientist described it as “one of the most severe episodes of flooding to hit the UK in the last 100 years.”
The total cost of the damage caused by the three December storms in the UK - Desmond (Dec 5/6), Eva (Dec 25/26) and Frank (Dec 29/30) - was estimated at £1.3bn.
It was the wettest month on record in the UK and helped to make December to February the second wettest winter since 1910.
Insurance companies were swamped with claims and paid out £1.5bn in flood-related settlements.
More than 500 troops were deployed across the North West to help the clear-up operation.
The Environment Agency says it is confident the dam will do its job after successfully averting floods on several occasions already this year.
A spokesperson said: “We regularly inspect flood risk management defences and would like to reassure residents that the defences in Croston will protect homes and business from flooding.
“The Croston Flood Risk Management scheme, completed in 2017, is operated during heavy rainfall to protect people, properties and businesses in the area. The scheme has already protected hundreds of homes in Croston several times in 2020.
“We understand the devastation that flooding can cause for homes and business, but we cannot prevent flooding completely. There are a number of steps people can take to prepare; make sure you’re signed up to received free flood warnings from the Environment Agency and prepare a flood plan – details can be found on Gov.uk.”