The Foxearth and District Local History Society

The Hysterical Hystorian

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Global Warming and the Flooding of the Stour

Some splendid keen young surveyors appeared the other day to use all the power of their scientific training to detect whether the river really flooded badly enough to prevent building homes in the water-meadows in Cavendish

Haverhill High Street on September 15th 1968. The Stour suddenly asks for its valley back

There is a strange amnesia in the area about flooding. Cavendish has always been prone to flooding, because of its position in the river valley on a gravel bank, close to the rich alluvial silts.

In October 1859, a Cavendish 'correspondent' wrote to the papers saying 'The health of this village is anything but good, the situation being generally damp and muddy, within the last few weeks several young persons have fallen victim to consumption and many more children are ill with fever, it is questionable whether our forefathers acted with much wisdom in selecting a low swamp and marshes for habitation such as Cavendish must have been and even now during floods the water inundates not only the road but the houses as well.

Cavendish has been competely cut off from the outside world on two occasions in the past twenty years. On 15th September 1968, the flooding almost reached the ground-floor ceiling of some of the houses in Stour Street and Water Lane. The water got as far as Mr Hales Butchers' shop on the green and a Rolls-Royce motor car parked unluckily in Poole Street was immersed above the window-level. The Ground floors of low-lying houses, including the Old Rectory, Cavendish (The Sue Ryder Home where she lived with her husband Leonard Cheshire) flooded. The local MP was photographed in a boat shaking hands with a resident in Poole Street who was leaning out of the first-floor window. A local resident remembers water running through ground-floor windows, in several houses.

The East Anglian Daily Times of September 17th 1968 said

The centre of Cavendish was cut off late last night, 20 houses were flooded, firemen and police were standing by at the Sue Ryder Home for forgotten Allies, sandbags failed to stop the Home being flooded by the four foot of water from the Stour and all the residents moved upstairs. A few people from the home were put up for the night by villagers but it is thought most of the residents will be able to spend tonight in the Home. The Home is in the centre of the village which was last night completely cut off with flood waters blocking the main Sudbury-Haverhill road at both ends of the village, many telephones in the centre of the village were out order and residents in the flooded houses moved upstairs. For most of the day the village had been cut off in the Haverhill direction and flooding in the other end of the village occurred at a rapid rate, during the evening a large stretch of the Cavendish-Glemsford road was becoming badly flooded, 300 workers at Bush Boake Allen Ltd were sent home as a foot of water swept through the works.

The historical archive bears testimony to the frequent floods of the Stour. The power and force of a river in flood is quite striking. The idea of putting houses on stilts has been in one recent planning request from prospective developers. If the floodwater didn't contain such things as treetrunks, which move faster than a walking pace, this might be quite an idea, though I would imagine that prospective home-owners might resent being cut-off for around five days every winter. They also wouldn't appreciate the fact that the floodwater is generally dilute sewage, and the treatment plants and sceptic tanks in the valley are flooded out.

Delivering bread to Pentlow residents during a flood

The old photograph illustrates a typical winter flood at Cavendish. The local residents of Pentlow are taking delivery of bread. The water is pouring over Pentlow Lane. It is only a mild flood, as I can remember the water-level nearly at the top of my boots, going over the floodwalk. And a quick trawl through our newspaper archive will disabuse you of the notion that flooding is a recent phenomenon associated with global warming. The Stour, like every other British river, has always flooded. What makes flooding of the Stour around Cavendish, Melford and Ballingdon more dramatic is the clayey nature of the soil in Suffolk that does not absorb water but turns it straight into the ditches and thence into the Stour.

It is interesting to note that the precedent has now been set of allowing housing to be built in places that are known to flood, even when such housing presents the additional hazard of narrowing the valley bottom, and thereby increasing the risk of flooding upstream. At Bakers Mill, for example, a huge new estate of 'Narrow Footprint' housing has been allowed. These have garages underneath and are intended to allow the occupants to escape on foot! Anyone who has seen or experienced a real flood would shudder at the absurdity of deliberately building in the flood plain.


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