Flooding in the Calder Valley, July 2013.


I sometimes like to imagine the valley as it was before human habitation.  Without buildings, roads, t.v. masts, mobile phone masts, monuments, or field walls.  A swampy primeval wilderness.  Sometimes I even imagine the ice sheet, over a mile deep, pressing down on the earth, and then rivers cutting fiercely down as the land warmed up and rose again.

This can be quite hard to do.  There’s a Bronze Age barrow on a nearby hillside.  A few local place names appear in the 1086 Domesday Book (Langefelt, and Stanesfelt).  Other place names reflect Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlement, and some, such as Walsden, refer to the ‘Welsh’, or native British.  In 1819 the largest cotton mill in the world was built just down the road.  I remember watching the huge chimney being demolished.  There’s a supermarket there now.  Fay Godwin’s monochrome photos of post-industrial gloom, taken in 1979, accompany Ted Hughes’ Remains of Elmet.(2)  I’ve lived for most of my adult life in one of those photos, so to speak, so feel very close to that book.  Fay Godwin is one of my favourite photographers, but I feel ambivalent about the bleakness of those images.  They may evoke a historical truth, but the valley itself is a beautiful place of many moods and colours.  The river Calder, one of the few surviving British names, is said to mean ‘violent stream'(1), which brings me to why I’m feeling a bit jangly at the moment.

Last Monday the sky darkened.  There was impressive thunder, and lightning.  Then it rained, and hailed, harder than most people can remember.  The small streams that drain the surrounding moorland became roaring torrents.  White water appeared (once again) on the hillside opposite us, where normally there isn’t even a a stream.  Water raged down the little Clough (a wooded side valley), past the expensive new flood defences that held the Walsden Water in check this time, and into local streets.  Fortunately, we’re on the hillside and weren’t directly affected, though the path leading down into the field in front of us became a raging stream.  Down in the valley bottom, streets became rivers.

Although these are small events compared to floods in other parts of the world, their intensity is still quite shocking, not least since this happened three times, in various parts of the valley, last year too.  Some people have had their houses flooded four or five times.

I’ve been reading about Lugh, as a storm god, with his lightning spear, breaking the grip of summer heat.  Well yes.  But things have got out of balance.  Our Victorian drains and culverts simply can’t cope with the intensity of the rainfall we’re getting nowadays.  Arguments rage about flood prevention measures.  Some people seem to want to hack all overhanging branches from the river Calder, who – is it so unreasonable to personify a river?- has long been constrained between stone or concrete walls on her way through towns built mostly on her flood plane.  If I were the river, I think I’d get angry from time to time.  We, as a human community, need to take a deep breath, and think very carefully about sustainable ways of living in this wonderful valley.

Midgelden Brook, in spate 29/7/13.

Midgelden Brook, a small side stream, in spate 29/7/13.



Ted Hughes Remains of Elmet, with photographs by Fay Godwin, Faber and Faber 1979. or Elmet, ditto, 1994, in which the photographs are much clearer.

Bernard Jennings, Pennine Valley, A History of Upper Calderdale, Smith Settle, 1992.


3 thoughts on “Flooding in the Calder Valley, July 2013.

  1. I know, weather is changing, it’s flood or fire (during droughts). It’s hard to know what the norm is. Maybe this is the Calder River’s new norm? Hir role in the changing All.
    I also agree about dismal inner city photos. Many of my favorite places I lived were dismal inner city places, and the neighborhood energy cannot be caught in the pictures, the networking, the plants that broke thru, the people who knew each other, the miniculture. If I could live where I wanted without MCS it would be Detroit, so abandoned,it is the most thriving grassroots place in the US. It will soon be gentrified and the poor people who did the work to make it a good place to live will be homeless as the rents rise. Working class or welfare class does not mean miserable existence/bad people like many photos show. People fall in love, have mystical experiences, make art, etc in the so-called dismalness. I love rust, I love abandoned lots, I love the semi-legal grey markets of the city.

  2. The Fay Goodwin and Ted Hughes collaboration on Elmet is a work of wonder.

    I’ve reflected similarly on the watercourses in my area. I live on Bank Parade. The stream who formed the bank and once turned a watermill is now a tiny trickle due to the building of a new housing estate. The holy wells have run dry. Belisama, the goddess of the Ribble withdrawing her favour? Then there’s the occasional flooding, no doubt a product of the Ribble being shifted 500m from her old course to build Riversway Dockland.

    Our changes were sudden and nature’s slow. Now things are changing.

  3. Heather, these were small mill towns, about 15,000 population (once more) crammed into narrow valleys, cotton at the Lancashire-facing end, clothing and wool down the Yorkshire-facing end. Ted Hughes wrote “The sunk mill towns were cemeteries / Digesting utterly / All with whom they swelled”. And, for many, it would have felt like that.
    Lorna, I agree Remains of Elmet is in many ways a work of wonder, but its a partial and particular view of the valley. Ted Hughes’ image leaves out an impressive history of collective struggle, for instance. And his map of ‘Elmet’ is idiosyncratic. More to be written about this methinks. 🙂

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