30 Days After the Floods: Newlay couple Martin and Fiona Hughes speak about living next to the sleeping monster that is the River Aire

Martin Hughes pictured outside his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
Martin Hughes pictured outside his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme
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In the first of a series of features looking at life one month on from the floods which devastated parts of Yorkshire, Neil Hudson speaks to those who live right next to the river

Four weeks after the worst floods in living memory brought devastation to parts of Yorkshire, those affected are still counting the cost. Newlay lies between Horsforth and Bramley and is a few miles upstream from Kirkstall Abbey, straddling the valley bottom. It is a quiet enclave steeped in birdsong and the sound of the river; it has its own pub, The Abbey Inn, and the surrounding land is criss-crossed by woodland walks.

Spanning the river is an old iron bridge, put up in 1819 by a local builder John Pollard, after whom one of the adjoining lanes was named. Closed to traffic in the 1980s, it is now only frequented by dog-walkers and locals.

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Picture of Aire Cottage in Newlay... owned by Martin and Fiona Hughes, who were flooded on Boxing Day, 2015.

Picture of Aire Cottage in Newlay... owned by Martin and Fiona Hughes, who were flooded on Boxing Day, 2015.

‘We knew a flood could come one day, but not as bad as this’

• Pick up Tuesday’s copy of The Yorkshire Post for your special supplement report on Yorkshire’s floods.

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A month after the floods hit Yorkshire and the River Aire glides peacefully by, ducks skit around on its oily surface and a couple of swans preen themselves regally on the river banks. It’s a picture postcard view which makes it all the harder to imagine the deluge which transformed the valley.

Martin Hughes pictured outside his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Martin Hughes pictured outside his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

As one nears the bridge from the Pollard Lane side, the effects of the flood are all too clear to see - a large bungalow sits in a hollow at the side of the river. A dirty mark on the house indicates the waters went more than half way up the front door and outside in the yard, next to an overflowing skip, are what looks like the entire contents of the house.

The river may be back to normal now but the aftermath reminds one of those aerial pictures taken after a tornado ploughs through a town in America. There’s still a sense of shock here. Detritus hangs in the trees. Ragged lengths of plastic, countless bags, bottles and bits of paper still cling to branches and show just how high the water actually came - a full 3m from its present, serene level.

Moving across the bridge, a few houses lie on the river’s edge on the far bank on what is known as Fleet Thro Road. There are numerous skips piled high with the ruined contents of houses and standing next to them are broken washing machines, fridge-freezers, vacuum cleaners, record players, chests of drawers, shelving units and countless other personal affects.

Four weeks on and the community is still coming to terms with the aftermath and judging by the scale of the clean-up, it will be some months before it does.

Martin Hughes pictured in his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Martin Hughes pictured in his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Martin Hughes and wife Fiona were hit as hard as anyone when the waters began to rise on Boxing Day. The couple’s house - known affectionately as Aire Cottage - stands right next to the river and bore the full brunt of its anger.

The couple have lived in what is, for the most part, an idyllic spot for the last 15 years and when I meet them on a cold Tuesday morning it’s clear they were never under any illusions about the potential threat from their neighbour. Indeed, they even took precautions to mitigate such an eventuality, installing flood panels on their home. It’s just that, no-one expected the river to rise quite as high as it did.

Martin says: “We’ve lived here since 1999. We always knew the river would come and visit us, we just didn’t realise it would be quite so bad.”

The couple actually own two houses - one was inhabited by Fiona’s mother, who died recently, and stands next to their own house. Both were overrun.

“On the day itself, while it was happening, you live with this strange level of hope that it’s not going to get any higher. We went through so many of those moments during the day and then watching it go higher. And higher.”

The couple managed to move many of their belongings out of their home and into a higher room but as the waters rose, they had to move them again.

Martin Hughes pictured in his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

Martin Hughes pictured in his flood damaged home at Fleet Thro Road, Horsforth, Leeds...21st January 2016 ..Picture by Simon Hulme

“We moved some stuff but there was no way we could shift things like couches and fridges with just the two of us.”

The inside of their home was pretty much destroyed. They lost carpets, skirting boards, kitchen cupboards, everything below a certain level but they also suffered personally. Fiona is still wearing a sling after slipping on the inches of mud the river deposited inside their home, while Martin was almost swept away in the swell after stepping out of his back door expecting to feel his patio beneath his feet, when in reality, it had already been washed away.

