Watching nature take its course, from the top of a hill in northern England

Dam of emotions


It’s been a difficult time. When the dam of our local reservoir, Toddbrook, started to fail on Thursday 1st of August, it was deeply worrying. I was very close to the dam, when events started to unfold. As the first emergency response was arriving, this is what I saw; brown fluid, like clay slip, flowing from under the spillway, and concrete plates, lifted up above the retaining wall at the edge of the spillway. My spine froze. I took this photo on my phone, my hand shaking and left quickly.

Toddbrook mobile

I felt sure that the only way to fix this would be drop the water behind where it was leaking. In the mean time, the breach would be washing away the dam, which has clay at its core. It was a terrifying thought. The water gathering pace and driving more and more stability away.  I also felt sure they would have to evacuate the town.

My very physical reaction to the risk came I think, not from the fact my family is awash with engineers, but simply years of summer holidays watching the boys dam the river on Mill Bay beach in Devon, not for hours, but for days, till their hand were blistered, their cries and shouts as the dam started to fail, ‘Come on you guys, it’s going!’ Joe would yell* and they would all pile in to try and save it with spades and chunks of driftwood as the sand and water swirled away down the beach.  I guess I’m a visual thinker, but the magnitude of what could happen to Whaley Bridge was there in a heartbeat and did not leave me for the next six days..

It didn’t take me many minutes to get home, well up into the hills above the town.  The police were closing roads behind me as I left, I tried to compose myself, I rang Mr Uphilldowndale to tell him. I got through to his answerphone and left a tearful panicky message.

This video show the early response and the work that went on through the night.


At 5am the next morning, just 14 hours after the town had been evacuated an RAF Chinook helicopter was bringing bags of stone into shore up the dam.  Working to photos provided by the engineers they skilfully places the bags, where X marked the spot. I watched as they dropped bags into slit on the right hand side of the concrete kerb at the edge of the spillway. I watched 11 tonne bags fall, they just disappeared into the ground, vanished into the void.


Toddbrook Chin 3


Over a thousand people have been working around the clock, what they have achieved was astounding: new roads, floating pumps, miles of pipes, tonnes of stone to block any more water coming into the reservoir.  For the people of Whaley Bridge, who could only watch the RAF Chinooks have become the iconic sight and sound, we found the distinctive wockwockwock  sound of their  rota blades strangely comforting.



It was something we could see and hear, from our homes (or the homes of family and friends on higher ground, out of the flood zone) from the kitchen sink, from our bedrooms, from the garden, we stood and watched.


Toddbrook Friday Taxal Moor_


On the Friday it was intense. I  joined many others and watched from the local cricket club.


Toddbrook Friday 2nd 2


I found myself surrounded by military aviation enthusiasts, with camera lens as long as a broom handle, who told of their delight at being able to watch Chinooks working outside of an air show. I realised we had very different reasons for being there.

On Sunday, the weather gods, having placed us in this crisis clawed back the threatened clouds and torrential rain that was forecast. You could feel the valley breathe a little more easily: the sun came out, the landscape sparkled despite its open wound.



Words feel inadequate to thank those who responded: from truck drivers, to the RNLI, Mountain Rescue, civil engineers to construction specialists, Fire and Police, surrounding villages sending food to feed the thousand, 4×4 clubs evacuating residents, local volunteers, social workers looking out for the vulnerable and a thousand and one tasks that I could only guess at.

I think that for many  involved in the Toddbrook dam incident,  it will not only be something they never forget, but a career defining moment, a challenge they may even have relished in both its urgency and complexity.

I can’t come towards the end of this post, without mentioning Deputy Chief Constable  for Derbyshire, Rachel Swann, her clear and decisive leadership was as inspiring as it was comforting. We felt we were in safe hands.  She features in this video.



On Wednesday, six days after the evacuation, residents were allowed to return home. Tears of anxiety gave way to  tears of relief.

I think our little town will come out strong from this. We will have a new dam, the safest, smartest, sexiest dam in the country! Ready for the next 200 years. We know and value what we so nearly lost, and we know that there is strength and a steadfastness  in our friends  family and neighbours, that we never recognised before.

I’d be lying to say that nerves are not still on edge. On Thursday, the day after the all clear, I was startled to hear what I thought was the sound of a Chinook. It turned out to be the the washing machine on a spin cycle! Stand down everybody stand down. It’s OK.

