I’d been looking forward to December 5th 2015 for a number of months. Matt (my husband) and I were going on our annual pilgrimage to see our favourite band in Manchester. We tended to make a weekend of it by doing a little Christmas shopping and having a nice lunch out and meeting friends for a drink or two. My mother and father in law were over to look after our 3 daughters (then aged 15, 11 and 9) and keep an eye on our two dogs and cat.
Before we left to catch our train I took our dogs for a walk. It was raining, but when you live in Cumbria this was pretty typical. I was surprised to see that the river (Kent) that I walk my dogs alongside was extremely high and had actually spilled over onto the pathway. Perhaps this should have started to raise alarm bells, but no – I had seen this happen a number of times before and the water would always just gently subside and that was that. So I returned home and Matt and I set off for the train station. Our train, along with most others had been cancelled due to flooding on the line – alarm bells yet? Nope! It continued to rain, but we genuinely didn’t think anything of it. Trains were often cancelled due to localised flooding and the situation really didn’t seem that different to a typical rainy day in the ‘old grey town’. So, we ran home and decided to drive into Manchester, with our fingers crossed that the motorway wasn’t too badly effected by the downpour. I’d had a particularly busy few weeks at work leading up to this time and hadn’t really paid much attention to news or weather reports, which was unlike me. I had not heard about Storm Desmond…
The drive into Manchester was a little treacherous but we took our time and arrived safely. Manchester was relatively dry and so began our treat of a day. Shopping was minimal (I’m not a fan of shopping generally, but during December…!) and we had a wonderful afternoon eating at Waga-Mama and meeting up with friends for a catch up and drinks before the gig. All was rather grand!
The first phone call from home came at about 5.30pm. It was our eldest daughter Freyja who said that the rain was coming down in droves and hadn’t stopped all day. It was starting to build up in the streets and come up our garden path. She had spoken to our next door neighbour who had mentioned that he was going to move his car further up the road as things were starting to seem a little concerning on our street. Being on the other end of the phone, we were not fully aware at this point as to how much water there actually was building up on the streets of Kendal and on the cricket field that our garden backs onto.
Matt spoke to his dad who said that they’d pop some towels down next to the front and back doors just incase and that he really didn’t feel that the cars needed moving. We felt reassured and returned to our friends and our drinks.
This was the first time that I started to feel a twinge of anxiety. People in the pub we were in were talking about how bad the weather was in Cumbria and how homes were getting flooded. I tried to switch my brain off and convince myself that I was being paranoid. Then the phone rang. It was our daughter again who wanted to express the extent of how quickly the water was building up. She said that the cricket field behind our house looked like a swimming pool and that they were getting a bit scared. We explained that we are not in flood area and not near the river, so chances are that the rain would slow down soon and the water would gently subside.
Twenty minutes later came the phone call.
We spoke to all our children and to Matt’s parents too. They explained that the water was now coming up through the floor and it was coming up fast. They tried their best to get as much of our belongings up the stairs, but many of the big pieces of furniture were just too large. They all worked fast to get my drum kit upstairs as they knew how much it means to me (music plays a huge role in our lives and in our household).
They tried to think logically about all our important things that they needed to get upsatairs…books, papers etc. Things that would be difficult to replace.
Then the power went out.
We were on the phone to them when this happened. This added an extra level of stress to their situation. At this point we decided that we had to get home to them. So, we abandoned ship and ran back to our hotel to retrieve our car and head back to Kendal. I will never forget that journey. The motorway was like a swimming pool and we could barely see anything due to continual spray from the vehicles in front. We were, by now, listening to every radio station we could think of that would offer information about the flooding in our town. We knew that the motorway junction that led into Kendal had been closed so we had to go to further north to the next one.
As we approached Kendal, it was becoming clear as to the extent of the flooding. I felt quite frightened now. I knew that my children and in-laws were at my house with my dogs and cat in a pitch black house that was filling up with water – the reality of what was happening was finally starting to sink in.
The roads into Kendal were almost impossible to get through. Luckily our vehicle is quite a big van and we were able to drive through many of the flooded areas that a smaller car would not have stood a chance in. We got as far into Kendal as we could and left our van on a raised area. We knew by now that all the roads leading up to and including our home were many feet under water and not accessible by vehicle.
