The forgotten story of the floods

When John Armitage moved to Luddenden Foot with his wife Geraldine seven years ago he thought they had found their own little piece of paradise.

Nestled in the lush Calder Valley a few steps from the Rochdale Canal and with a back garden looking out on the River Calder, they felt happy and content. “You can sit here on a summer evening and see the trout leaping in the water and kingfishers flying past. It’s idyllic, it really is,” says John.

But as he surveys the damage done to his bungalow, sandwiched between the river and the canal, this picture postcard scene seems a long way off.

His home was one of those flooded in the West Yorkshire village during the floods that also wreaked havoc in places like Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Mytholmroyd and Sowerby Bridge back in December. But while their plight has been well documented in the news, local residents in Luddenden Foot feel they have been overlooked.

Today, the ribbons of rust-coloured water flowing through Luddenden Foot appear peaceful, a far cry from the raging torrents that tore through the valley a couple of months earlier.

However, local residents claim it wasn’t the river that was the main problem, but the Rochdale Canal. “The river’s only ever reached our garden once and that was three years ago and it still didn’t get in the house,” says John.

He describes what happened on Boxing Day morning as local residents battled to keep the water out of their homes. “At about 4.30 in the morning when we got an Environment Agency alert that the river was three or four foot below and when I checked again at six o’clock it hadn’t moved. But then at eight o’clock a neighbour knocked on my door and told me to move my car because the water was coming from the canal.”

The canal had flooded the towpath and was seeping through the stone walls and on to the lane in front of the neighbouring houses. “I couldn’t understand why because the canal is self-levelling as long as the water can get away and there was no reason why it couldn’t.”

Despite their best efforts they ended up with two feet of water inside their home and had to flee to their son’s house in nearby Friendly. “That morning we had to grab what we could and leave. We moved into the back bedroom of my son’s house.” They spent 10 days with him before moving into a rented house in the village.

John is a retired prison office support worker and he and his wife rent their house. Thankfully, they were insured, although the clean-up operation is far from complete. The inside of their home is a mess. A dehumidifier is still drying out the floorboards and the walls have all been stripped bare. While outside, most of their garden furniture and ornaments have been ruined.

Residents aren’t expected to be able to move back until May, but at one flood relief meeting in Hebden Bridge last month John claims some officials weren’t aware that Luddenden Foot had even been affected.

He says there’s a feeling in the village that they have been forgotten about. “No one from the Canal and River Trust has been here to ask how we’re doing, there’s been nothing apart from a couple of guys who came to do some strimming along the towpath.”

But the key question for him is getting to the bottom of why the canal flooded in the first place. “The canal had never flooded before,” he says. “We’re not saying the Canal and River Trust did anything wrong, but something happened with the canal that morning.

“We want to see the towpath improved but above all we want someone to explain to us why the canal flooded. I don’t have the solution, but we just want to know why it happened and what can be done to stop it happening again. Why did the canal cause us so much pain that morning when the river didn’t?”

According to the Canal and River Trust the sheer volume of water was to blame. “The Boxing Day floods experienced across Calderdale were exceptional – the biggest we have had to deal with,” a spokesperson said. “The River Calder flooded into the Rochdale Canal at a number of places, rapidly inundating the canal, causing a massive amount of water to flow down the canal.

“Large sections of canal towpath have been affected with the water scouring the surface in some places making them impassable, especially around locks and where the river is close to the canal. Our volunteers have been putting in a Herculean effort to repair and reopen nine kilometres of towpath between Hebden Bridge and Sowerby Bridge.

“They’ve given more than 400 hours and moved 200 tonnes of stone in the process. As a direct result of these works people living in Luddenden Foot are able to get out and enjoy their local waterway once more and use the towpath to get between Hebden Bridge and Sowerby Bridge.”

The Environment Agency also points out that at the height of the December floods there were 24 Severe Flood Warnings in place across Yorkshire, nine of which were in the Upper and Mid Calder catchments.

But not everyone is convinced that enough has been done to help people. Amanda Leggett is a business manager and Luddenden Foot resident whose home was among those flooded on Boxing Day. “We observed the river rising throughout that morning but this suddenly got much worse when the canal started to overflow and within a very short time the houses between the canal and the river were under several feet of water.”

She and her husband, Martin, had to leave their home and says the past couple of months have been an “emotional rollercoaster”. She, too, feels that the concerns of the local community haven’t been properly addressed.

“We do feel that Luddenden Foot was totally ignored. We understand that Hebden Bridge and Mytholmroyd were greatly affected by the floods, but we do feel that as a small community we have been left to fend for ourselves.”

Amanda, who has lived in Luddenden Foot for the past 13 years, is full of praise for the volunteers who turned up to help and is grateful for the financial support residents have received from the community fund and the local council.

But she is critical of the Canal and River Trust and the Environment Agency. “All we hear is that there was unprecedented rainfall but this does not explain the magnitude of what happened. Any suggestions put forward by people with a wide variety of knowledge and experience are dismissed by representatives of the Environment Agency,” she says.

“Two months on from the disaster we are now living in temporary accommodation and although our property is undergoing repair we are acutely aware that a lot of hot air is being spoken at various road shows, but nothing is being done to prevent the occurrences happening again.”