Carlisle Floods

Eric's Personal Account of the floods in Carlisle, January 2005

The telephone call I had been dreading came when I was 300 miles away in London. My next door neighbour phoned in the early hours of Saturday 8th January to say that we were flooded!

My brother and his wife, who live in Canada, had been visiting Carlisle over Christmas and my wife Elsie and I were taking them down to Gatwick airport on Friday for a flight on Saturday afternoon.

We had some concern before leaving as the River Caldew was exceptionally high and the wall of our house, the Barrel House of the old State Management Brewery, formed part of the river bank.

We telephoned the Environment Agency and were reassured that Carlisle did not figure in any flood alert. We were told that if there were problems the places more at risk would be Appleby and Keswick. Bearing this in mind we set off for London but, due to the atrocious weather conditions, remained very apprehensive of the situation at home.

The motorway conditions from Carlisle to south of Manchester were absolutely appalling and did nothing to ease our state of mind.

We kept in close contact with a good friend, Don McDowall, who said he would monitor the situation at home and, if there was a flood alert would sandbag our house and do what he could to move items to safety.

The information we received, in regular phone calls to the Environment Agency and Don, was that the critical time would be around midnight but that "we would get away with it". The latest call that evening, at about midnight, confirmed this and we went to sleep more relaxed.

We were awoken by the telephone call our next door neighbour in Carlisle around 3am Saturday morning saying that the car park and surround areas were flooded and that the water was rising quickly and our houses were in imminent danger of flooding.

We telephoned Don who, in the middle of night, went down to our home in Caldewgate to try to protect our home and save some of our possessions.

It was too late. He was unable to get into our home at Caldew Maltings and my neighbour was unable to get out. The current of the water running through the area made it too dangerous to attempt any salvage operation.

It was awful. We were 300 miles from home and powerless to do anything. To add insult to injury we received a call at 5.08 am from the Flood Warning System, that floods were predicted and to move as many things as possible to first floor level.

At 8 am our neighbour phoned to say that we were indeed flooded and I don't know what was worse - being 300 miles away and unable to do anything, or being marooned at home, as he was, watching events unfold.

We promptly changed our plans. Instead of taking my brother and his wife to Gatwick and then watching Carlisle United at Crawley we left them at Victoria Station and headed home.

En route I telephoned the Environment Minister, Elliot Morley MP, at his home but he was travelling to see his home side Scunthorpe play Chelsea in the cup. However, he received my message and rang back. On being told of the extent of the flooding he said he would travel to Carlisle the next day.

The journey north was quite fraught as we did not know what was to confront us. The only relief was that Tom, our aged cat and Tag, our large German Shepherd dog, were safe in kennels.

We eventually reached a service station on the outskirts of Carlisle where we met an "evacuee" from the city who lived in a street which had no record of flooding. She said the city was cut off and without electricity. We bought the last torch in the shop!

We drove into Carlisle along the A6 and all the traffic lights were off. Knowing that Caldewgate, was flooded, we parked at St Cuthbert's Church and walked home along the West Walls of the city.

The scene was surreal. Over the City walls we saw submerged car parks and businesses. From the Millennium Bridge further devastation was evident. The West Coast main railway line, Devonshire Walk Car Park and Bitts Park could not be seen - they were totally submerged in the engorged river. Our house was being unmercifully buffeted by the currents of the flooded River Caldew.

We walked down to the nearby Globe Inn and were met by people in boats who offered to sail us round to see our house but informed us we could not gain access as the water was up to door-bell level. We declined.

We then went to the adjacent Emergency Control Centre in Carlisle Castle where we were greeted by a large number of firemen who had been displaced from the fire station, which along with the police station and Civic Centre, was under 6ft of water.

Having been briefed by a Senior Police Officer I then phoned the duty officer at 10 Downing Street to apprise the Prime Minister of the situation. I was told the PM would ring me later that evening for a fuller picture.

When we emerged from the Castle the city was in darkness - the only lights visible being that of an old gas light and the offices of Radio Cumbria. Indeed the broadcasting from Radio Cumbria was a life-line for many people with battery operated and car radios. Unfortunately, although Border TV had a "scoop" there was no access to television.

It was an eerie feeling walking back to the car in the pitch dark - no traffic, no lights, no people - just silence.

Our immediate problem was where to stay. We stayed with my sister who had a gas fire, gas cooker and plenty of candles!

By now there was no mobile phone signal in Carlisle so we had to travel to Penrith, 20 miles away, to take the call from the PM. We hadn't eaten all day and had just finished fish and chips when Tony rang. He asked for the latest update - which was over 3,000 homes and hundreds of businesses flooded and tragically, three fatalities. The PM confirmed that Elliot Morley would be in Carlisle the next day but, if I felt it necessary, to contact himself directly.