My husband Matt is a member of the Cave Rescue Organisation and is also just a super organised person when it comes to outdoor kit – so, fortunately we had full water proofs and wellies, hats and gloves in the back of our van. We got ourselves togged up and set off on foot to get home. We were about a quarter of a mile away at that point. As we walked down the hill where we had parked our van, we were shocked by what we saw. The roads were completely filled with water and it was dirty and it was freezing.
I managed to get up on a wall that ran alongside a church and walk for a short while, but then I had to go for it and submerge myself into cold water in order to get home.
The streets were black with dark and there were bemused people standing on walls or looking out of bedroom windows – it was utterly surreal. So in I got. The water came well above my waist and I cannot explain how cold it was. It took my breath and I felt a sense of panic. Matt could see what was happening. He held my hand and reassured me that it would be ok and that we just needed to get home. I calmed, but as we waded on the water got higher and higher until eventually its weight took my feet and I could no longer stand up. Matt shouted ‘Swim!’. So I did. There I was, swimming down my street to get home. I felt my legs crack against the debris that was gushing past me; wheelie bins, garden gates, collapsed stone walls. They were pretty bruised up when I looked the next day.
After what seemed like an age, we arrived at our house. Our front door is raised up by two steps and the water was still over half way up the door. Fortunately the door was unlocked (we’d had a discussion about what happens if it was locked. It wouldn’t be fair to expect our children or Matt’s parents to wade into the water downstairs and look for the keys in the dark – we’d decided Matt would go around the back and climb through the bathroom window – thankfully this didn’t have to happen as once we had arrived at the scene we realised it would have been near impossible to access the back of our home due to the shear extent of water and all the fallen walls and debris etc).
Strangely I thought that if I opened the front door a massive gush of water would come flooding out. It didn’t. But, our home was full of water. I stood in my hallway with freezing cold water up to my waist. I glanced into the lounge and saw my sofa (that brand new one we’d only had a couple of months) floating around. It was all very odd.
Then I ran up the stairs and saw my girls. We embraced and cried and squeezed and suddenly it was all ok – because we were all ok and now we were together.
Sounds a little melodramatic, but it really was unnerving that we had not been at home to help when everything happened. There had been a slight panic just before our arrival as our cat Martha could not be found. The girls were distraught, but fortunately she’d been located curled up under the bed on the top floor.
We spent the next couple of hours sorting out bedrooms and moving around furniture (we set up a mini kitchen in our bedroom for hot drinks etc) to enable us all to attempt to sleep (I think I managed an hour in the end). Practicality became the focus. My poor dogs looked so confused – I found myself telling them “if you need a wee just do it on the carpet…today, it doesn’t matter!”. They tipped their heads quizzically. They never did ‘toilet’ in the house, even though by the time we were able to get out the next day, they’d been stuck upstairs for about 20 hours.
The house and street were so very quiet that night. We watched out of the bedroom window as people and pets were rescued from their homes via boat. I watched my little Ford Fiesta be submerged by the water and float loosely around the road. This car was given to me by my Grandpa a few months before he passed away the year before (Dec 2014). Although I kept telling myself it was just a car, it held huge sentimental value for me and just the week before I had commented to my daughter how the car still had his lovely smell, which I found very comforting. A few days later, my car was towed to a garage in the hope of revival – but no joy. This really hurt, but there was so much to do, I had no time to be upset.
The morning after the floods came around, after what seemed like the longest night, Matt spoke to his brother who lives a couple of hours away, and they organised that he would drive down and pick up Matt’s parents as they too had lost their (brand new) car in the flood. Matt had by now waded off to borrow a Canadian canoe from a friend and the process of ferrying everyone out of the house began. Matt’s parents had now been safely deposited at a local hotel where they met his brother and were able to go home and escape the madness.
I had told our 3 girls to just sit tight in the bedroom for an hour or so with the animals, whilst Matt and I sorted a few things out. Firstly I went next door to my elderly neighbours house; I had assumed she would have been ‘rescued’ the night before, but I just wanted to check. It turns out she was upstairs and frightened, but she was with a neighbour who neither she or I knew, but who had been out in the night to offer help. He had seen her looking distressed in her bedroom window and agreed to sit with her throughout the long dark night to help ease her fear, until the morning and some help came.
Oh for the kindness of strangers. It still makes me cry to this day, when I think of how wonderful and selfless this young man was. So, between me and the helpful neighbour, we literally flagged down a tractor (this is a rural area and loads of farmers came out in force with their vehicles to offer help) and safely dropped of my elderly neighbour at her daughter’s house a few streets up the road.
