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Clergy in flood-affected churches describe efforts to mitigate damage

09 January 2024


Water surrounds Tewkesbury Abbey last week

Water surrounds Tewkesbury Abbey last week

THE frequency of flooding around particular churches has prompted their incumbents to reflect after the recent storms on how to live with the uncertainties of climate change.

Nottinghamshire experienced the worst of Storms Henke and Gerrit: the River Trent surged to its highest levels for 20 years.

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, posted on social media on Friday: “Thinking and praying today for all those affected by the serious flooding along the River Trent and in other parts of the region. Also for everyone involved in the response, especially caring for the most vulnerable and those who live alone.”

“Storms have become more intense with global warming. They’re able to carry more moisture and dump it more quickly,” the Vicar of Tewkesbury with Walton Cardiff and Twyning, Canon Nicholas Davies, said on Monday. He described the Abbey, which stands on a triangle of land at the intersection of the Severn and the Avon, as “a bit like a Noah’s Ark amid the floodplains” when the waters inevitably come, as they did last week.

Sandbagging, pumping, and some evacuations in the town meant that things were open for business again on Monday. “In many ways, you wouldn’t know we’ve been through this. We’ve been a sort of poster child for flooding,” Canon Davies said.

“But what we experience is becoming more frequent than historically. We need to redouble our efforts and keep having these conversations about reducing our carbon footprint and our net carbon targets.”

The Abbey, with its great height, could be a beacon for some of those wider conversations and environmental events, he suggested, notably when it hosted the artist Luke Jarram’s Earth installation next month.

Tewkesbury could, therefore, become “not just the place that always happens to get flooded, but a place that knows something about the fragility of creation and the resilience of the community, and how we need to be more creative and live with the uncertainties of our climate emergency”, Canon Davies said.

Unprecedented levels of water from the River Lugg — 35cm higher than in February 2020 — flooded St Michael and All Angels, Bodenham, in Herefordshire, although a flood pump that the church had put in after previous flood emergencies kept levels down.

“I know Jesus warned against building on sand, but he didn’t mention a floodplain”

The sump pump, which a member of the congregation who is a retired civil engineer had installed, had been a very cost-effective solution, the Rector of the Maund Group of Parishes, the Revd Paul Roberts, said. “It meant that, once the water started to recede, we could get it out of the building very quickly and minimise the length of time it could do damage to the floor and pews.”

The church has flooded every year since 2019 (News, 21 February 2020): minor floods since the 2021 season, but the change in frequency is evident — before 2019, there was a flash flood in 2007, and, before that, floods in the early 1980s. “We were pleased not to be flooded before Christmas,” Fr Roberts said. “We had a good Christmas attendance, with numbers up, and I think people are getting used to coming back to church; so at least Christmas plans weren’t scrambled.”

In the long term, the church is having to look at how to reduce the speed at which the churchyard fills up with rain, in the knowledge that solutions such as a bund wall (an embankment, or wall, of brick or stone) would need permission from the Environmental Agency. “We need professional reports, and trying to find those at a reasonable price seems almost impossible,” Fr Roberts said.

He was a planning officer before his ordination, and this has been an advantage in terms of understanding the process, especially having worked with conservationists. “At college, we were told, ‘Beware retaining walls, because they’re very expensive, and nobody wants to give you any money for that,’” he remembers.

“But rivers is definitely one to look out for. It’s hard work, because, of course, it takes a lot of the energy that the congregations might otherwise be able to channel into mission. We have two churches serving villages of between 1000 and 1200 people, both with primary schools; so there’s a lot of opportunities there.

“The Lugg catchment isn’t massive: it doesn’t flow through any huge urban areas; so there will be increased run-off. When it was 20 years between floods, they kind of get forgotten. But when it’s pretty much every season, we’re certainly learning on the job.”

At St Margaret’s, Yatton Keynell, near Chippenham, part of the Bybrook Benefice, 45mph storm winds snapped a roof pinnacle in two, and tore a three-foot hole in the roof. The church is waiting for a watertight roof before it can reopen properly. “There’d been no prior indication of any problem,” the Team Rector of Bybrook, the Revd Marc Terry, said. “Very fortunately, a big piece bounced off the rafters and on to the bins outside, so nobody was injured.”

There have been consequences, however. Church members had been clearing away tables from the weekly lunch club when the accident happened. The damage is in the roof at the tower end of the building, prohibiting access even to resources; so many of the church’s regular services and activities have had to be temporarily suspended, including the lunch club, toddler group, and Sunday school.

“It’s cold, wet, and miserable in January. It’s not the happiest time to be cutting down on the activities that are the social glue in the village,” Mr Terry said. But he praised the DAC and diocese for their support, and was hoping that the repairs needed to the roof might open up an opportunity for other suggested developments.

Floodwater has become a familiar obstacle for the congregation of St James’s, Weddington, in Nuneaton. New Year marked the fourth time in four weeks that the church had been rendered almost inaccessible, mainly owing to rising levels on the River Anker near by. Water accumulates in a lower part of the road outside the church gates, the only entrance to the building, fills the car park, and blocks off houses.

“It’s not hugely deep, but it’s too deep to walk, really,” the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Christopher Routledge, said. “It’s difficult to know how to to approach a solution, because the sticking-point over the years has been exactly what causes it, and [which authority] is therefore responsible for finding one. Everyone has a different theory. But this winter has been the worst experience of it, and there’s a certain inevitability about it. You’re kind of waiting now for the next time.”

Services have had to be cancelled or transferred to the church hall, but things can happen quickly. A Scouts service in December started in normal circumstances, but a storm intervened and the congregation found themselves largely marooned when the time came to leave.

”Someone bravely waded over and used their car as a bit of a ferry to get people out of the church. In time, it drains,” Mr Routledge said. “But it will be worrying when we have something like a funeral booked, and need to know for sure that we can get access.

“We are only affected in this one way, and the weather is normally not so severe. But there has just been such a lot of rain — much more frequent in recent times — and the biggest frustration is that we just don’t know what the problem really is.”

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