Sunday morning brought additional problems - the need for clean clothes, as we only had these we travelled up in. Friends and family readily obliged.

It was with some trepidation we went home. From Harraby in the south of the city, to Caldewgate in the west, the evidence of storm damage was all around. Surprisingly when we reached home most of the water had receded.

When we opened our door the first emotion was relief. The flooding had not been as high as we initially thought - but at 2 ft it was enough!

We were greeted in the hall by Gordon Brown looking up at us! My wife had been reading his biography and it had floated to the front door!

Looking at the devastation we really didn't know where to start. Not being at home meant that we were unable to salvage anything from below the water line and you don't realise how much you have accumulated over the years.

We started by clearing the garage and hosing it down. To add to the problem the flood water was contaminated with sewage. We were overwhelmed by the offers of help from family and friends and their support made things more bearable.

Elliot Morley MP talks to Eric in Carlisle
Elliot Morley MP talks to Eric in Carlisle
That afternoon I had to leave the mopping up to meet Elliot in Warwick Road, an area also devastated by the floods and, where tragically, two elderly ladies had drowned in their homes. We toured the area in a police Range Rover as the roads and houses were still under water. We also visited a reception centre at a local school where up to 100 people were being well looked after by staff and voluntary organisations.

The extent of the damage, both in personal terms and to property, was not lost on him and he gave a commitment that the further flood defences, which were already being prepared for the City, would be enhanced to a level that would withstand conditions that we had just experienced. Apparently, this was the worse flood in Britain for over 50 years.

On Monday we carried on with clearing up - moving furniture and cutting sodden carpets up and doing other essential things like contacting insurance companies. I talked to many people in my neighbourhood who were doing exactly the same.

Telephones were still a problem but the Speaker of the House of Commons managed to contact me to express his sympathy for what had happened in Carlisle and that it was likely that the Government would make a statement the next day.

After working all day trying to bring some semblance of order at home I then had to travel to London. The train service was badly affected so I opted to drive. I left Carlisle shortly after the lights came back on at about 8 pm.

The Government Statement on the floods was made on Tuesday afternoon and included a further commitment on enhancing floods defences. In my contribution to the debate I emphasised the extent of the problems facing many of my constituents and thanked the various agencies and voluntary organisations involved for their help. I also took the opportunity to criticise the decision of the management of United Utilities not to pay compensation for the power cuts. I was pleased when within hours this decision was reversed.

After the statement I not only drove back to Carlisle but also moved back home that night - to upstairs accommodation!

The next few days passed in a blur. Apart from dealing with things at home, I was in contact with other Government Ministers, local authorities, public utilities, insurance companies, local businesses, individual households and the media.

As the recovery process continued I was conscious that, as the largest local employer with a workforce of 1100 , biscuit manufacturers McVitie's faced a massive task to get their flooded factory up and running again; however, they would not give a commitment as to whether they would re-open. Following my urgent lobbying of the Government the North West Regional Development Agency offered over £1 million to help with the clean-up on the proviso that production remained in Carlisle. Assurances had also been given by Elliot Morley that future flood defences would protect the factory.

As I am writing this I do not know whether McVitie's will take up this offer. I sincerely hope they do.

The following week saw major work undertaken at home. On the Monday the floors, fittings, plaster and doors were stripped from the ground floor and we were left to dry out. On Tuesday evening I travelled down to London hoping to put a question at Prime Minister's Question Time the following day.

I was successful. I stated that thousands of people had been forced out of their homes, perhaps for many months, and that 260 businesses had also suffered. While the Government's response had been good I sought further assurances that practical aid would continue and also that work would start as soon as possible on the new flood defences and that they would be of such a standard as to withstand the volume of water in the recent flood. Not only did the PM give me the necessary assurance he took the unusual step of saying that he would take a personal interest in ensuring that everything is done properly.

Now we are on the long haul to recovery. While trying to give help and support to many who have encountered difficulties resulting from the floods I have also been trying to sort out similar problems facing myself at home.

The devastation caused by 9 inches of rain falling in 36 hours and running into the 3 rivers in Carlisle, coupled with hurricane winds and high tides, will never be forgotten.

Elsie and I lost many possessions. Two cars were written off, all the furniture downstairs was ruined and we are now left with the shell of a ground floor. However, taking everything into account these losses were not that important.

It was the small things that mattered - the books, some with great sentimental value and, more importantly, a box of photographs from our youth which cannot be replaced.

But the positive outcome of this disaster has been the strengthening of my belief in the goodness of people and the strength of our community. In this adversity we have seen the best in human nature.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB