By Sarah Pridgeon
In England, we expect our winters to be marked by a nip in the air and the odd spot of rain, a far cry from the frozen roads and terrifying blizzards of Wyoming. What we do not expect is for half the country to suddenly find itself underwater.
Whatever disturbance in the jet stream caused the polar vortex at the beginning of the year is continuing its sightseeing expedition in Europe. In other words, the same weather system that brought zero-degree conditions to the Midwest has been dumping inch after inch of rain on England since the year began.
While, on this side of the Atlantic, we spent most of the holiday period wrapped in as many blankets as can conceivably be applied to a human being, the United Kingdom is now donning a snorkel. Europe’s beaches are being stormed, but this time it’s not by the military.
The first indication that things were going wrong was a section of sea wall collapsing, leaving a railway line suspended in nothingness. And while locals stared at the rubble and scratched their heads, water on the southern plains began to creep up from the ground, forming an unexpected lake where once there was farmland and villages.
Eventually, the seas were in such turmoil that an ancient stack rock just off the coast that weighs many hundreds of tons, and is known affectionately in my home county as “Pom Pom Rock,” simply crumbled into the water. In Cornwall, down on the foot of our island, a landmark stone archway in Porthcothan Bay was battered by 30-foot waves and eventually met the same fate.
The wind cut power to thousands of homes as the number of counties under severe flood warnings began to rise. Living rooms turned into swimming pools and the capital city decided to get in on the action as the River Thames reached its highest level in 60 years.
The armed forces were dispatched to pile sandbags against houses, but this just irritated people. It turns out that rocking up to a flood-ridden town without packing your wellington boots and waders will elicit a rolled eye and a snort from the beleaguered residents.
A lot of these troops were forced to sit helplessly in their trucks while the locals wandered past in their hip-high rubber boots, sorting out the sandbags for themselves. Meanwhile, firefighters floated by on their old and creaking boats, too low on funding to deal with floods as well as flames. Anyone brave enough to step outside their dinghy was immediately transported to hospital with a vicious water-borne disease.
Our prime minister had trumpeted the arrival of these troops as a clear sign that the flooding was well under control. Clearly, it was anything but.
Had I been in England when these storms hit, I would probably have been living in my tiny London apartment. It was located near the top of Richmond Hill, the view from which stretches out forever and is so idyllic that it has inspired many a master painter and poet.
Nearby was Richmond Park, the highest point of which is King Henry’s Mound. Legend has it that King Henry VIII once stood on this mound and looked over at St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of the city, more than 10 miles away. He was waiting for the sign that Anne Boleyn had been executed and he was free to take on yet another wife.
As these facts demonstrate, Richmond Hill is one of the taller locations in London. This was quite the inconvenience when I was carrying grocery bags up from the supermarket and led to several interesting experiences involving unexpected snow, inappropriate footwear and an uncooperative alarm clock. But while I would still be cursing the bus stop for being located at the bottom of the hill and suffering from sore buttocks on a semi-regular basis, I would also have been far above the flood waters.
Down in the suburb of Richmond-Upon-Thames, the River Thames burst its banks. Hundreds of cars were completely submerged, causing the nation’s insurance companies to suffer minor hernias. And my old stomping ground was not the only part of London in trouble.
I’ve shaken my head in the past when I’ve discovered towns and cities in other parts of the world that have been built on the sides of volcanoes and along the main thoroughfare of tornadoes. I couldn’t quite imagine what would possess someone to build their home in the way of an obvious harm.
But this week, as the Thames Barrier was closed repeatedly to keep the waters at bay, I found out that 1.25 million people in my country are living on a giant floodplain called London. It would seem that Mother Nature insists on being present, no matter where you choose to live.
Up on Richmond Hill, which is certainly not part of the floodplain, I would have looked down on the carnage with pity and concern. Much like Winnie the Pooh in similar circumstances, I’d have sat on my branch surrounded by honey jars and waited for Piglet to arrive on an upturned umbrella. When no umbrella arrived, I imagine I would have decided to skip the commute to work.
I would have been thankful for this decision when Virgin Trains tweeted a message reading simply, “ALL CUSTOMERS TO ABANDON TRAVEL.” Never let it be said that the English are incapable of doom-mongering.
As these things tend to do, the storms brought whole communities together. Just as hotels in this region flung opened their doors for shelter when the power went out during October’s snowstorm, England pulled together.
The pubs made space for makeshift clinics, farmers ferried aid to one of the worst-hit counties on a convoy of tractors and hundreds of volunteers filled and handed out sandbags. The soldiers, once they found the right boots, built steel barricades in a race against time and overflowing rivers.
So while you are searching the skies this week for the signs of our next bad blizzard, be assured that your cousins in England are very much feeling your pain. The awful winter weather seems to be affecting us all, one way or another, so perhaps the answer lies in spreading that community spirit more widely. The Brits could send over their soggy spare blankets, and we could lend them Keyhole’s sailboats in return.