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