Christmas is normally a time for celebration. It’s a coming together of families and friends, united by the festive period. But in December 2015, the Christmas period acted not as a coming together for the town of Tadcaster in North Yorkshire, but rather separated the town in two.
What had been a normal, if slightly damp, Christmas became a national news story as Boxing Day flooding broke out across the north of England. The banks of the River Wharfe, which runs through the middle of Tadcaster, burst, leaving the majority of the town’s high street underwater. But that wasn’t the worst of the flooding for the small town between Leeds and York.
More than 650 tonnes of water was hitting the town’s bridge at the height of the storms, the highest rate recorded by North Yorkshire County Council in over 30 years. The continued pressure against the 18th century Grade II-listed structure eventually led to the town’s only road bridge collapsing on December 29 2015 – with concerns that the collapse had ruptured gas pipes running below the bridge. The area surrounding the collapse, including the town’s Costa Coffee, was evacuated amid fears for people’s safety.
The bridge had been closed for the previous two days due to concerns about its structural stability as increasing levels of water from the flooding in York 10 miles away travelled along the River Wharfe, so nobody was actually harmed by the collapse of the bridge, but residents were left facing a 10-mile round trip as a diversion.
The townspeople were left with no high street and no way of reaching the other side of the river; those living on the western side of the river had no access to a supermarket or the bus station in Tadcaster, those on the east had no access to a bank or leisure facilities.
Local business owner David Bewley summed up the impact of the flooding. “It just didn’t feel like a lively, thriving little market town,” he said. “It just felt like we were in a dead end, end of the world sort of situation.”
Mr Bewley was one of the local businesses on Bridge Street that was affected by the flooding, but he made the decision to reopen ‘The Ink Shop’ just five days after the bridge collapsed. “The bridge collapsing had an immediate impact on the town, but many of us did different things to get going. One of the major things I did was I opened within five days of the flooding.
“I wanted to do something to help the people who had been forced to move out of their homes because they were wrecked by the flooding – I wanted to show them that people were making steps towards getting Tadcaster as ‘back to normal’ as possible.”
Local hairdresser Paula Marr, owner of Genesis Hair Design, echoed Mr Bewley’s feelings; she felt that she was complacent about the threat of flooding, and the impact it would have. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “My business is my baby, my colleagues are my second family, so seeing the impact it has is just awful.
“All I could think was ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to keep going?’”
Mrs Marr also emphasised the impact the flooding had on the residents of the North Yorkshire town. “It’s washed away people’s lives. There’s a couple who lived in a cottage opposite our salon – their lives have gone with their home.
“People lost photographs of their toddlers, and their Christmas tree decorations such as ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ baubles. It really hits home the devastation it caused when you see those small things.”
One such resident who suffered loss as a result of the flooding was Colette Daniel, who lost her car in the floods after leaving it outside the ‘Coach and Horses’ pub after Christmas Dinner.
“I never really thought anything of it until I saw on Facebook that the water level had come up from the river, and I realised the car was probably flooded,” she said. “It was absolute chaos.
“My sister drove me to the other side of Tadcaster to try to check on the car, so obviously we had to use the diversion up the A64 towards York and turn round at the services. We could see that the river had burst – the car couldn’t even be seen, never mind reached.”
“The only things I lost were of sentimental value,” she added. “Obviously the car went but I was more upset about old CDs and the memories that were attached to them, which couldn’t really be replaced.
“I wasn’t really impacted on compared to other people.”
Mrs Daniel’s opinion that, despite losing her car, she wasn’t really impacted is an indication of the destruction the flooding caused to the sleepy market town.
But 401 days on, the bridge has reopened and the town is again united; North Yorkshire County Council said the work should have taken nearly two years to restore the structure. Friday 3 February 2017 saw the bridge officially reopened, following round the clock work from contractors.
Mr Bewley highlighted how the spirit of the townspeople helped them continue without a road bridge through the town. “The town was split in two and we had almost an iron wall between us, but the community spirit of the town shone through – absolutely everybody was on the same page with that. It brought the town together in the sense of that spirit.”
The spirit of the townspeople was on show with hundreds of people helping to clear the debris – a point that Mrs Marr was keen to highlight. “The Monday after Boxing Day, the number of people helping was phenomenal,” she said. “People were on their Christmas holidays, you wouldn’t have been surprised if people didn’t want to spend their time off dealing with the flooding, but everyone got their wellies on and mucked in. The community spirit was fantastic.”
“The main thing about the past year is it’s shown that Tadcaster has a proper community. I really think that after surviving this, we can cope with anything now.”
The North Yorkshire town held a celebration on February 19 to commemorate the re-opening of the bridge, showcasing different aspects of what makes Tadcaster so unique. The event included a medieval market place and historical re-enactments, as well as a firework display, and a lantern parade of thanks across the newly built bridge. Archbishop of York John Sentamu was also present at the event, to bless the newly opened bridge. Nigel Adams, Member of Parliament for Selby and Ainsty, was at the celebration – and he was quick to offer praise of the spirit of the townspeople at the event.
“When you imagine what the people of the town have had to put up with having the separation with the bridge down for the last 13 months, the spirit’s been amazing,” he said. “People have pulled together, not just in the town but from round the district – and from all round the country as well.”
It’s certainly been a long year for the residents of Tadcaster, and quite possibly one a lot of them would like to forget. But despite the impact felt by the town, the community have pulled together and put on a celebratory event to close this chapter on Tadcaster’s history. It’s a memory that will never quite leave the town – but the negativity surrounding the collapse has been well and truly washed away.