We’re like the flag at the cricket club a little frayed around the edges.


cricket club


Take a look at the weather vane on the clubhouse roof, we came very close to losing so much.

*Joe is now studying civil engineering at university, all things to do with water management are his passion!



Author: uphilldowndale

Watching the rhythm of rural life, from the top of a hill in northern England. Having spent most of my life avoiding writing, I now need to do it! I am no domestic goddess, but if I were expecting visitors to my home, I would whisk round with the duster and plump up the cushions and generally make the place look presentable. I hope that by putting my words where others may see them it will encourage me to ‘tidy up and push the Hoover around’ my writing. On the other hand I may just be adding to the compost heap. Only time will tell! Pull up a chair, sit yourself down, I’ll put the kettle on.

19 thoughts on “Dam of emotions

  1. It was an amazing group effort to achieve what was achieved – such dedicated professionals, such skill. How brilliant that the village was saved. You must have been absolutely terrified to see that first damage happening with your own eyes – were the emergency services aware what was going on at that time?

  2. Well, I’ve read and watched umpteen accounts of the Whaley Bridge emergency, but none have reduced me to actual tears like this. Now I appreciate the state you’ve been in for the past ten days. You’ve mentioned factual details that I hadn’t been aware of, like people being given only 15 minutes to pack their bags, but you’ve also conveyed the emotions that you and everyone else must have had. And still have. I’ve often thought what I’d grab in the event of fire, but never considered flood. One thing these events have made me feel, apart from relief that there was no loss of life, is that I need to look into Cloud storage a bit more seriously. You’re here in WordPress land, but I’m still on paper!

  3. Oh, this brought tears to my eyes. I’ve looked into news reports from time to time, and was mostly convinced that a larger disaster had been avoided, but your update is ever so much better. The ability of humans to cope when coping’s needed is wonderful, and knowing that you’ll have a long-term solution to the problem is even better.

    I had to smile at your detail about the washing machine startling you. After the flooding brought by Hurricane Harvey — those extraordinary 52″ of rain! — there were a lot of people around who took some time to get over their feeling of panic when it started to rain again.

  4. Thank goodness it all ended without disaster. Now it’s under control it’s disappeared from our screens but doubtless there will be repercussions for your town for some time to come. Let’s hope the new dam gets built quickly and efficiently.

    • Fingers crossed! They are busy rescuing the fish from what little water remains. ‘We are also carrying out a major fish rescue to re-home thousands of fish which have been affected by the draining of the reservoir. Coarse fish, such as bream, roach, perch and pike, have been captured in large nets by our fish specialists and transported mostly to Upper Bittell Reservoir, near Birmingham. With an estimated 30,000 fish (about 5,000kg) to rehome, this task is due to take another one to two weeks.’

    • While it is not clear what triggered the event, whether it was the unusually high rainfall or other causes, even high rainfall may only be a partial contributor. If the dam was heavily silted and no dredging was done for decades, the capacity to store inflows (live storage) would have been reduced and the resulting high outflow velocities could have resulted in the failure. We can only wait till the investigation reports are available.

      There is little interest in the siltation effects of reservoirs as contributory to dam/spillway failures. The focus is on say overtopping as a cause for some 35% of failures. Especially since the global warming debate is going on, opinions are relying on unusually high rainfall and ignoring the vastly reduced live storage resulting from much higher than forecast sedimentation rates or the lack of determining recent bed contours through bathymetry. Unless dam safety programs factor this also into their inspections and evaluations, more dams may fall through the cracks.

  5. Thanks for a really excellent post, with pictures to match. Far better than any of the media reports I saw. xx

  6. Well said. We all felt it, didn’t we? I watched helpless from the other side of the hill, seeing the Chinook, but not its target. And there’s still a part of me that fears the rain like I never have before. I’ve read your blog on and off for years but never realised how close to being neighbours we are.

  7. A fearful occurrence but thank you for letting us share the event. I hope that your dreams of a fine new dam come true.

  8. What an amazing team work!

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  10. Oh my, that is terrifying. I’m so glad for the peaceful resolution. Your account is amazing; the emotion comes through in a visceral way. Reading this took me back to Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Your comment about the washing machine is quite relatable. I was startled by how bothered I was by the sound of gentle rainfall in the background of a guided mediation I listened to not long after Harvey struck. I’m so glad you and your sweet town are safe. Beautiful post.

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