A Sweete, Cleare and Pleasant River
The first two red Flood Warnings came together around noon on New Year’s Day -
The first concerned the Thames from Teddington to Putney Bridge. It said that so much water was coming over Teddington Weir it seemed likely that it would flood low lying areas like Ranelagh Drive and the Thames towpath from Richmond to Kew. The second warning for the tidal River Crane was more significant. Although the lower section of the Crane is protected from tidal surges in the Thames by a lock gate, the warning said that because of the amount of water coming down the Crane following recent heavy rainfall the gate could not be closed. When the high water going out on the Crane met the surge coming in up the Thames with the 2.30pm high tide it would flood low lying land and gardens, although it was hoped that houses would be spared.
As apprehensive residents in north St Margarets living alongside the Crane watched their gardens disappearing under murky waters the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, announced on the lunchtime news that over 550 frontline jobs in flood defence were to be cut. Friends of the Earth spokesman Guy Shrubsole said…
“On the same day that the Environment Agency chief executive said that it’s inevitable that Defra’s cuts will impact on their ability to deal with flooding, (the Secretary of State for the Environment) Owen Paterson’s bizarre claim that these frontline services will be protected will ring hollow for all those affected by the current flooding.” And on the Crane the water continued to rise.
All those who live by rivers or in the case of St Margarets - between two rivers -know that rivers are prone to flood from time to time. In the past when the Thames was slower and wider, floodwater was able to spread unhindered onto flood plains where it soaked into the ground before being slowly released. These days, with housing estates built on flood plains, rivers and streams straightened and culverted and vast tracts of land covered by concrete and tarmac, the movement of water from river to land and back again is fast and unrelenting. Floods that were once an inconvenience now threaten property and life. And on New Year’s Day the water in the Crane continued to rise.
There are numerous historical records of floods in this area but most were caused by the bursting of lakes or reservoirs. In 1841 the Brent Reservoir at Hendon burst its banks sending a massive wave of water rushing down the River Brent into Brentford. Boats and barges were torn from their moorings and many houses and streets in the town were flooded. A more destructive flood occurred in 1642 on the same river when a violent thunderstorm produced such a sudden rise in water levels in that houses in Brentford flooded and some even collapsed into the torrent. Boats were rowed up and down the streets to rescue people and church records show that 6 shillings were paid to watermen “in bread, beer and brandy, that brought their boats to land the people from the flood.” Part of the church of St. Lawrence by Brentford Dock collapsed and 9 shillings and 3 pence was spent “cleaning out the water… and for mops and brooms”. On 12th March 1774 there was a similar big flood in Twickenham which local writer Miss Hawkins reported was caused “by the bursting of an artificial lake in Windsor Park called Virginia Water.”
The Thames burst its banks in 1822 and again on the 18th November 1852 when the water reached as far as the home of the Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and his wife Emily in Montpelier Row. Although they were very happy in “The most lovely house with a beautiful view in every room at top, a large staircase with great statues and carved and all rooms splendidly papered!” the flood water was too much for Alfred and Emily and a year later they and their young son Hallam moved out.
Meanwhile - back on the banks of the Crane in St Margarets, the flood alerts have now been lifted and the river has fallen to safer levels. However high tides are expected this week and with heavy rain forecast there are still 40 Flood Alerts in operation along the Thames. While we wait with heart in mouth and wellies in hand let us take comfort from what local historian Edward Ironside wrote of the Thames in 1796…
“It is for all uses of life, sufficiently commodious., free from rocks and other incumbrances, from raging currents and swallowing eddies; neither muddy beds, nor unwholesome vapours, but continually bordered with delightful meadows, runneth with still currente into the sea…and justly deserveth all such equal praises as may be said of a sweete, cleare and pleasant river.”
Hmmm. Let us hope that the parish of St Margarets-on-Thames doesn’t turn into St Margarets-in-Thames!
— from Martyn Day
Credits: The painting “Autumn Sunset on the Thames, Richmond” is by John F. Tennant 1796-1872. The photographs of the recent flooding are by Amanda Day LRPS
16 January 2014 | around town