Monday, July 23, 2007

A Gloucestershire Lesson

Tewkesbury, once surrounded by fields is a temporary island

It is raining in London tonight, as it has done on many nights since May.

Whichever way you cut the statistics this has been a wet summer, as in there has been above average rainfall. However London has not been dramatically wet in the way of Yorkshire and now Western England. Last Friday saw some localised flooding but nothing that hadn't cleared by the next day.

In contrast the flooding in Gloucestershire and some other western counties has been on almost biblical proportions The town of Tewkesbury (pronounced Chooksbury by the real locals !) has been an island since Friday.

The County Town, Gloucester has been beseiged for days by the River Severn and even elegant Cheltenham has suffered water shortages as the supply becomes polluted and swamped by rain water. It is one of the great ironies that in this flood there has been such a great shortage of drinking water.

I should declare an interest in Gloucestershire. I lived for 3 years very near to Tewkesbury and for a further 5 years in the City of Gloucester itself. Many of my childhood memories are from that county. Although moving to Kent and subsequently London was seen as "progress" by my Father and subsequently me, I look back in fondness on this County and its people.

In many ways a county like Gloucestershire is far closer to the essence of England than modern London will ever be. I say that in a totally positive way. It is often the little things like the manners of other people that are noticeable. In Gloucestershire you would not be surprised to be let out at a junction by another motorist while in London you would worry about the motives of the rare "friendly motorist". The pace of life is slower but the quality of life (except in flood days) is arguably higher.

One school friend I remain in touch with is in the Gloucestershire police and is doubtless working hard today. He is married to a teacher and they have two children. Such a family in London would struggle to find somewhere to live that was affordable. While Gloucestershire is subject to rising property prices as elsewhere it is still possible for public servants to afford nice houses and send their children to schools where the education is good and generally free of violence.

In short, life can be good in Gloucestershire. That is not to say I am completely blinded by rose-tinted spectacles. The downside of such areas can sometimes be a paroachial attitude. Gloucester is not immune to the horrors that affect the rest of the world and towards the end of my days in Gloucester it came to light that the City had been home to a horrific married couple of serial killers, the Wests. Their grim record was one of the worst in England's history.

Despite such abberations Gloucestershire is generally a gentler, more polite place than London.

In Tewkesbury in the mid-80s we used to go shopping from our village. From what I remember the parking restrictions were few and those that did exist were enforced by reasonable wardens who were always willing to "give 5 minutes". Imagine trying that in London !

I don't think I could have realised how special the place was back then. Tewkesbury with its timbered buildings and ancient abbey, Gloucester where we lived next to the huge Cathedral. Suburban London is so functional and repetive in contrast to these towns of character and variety.

I am not going against London but I do remember all that life in an essentially a rural county had to offer. The frustrations were fewer and tended to consist of Combine Harvesters trundling down the roads. ! Farmers are important in Gloucestershire and they are some of those suffering most in these floods.

The Prime Minister visited Gloucester today and it made me smile to see how the local paper, the Gloucester Citizen, covered the story:

PRIME Minister Gordon Brown flew into Gloucester by helicopter today at 7.35am. Mr Brown flew over Tewkesbury and Gloucester before landing at the Waterwells police headquarters for a meeting with Chief Constable Tim Brain and other crisis team leaders. A total of 48,000 homes in Gloucester are without power after the Castlemeads power station was shut down. Postcodes affected include: GL1-7, 10, 17, 50, 51 and 52. More than 150,000 homes are without water but bowsers (mobile water tanks) are stationed throughout the county. People are advised to boil the bowser water before consumption. Cheltenham has an estimated 20 hours of water left. Residents are urged to use it sparingly and not panic as this will mean supplies will run out much more quickly. Meanwhile an urgent appeal has been launched for builders merchants to supply "dumpy bags" (large sandbags.) Any merchant who can help is asked to call 01452 753292 and ask for Nigel.

I'm sure the Evening Standard wouldn't be so unfazed enough to mention the Prime Minister and the phone number of a man collecting sandbags in the same article !

In terms of lessons on global warming, I remain sceptical. Up until now the run of dry summers when hose pipe bans came into force was blamed on global warming. Now floods are blamed on it too. In reality this has all happened before, famously in 1947 and before that.

This excellent article from the Times give a history of Britain's floods and remind us that Britain generally has been a wet country !

The one lesson I would take is that nature in all its forms is a huge and powerful force that can swamp us all. I remember 2 years ago when New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina. America haters from the North London liberals and others marvelled how the world's superpower could be reduced to such a state by a hurricane.

This piece from the Guardian was typical:

Blaming Bush:
LeaderSaturday September 3, 2005The Guardian
Hurricane Katrina has cruelly demonstrated the awesome power of nature and the havoc it can wreak on the proudest efforts of humankind. It has also exposed the United States government, and George Bush at the head of it, to charges of badly mishandling what looks like being one of the country's worst ever natural disasters. Unlike what happened after the September 11 terrorist attacks, partisan warfare has already broken out over the waterlogged catastrophe that is New Orleans and the battered coast of Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. This is a crisis in full spate - as shown by shocking images of bodies floating in putrid water and desperate refugees scrabbling to catch supplies dropped by helicopter. America is the richest and most powerful country on earth. But its citizens, begging for food, water and help, are suffering agonies more familiar from Sudan and Niger. The worst of the third world has come to the Big Easy.

What the Guardian will be unlikely to point out is now huge swathes of England have been reduced to hunting for bottled water and coping without electricity in a similar way to the residents of New Orleans did 2 years ago. Back then George Bush was at fault but now it is the English weather. Helicopters buzz around the sky picking up who they can find. The general lack of looting may reflect well on the people of Gloucestershire and beyond but the state of Gloucestershire is remarkably similar to post-Katrina in its waterlogged landscape. Thankfully there was no ferocious wind and loss of life in all the recent floods has been amazingly light. However it is a reminder that all nations can be victims of nature and in this case no hurricane just simple rain.

A cottage in Gloucestershire pokes from beneath the floods

I am sorry to see Gloucester and beyond suffering so now. I only hope the floods end soon and I have no doubt that Gloucestershire will recover and continue to be great place to live full of a friendly and civilised people.

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