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Thoughts on flooding in Salisbury Cathedral Close

The floods in the Close and water meadows from Salisbury Cathedral tower
Posted By : Martin Field Saturday 11th January 2014

By Friday we’d got used to the floods rising and the rain coming down.  But we hadn’t expected bathwater from above.  A new hazard, dreamed up by the environment agency (who, obviously bored with issuing flood warnings had wanted some light relief).  I’d better explain.

On Sunday the rivers rose and the western side of the Close (where the Museums, Arundells and Leaden Hall are) was well and truly flooded.  And the ground floor residents of Sarum St Michael (a former teacher training college in the Close now converted to flats with largely elderly occupants) found ducks swimming in at their front doors, the Bishop’s house now boasted a moat and houses that once had basements now found they had an indoor paddling pool…

Expert opinions were called for.  A team of specialists assembled round the lake.  The Environment agency. The City Council.  Wiltshire Council. Wessex Water. The Police. Social Services. The Fire Brigade. An Ambulance queue. The property management company. Our facilities manager. Radio Wiltshire.  And for good measure, being a Cathedral, a Reverend Canon or two.  Each armed with a clipboard and the essential mobile phone.

The real problem, it transpired, was not simply the water but the effect on the drains.  If the water rose any more, there’d be nowhere for waste water to go – you wouldn’t be able to flush a loo, have a bath or take a shower.  Some of the more frail residents were evacuated to higher, drier parts of the Close.

But as the water gushed everywhere it also flushed out every human emotion.  Some people rallied round.  Officials (once they got off the phone) became human beings.  People stopped what they should be doing and filled sandbags, made rooms available, fetched groceries for those who opted to stay put, and reassured the anxious.

Others became angry – why hadn’t they been told earlier? What was wrong with the river defences? Who had let this happen? Surely someone was to blame?  A hair’s breadth from demanding that the local MP and Dean take their seats Canute like to the river’s edge and demand that the waters subside.

Others were more stoical.  “Well,” they said.  “You don’t get a ground floor flat with fishing rights and unrivalled views across ancient water meadows without a risk of flooding.  And the last time the Cathedral was flooded was 1915 – so once every 99 years isn’t too bad overall….”

The impromptu lake (that, to the delight of the swans and ducks will probably be there for some time), became a microcosm for all that is good in the human spirit – with just enough smattering of some of the more disappointing aspects of human nature to liven things up a bit for the onlookers and regrettably cause those trying to help some unnecessary grief.

Oh and the bathwater?  Well once it was clear that the floods were here to stay, and the drains would teeter delicately on the edge of packing up altogether, the advice was to fling waste water out of the window to fall on hapless ducks, do-gooders and passers-by to ease the pressure on drains.

So if you decide to pop down to take a look over the weekend – my advice would be to take a brolly even if it isn’t actually raining…..

Martin Field
Deputy Chapter Clerk, Salisbury Cathedral