The British summer of 2019 will be remembered for many extraordinary events, not least ongoing Brexit wrangling, but also the terrifying prospect of the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir, in the High Peak district of Derbyshire, bursting open to release 1.3 million tonnes of water upon the village of Whaley Bridge and beyond.
Heavy summer rain caused serious disintegration of the dam spillway, threatening the community at the foot of the cracking concrete wall.
The emergency resulted in what is probably the largest British peace time evacuation of households and businesses. Impending disaster meant that residents from some 600 households were given little time to gather precious belongings, make arrangements for their pets and seek refuge from ‘mortal danger’ with friends and family elsewhere or in community centres.
While a highly skilled team from Joint Helicopter Squadron at RAF Odiham deployed a Chinook helicopter to land hundreds of tonnes of aggregate on the the damaged spillway with exacting precision, emergency services and volunteers used 23 high pressure pumps to lower the water level of the reservoir and reduce pressure on the dam wall.
After almost one week of evacuation, the homecoming
The immense effort of hundreds of people to avert disaster is hugely appreciated by the community despite the trauma of unexpected evacuation from their homes for almost one week.
The village is especially popular with anglers and the fate of the reservoir’s 30,000 fish is unknown. Those that survive in the drained shallows are being netted and transported to the Bittell Reservoirs in Worcestershire. Government has confirmed that Canal and River Trust will rebuild Toddbrook reservoir and dam entirely.
As the community gets back to business, visitors are discovering the quiet attractions of the village traditionally popular with walkers and anglers. When I called at the Footsteps Community Cafe, the volunteers serving tea and cake were delighted with sales of their new fund raising postcards featuring the RAF Chinook helicopter expertly landing tonnes of aggregate to sure up the dam spillway at the height of the emergency.
The staff of the Little Fika cafe told the same story; a wave of curious tourists is flooding into the village almost washed away. They are welcomed warmly and appreciated for their support of businesses unexpectedly shut down by near disaster.
As the community reflects on the summer of 2019, a creative response to the reservoir emergency invites residents to take part in an art project capturing their experience as evacuees.
As these walkers returned to explore footpaths around the village, eye catching messages posted in shop windows by the police and Canal and River Trust made poignant reading. They express heartfelt thanks to the community at large for their understanding and support during the traumatic events of an unforgettable summer.
As summer gives way to autumn, Whaley Bridge no longer dominates the news headlines. Disaster has been averted and residents are reflecting deeply on the extraordinary experience of life at the foot of a reservoir.