Many residents go to flood events in town

Morpeth flood 10-year anniversary events organisers Barbara Ross, left, and Jan Clarke with Ian Lavery MP at the exhibition on Sunday.
Morpeth flood 10-year anniversary events organisers Barbara Ross, left, and Jan Clarke with Ian Lavery MP at the exhibition on Sunday.

Hundreds of town residents attended events at the weekend to mark the 10th anniversary of the devastating flood in Morpeth.

On Saturday evening, people came together to reflect and to listen to the personal testimonies of a number of those who had lost their homes in the flood, as well as the stories of the many organisations and individuals who had offered support during and after the flood.

HM Coastguard personnel from Blyth and Newbiggin were among those also in attendance.

HM Coastguard personnel from Blyth and Newbiggin were among those also in attendance.

There was a great emphasis upon how the community had pulled together.

On Sunday, there was a public exhibition, also in the Town Hall, which was opened by Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery. He spoke about the community response and paid tribute to the work of Morpeth Flood Action Group.

Alan Bell, chairman of the group, was on hand to demonstrate what had been achieved in the last 10 years and to answer questions.

There was a display from Northumberland County Blind Association in Staithes Lane and from Goosehill Private Nursery.

Also in attendance were the Emergency Planning Department, HM Coastguard personnel from Blyth and Newbiggin and the Samaritans.

Hive Community Radio was kept busy listening to and recording the testimonies of those who had been affected by the flood.

Among those agreeing to share their stories was Robert Young, one of the nephews of Isobel Smail.

He spoke of the arrangements to close the shop (John Smail and Sons) early and help get staff home before going back in the evening and seeing ‘about a foot of muddy water slowly oozing out the front door of Smail’s’.

Of what happened afterwards, he said: ‘Recovery was a lengthy business. After an initial period to dispose of flood-damaged stock, the shop was closed for the best part of six months, during which time John continued to pay the staff salaries throughout.

‘The insurers were sympathetic and declared that all stock that had invoices could be claimed for. However, stock damaged up to the height of a foot on the ground floor required 18 of the largest size skips to be taken away on the back of heavy haulage lorries.

‘Naturally, this process revealed some stock that had slipped to the back of counters which had not seen the light of day since the time of the last penetrating flood in 1969, which was itself not quite as high as the earlier one in 1963, when regulations about the disposal of stock were not so stringent.

‘Needless to say, invoices could not be found for a few skips of this stock, which probably dated back to the end of the last World War and in some cases between the wars.

‘Some stock could have gone directly into Beamish had it been uncontaminated, although the dust of ages was hard to distinguish from the grime of the flood.

‘There was, for example, the first display case of fibre Rawlplugs from the 1950s, litho-printed catalogues of ironmongery that were all hand-drawn images from the 1920s and 30s, fishing tackle from the earliest beginning of the shop in the late 1800s and George’s prized collection of Eswing hammers. He had tears in his eyes when he placed it reverently into a skip.

‘All else had to be thrown into skips because of the danger of sewage water contamination. Skips that weren’t taken away as soon as they were full became the centre of attention for looters overnight, despite the warning signs about contamination on them.

‘A more positive outcome was that the shop was to get its first lick of paint and set of new counters and shelving on the ground floor since the fire of the mid-1960s.

‘Some things were able to be salvaged. John Smail’s roll-top desk in the downstairs office was declared safe because it was solid mahogany and its varnish protection was thought to be impervious to damage by the flood water.

‘The only requirement was that the varnish had to be washed with disinfectant and all scrapped off and this was done by George over a period of weeks by hand with cabinet scrapers, revealing the most beautiful wood grain underneath.

‘The large safe in the office was also left in-situ by the renovators.

‘In conclusion, Smail’s ‘institutional’ recollection is that there is usually a major flood in Morpeth every 40 years.

‘These things happen, despite schemes to the contrary. As Councillor Alderman Smail used to frequently remind us: “We live amidst woods and water – it’s the motto on the coat of arms you know.”

‘In this respect, nature has its way. We can only hope the more extensive flood defences since 2008 will mean that the aggregate misery they cause Morpeth townsfolk and businesses will be reduced.

‘It remains to be seen if they can be eradicated altogether, with all of the new housing being built around the town and its potential affect on water courses.

‘Yet they do remain a testament to the folk of the town coming together and helping one another with an energy and civic concern that is seldom repeated at other times.

‘They also seem to serve as markers for our collective memories looking back over the years. I’ve heard people refer to other happenings in the town using the floods as points of reference.’

Dozens of people had come forward to donate their photographs, many of which had never been seen before.

The events were organised by friends Jan Clarke, who herself had to leave her home for a period of months because of the flood, and Barbara Ross.

Barbara said: “The Town Hall was full and it was a very emotional evening on Saturday as we heard the stories of devastation.

“One particular poignant moment was when Ron Forster, who was the Minister at St George’s URC Church at the time, asked the audience to shout out the names of the people who had helped them.

“Many names were called in tribute and appreciation, but some names rang out several times including Rhona Dunn, Mike Willis, Simon Pringle, Joan Tebbutt, Ian Lavery, Alan Bell, Les Sage, Paul Hendy, Ron Forster and the late Elphin Conroy.

“We had a fantastic response to the public exhibition on Sunday, which was attended by more than 350 people.

“The Environment Agency was also present and it gave people the opportunity to talk to them about the strength of our new flood defences and to ask questions.”

The flood action group held an evening of appreciation in the ballroom at the Town Hall on Saturday.

This event was a way of thanking all those individuals, groups, organisations and agencies that were integral in working together to make Morpeth’s flood alleviation scheme a reality.

On the day of the 10-year anniversary, September 6, Flood Re – the government-backed, not-for profit scheme – put out a call to homeowners who do not have home insurance, or are looking to renew a policy, to shop around for the right deal to ensure that their homes are protected.

Go to www.floodre.co.uk to learn more and see if your home qualifies for Flood Re.