Martin, who is also a town councillor in Horsforth, actually has more knowledge than most when it comes to floods - together with Fiona, they run Yorkshire Dampcourse and Wall Ties, which, amongst other things, specialises in dealing with the aftermath of flooding. So, it is with some conviction, he voices one of his concerns.

See pictures of their flooded house HERE

“One of my main gripes with the Environment Agency is the information they put out. The messages we received were that the peak of the floods was going to be in the morning, whereas in reality, it was 18 hours later than that. It was so inaccurate.

“I remember looking out of the window at 6am on Boxing Day and at the level of the river and thinking, ‘great, it’s not happening’. There was a sense of relief but then one of utter horror to see the levels just rise and rise and rise again.

“That’s when we started moving stuff in earnest, books, pictures, all the small things you can get your hands on. By 5pm, the carpet was wet through and we were still moving things.”

“My other bugbear is the money given by the Chancellor to help with the floods is subject to VAT, which I think is just plain wrong.”

For Fiona, there was a real fear with the river in full swell. She explains: “It was just the sound it made as the water was crashing against our house. This was the full force of the river against our house. At that point, you could not stand on our back step and not be washed away. It was a really frightening noise, you just want to get out.”

One of the problems highlighted by the couple is that there is what is known as a pinch point in the river which is very close to their house. Essentially, the river banks narrow, which forces the water to rise at that point but as it passes and once again flattens out, it forms a huge eddy. When the floods peaked, that backflow forced water to move up behind their house, so that it entered from the rear.

Fiona points out: “Another problem was that the water was not just water, it was full of debris, silt, rubbish and sewage, the remains of which can still be seen on the branches and tangled up in bushes.”

Looking at their house today, it’s still hard to imagine just how high the waters came. There’s a tide mark on their wall which smears itself across their back door at the half-way mark. Inside the house, Martin, who stands over 6ft tall, says the waters came almost up to his waist.

“People were fantastic, everyone in the community pitched in. Social media played a part in that, we had people just turning up offering to help us. The pizza shop up the road sent some pizzas down, that was really heartening. Of of the neighbours went to Tesco to get lots of cardboard boxes so we could start getting things out. The result was that we managed to clear out our two houses very early on and that’s key to the recovery..”

Fiona said: “It’s idyllic living here, we do love it. You wake up in a morning, go down to the river, we always knew it might come and visit us one day and we’ve lived here 15 years, we just didn’t realise it would visit us with quite so much gusto.”

Hard work lies ahead for the couple. Martin wants to campaign to have the river dredged and the pinch point near his house dug out. He’s also keen on campaigning for the money set aside by the Government to help with the cost of the clean up to be exempt from VAT, adding with a tone of incredulity: “It’s like giving with one hand and then taking a large portion back with the other.”

As their house - and those around them, dry out, they are already considering renovating it, installing new (much higher) flood panels but they will also need to sure up the river bank, much of which was simply washed away.

Martin uses words like ‘resistance’ and ‘resilience’, adding: “We should be about to have something like this happen again and not be flooded. We are assuming that something like this is going to happen again. We don’t want to move. We can’t just up sticks and go.”

He praised Leeds City Council as “exceptional”, adding: “They moved very fast to help us, in terms of information, quickly identifying where victims were and taking appropriate steps.”

But he adds other people were not so helpful.

“We saw lots of fridges floating down the river, so maybe people and a house on the opposite side of the river, which was almost completely submerged, was burgled the day after the floods, thieves stealing all of the radiators.”

Martin adds: “We will get cleaned up. In a way, we’re in a good position, because this is almost what we do for a living and we’ve experience in dealing with events like this but I really pity the people who have nothing to fall back on and have to wait.

“In the past it’s been the case that we are not York, we don’t flood… no-one ever thought this would happen in Leeds. Well, we are York now. It does happen and it’s only going to get worse.”

Open letter to David Cameron: Why you can’t ignore this floods nightmare

Colin Mellors: If floods are ‘new normal’, how can we best prepare?

YP Letters: Blame thin end of the dredge for Yorkshire’s flood misery

‘We knew a flood could come one day, but not as bad as this’

• Pick up Tuesday’s copy of The Yorkshire Post for your special supplement report on Yorkshire’s floods.

Join the debate and find more to like on The Yorkshire Post’s Facebook page or follow us on Twitter

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