Matt returned home with the boat and we took turns to get the children and animals away from our house and to the safety of our friends home (not far up our road) who had kindly offered to take in all 5 of us and our 3 pets – we were treated to hot soup and a shower and were pretty overwhelmed by their kindness.
We spent the morning making phone calls – mainly to our insurance company, who, although inundated with calls, were extremely helpful and made the process of cleaning up and claiming very easy for us. They immediately deposited £500 into our account to allow for food and potentially some short term accommodation. They also immediately replaced our washer and dryer with new ones as they could see with a family of 5 how urgently we would need these amenities. With our girls and pets safe with friends, Matt and I decided to begin the clean up immediately. Four huge dehumidifiers were sent by our insurers and we had the heating and log burner on full blast for weeks (as I recall it took about a month for the walls to be completely dried out). Complete strangers knocked on our door offering help, which we gladly accepted, and they helped us clear out the kitchen and wash things and packed things up. So very grateful for these lovely people!
We only stayed with friends for 3 nights and then it felt right to get us all home and work daily on sorting everything out. Many of our neighbours spent months, some over a year out of their homes whilst the repairs were going on – it felt like a ghost town. The stretch of river where I walk my dogs was strewn with debris where the floods had reached up to 8 feet. A week or so after the flood I was walking my dogs there, still a little shell-shocked from what had happened.
I bumped into another dog walker who I didn’t know, but we got talking and she had lost so much to the floods, including important photographs of loved ones who had passed away and Christmas gifts for her grandchildren. We cried and hugged – two strangers and our dogs.
I photographed every bit of damage to our home for insurance purposes and presented this to the chap who came round to assess the damage after about five days. Our claim whizzed through and we had money in our account after about two weeks, which enabled us to work quickly in ordering new carpets and buying furniture.
With it being so near to Christmas we still wanted our home to feel festive for our girls, even though it was still rather stinky (to top it off there had been lots of diesel from a near by factory spilled into the water that came straight through our home – boy did it pong!) and lacking in furniture. We put up twinkly lights in the lounge and a lovely friend had left a mini Christmas tree on our door step after having seen our ruined one in the skip (how lovely was that!?), which we put on the window sill. We put out camping chairs and my kind sister and brother-in-law gave us a gorgeous settee, which Matt had driven over to Whitby to collect. It looked a bit like a student house with crumbling walls and sodden floor boards, but it made a huge difference to all of our moods.
We pretty much lived upstairs for the first month or so and ate out rather a lot – until we were able to assemble some sort of kitchen. I’m not a fan of cooking, but what a relief it was to finally have access to a stove and oven.
Our roads were littered with skips for many months – full to the brim with furniture, broken Christmas trees and just peoples ‘stuff’ – I found this heart-breaking, but sadly it soon became the norm. Christmas came and went with many of our neighbours separated from family members and staying in the only accommodation available or in a hotel.
There are so many things that I would not have even thought of before being affected ourselves – such as people being offered emergency accommodation, but they would not take the family dog, so the dog had to be taken temporarily to the RSPCA. They were obviously well looked after and did return to their families eventually, but this would have tipped me over the edge! Thankfully my parents had a booked cottage in Ambleside for the Christmas season, so we were able to go there and enjoy a cosy chrimbo with loved ones, including our pooches. Martha, our cat was booked into a local cat hotel where she stayed for a week or so until the house was relatively safe and clean for her return.
As I think back to events that unfolded that night and the subsequent months, I no longer feel sadness (which I did for a long time…mainly for others who weren’t insured and lost everything).
Overwhelmingly, what I feel I’ve gained the most from the experience is a sense of community; strangers helping each other.
People leaving baskets of food on our door step or inviting us all round for tea. Knocks on the door from well wishers and people offering their time and energy to help clear up. People offering to walk the dogs or take the children to school. Family keeping in touch regularly to offer emotional support. How truly wonderful people can be during times of crisis (and I’m usually super cynical!).
It is estimated that over 5,000 households in Cumbria were affected by Storm Desmond in December 2015, that cost some £500m in physical damage and untold emotional losses.
I think it took about a year for things to feel ‘normal’ again. The decorators left our home on December 5th 2017 – two years to the day since the flood. This date coincidence was not planned, but somehow seemed significant to me. Two years of cleaning, tidying, drying out, plastering and painting. As I wrote this piece, we were eagerly awaiting to welcome my parents to our cosy home for Christmas 2017.