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Thinking about Wateryscapes

Mississppi floodsHow often when we think of a landscape do we imagine it wet? It is nearly always dry; nearly always ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. But for many people, both now and in the past and certainly into the future, the landscape they interact with is often wet. Think of the Fens, of the Somerset Levels and of anywhere close to the Severn. Think, too, of the Gloucester floods of 2007 and of many other communities into the future: all can find common ground with the sentiments expressed so eloquently by Adam Nicolson below.

But aren’t floods and flooding just a bit too topical and recent for a history blog? Well, very obviously no! Floods and flooding have always been with us from the Biblical flood onwards; they have always formed a central part of our life experience and story-telling. And, as the most recent episodes clearly indicate, we in Gloucestershire do not have to go far to find flood narratives. Alongside colleagues in this University and the University of the West of England I have been involved in a research project attempting to capture some of these narratives, mainly from the ‘big’ event of 2007 when much of the area was without power and clean water for a considerable period of time.

Prior to that it was 1947 that is remembered as the worst flood. Here’s one of our oldest interviewees recalling her experience of this particular event: “It was right in the middle of a field. I can remember opening the door and there was this noise, “pshhh” and I said‟ “what is that noise?” and I looked out, and water was absolutely gushing.” (Mrs J. Conrad, Elmore Back)

And here’s an extract from the Church Vestry minutes, also from Elmore but this time from 1770. “On Saturday ye 17th of November … the Severn was greatly swelled by a very heavy Rain, which being stopped by the tide ran clean over the Sea walls above two miles length in this Parish, and Occasioned the most frightful inundation that ever was known here by any man living … indeed the Scene this Day was truly affecting; some in Boats leading Beasts half-drowned out of their once dry Grounds; Others picking up their household Goods which were now afloat … almost all the Cyder both new and old was damaged … There was happily no Lives lost … There was a very good Crop of Wheat the following year about the Back notwithstanding.”

I just love the reporting of no loss of life coming almost as an afterthought after the ruining of the cider! But more seriously the anonymous writer of this extract (most likely the vicar) reminds us that for some areas flooding is an intrinsic part of people’s way of life. The flood of 1770 brought alluvium, increased fertility and a good crop the following year in its wake.

The landscape of much of the parish of Elmore – experienced by a bunch of our first year students on a (thankfully dry) field trip just before Christmas – is very similar to that of the Somerset Levels which we are currently hearing so much about. So, too, is the way of life on the Levels. My final extract eloquently captures something of the experience of living in a watery landscape.

“When the water in the River Parrett stays high for a few hours … it seeps out through the river bank and into Harold Hembrow’s garden in Burrow Bridge … No water comes into the house itself, which is only a yard or two from the river bank, but the line of damp on the wallpaper climbs towards the ceiling throughout the spring and early summer each year … lifting above the furniture at Easter, reaching the top of the windows by June … Wetness is not a substance but a quality that seeps and leaks into everything like a stain.” (Sutherland and Nicolson, 1986, p.1)

I’ll sign off with two questions:

  • Can history tell us anything about future sustainability and preservation of ways of life in the face of climate change?
  • What can be the role of memory when the way of life it feeds and feeds off is no longer with us?


I think there are two really interesting issues that come out of floods, and in my area I can comment on the Mississippi floods that have acted as focal points for life and culture in the American South. In a broad political sense, events such as Katrina, the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire, and as far back as the Great Mississippi floods of 1927, have the tendency to entrench and expose great social and ideological divides. At present in the UK, the government’s tough fiscal policy would seem incompatible with the large sums of capital required for the buiding and maintenance of flood defences. Geroge W. Bush suffered the consequences of not being seen to act quickly or effectively enough in response to the catastrophic damage caused by Katrina in New Orleans. It even led to prominent celebrities such as Kanye West to cry out that Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. In 1927 it was the poor, predominantly African Americans who lived in areas of greatest risk and subsequently suffered the worst effects of the floods. However, what is also fascinating about the aftermath of these events, is the cultural output. The Mississippi floods lived in the memory of black musicians such as Bessie Smith, Charley Patton and Big Bill Broonzy, and echoes of their songs reverberated in American culture after Katrina. In a more 21st century form, the aftermath of Katrina was also captured in the greatly underestimated HBO series Treme, which tries to capture the difficulties that the people of New Orleans face in trying to preserve their lives, their culture and their heritage. It seems paradoxical that every great flood comes as such a shock when we consider how the memory of past events is still so vivid.

I am not quite sure what history/memory tells us here – that there have always been floods? What we need to do is to examine what changes over time – what is different? We might also learn by comparison with other countries and other pasts – does Holland flood (according to a news report this evening, not one home in Holland has been flooded this year!). And incidentally, the 1927 floods were followed by huge engineering works – some of which failed in 2007 …. History offers some perspective but needs to be seen alongside other subjects too!

Hi Neil

In answer to your question here, I feel that memory can play a huge role in coping with habitually-flooded landscapes. Yes of course we professional historians need to pay close attention to change over time but in the public-historical realm a sense of the past and the memories that it is based on, are of much greater worth than you hint here. It is all about coping and the memory of the use of past practices when faced with a flooded house or building a ‘watery’ way of life. Sticking to my Levels example, as I hope most of us are aware, this is an engineered landscape (‘wateryscape’) in which the first experiments in drainage and water management go back, perhaps, to the Romans. More extensive management schemes were seen in the late medieval period. Here, like other habitually wet landscapes such as the Fens or the floodplain of the River Severn, ordinary people had to develop a way of life (often involving transhumance) that was resilient, orally-centered and which therefore clearly had to be based on the memory of what had and had not worked in the past. Memory becomes the means of coping and central to the creation of a wateryscape.

Bring this forward into the twentieth century and what we find is the extension of many towns/villages onto floodplains where no housing had existed previously and thus no memory of past coping strategies is brought forward into these new communities. One of the projects I have been involved with has set out to capture what memories of coping with floods exist in these areas and devise strategies to bring these memories into the new ‘watery’ communities. Drama and popular song, as noted by Christian, has a role to play here.

Finally, Holland. According to Simon Schama one of the key foundational myths of the Dutch nation was of the memory of survival from flooding of biblical proportions. The transformation of wet land into dry. Here, then, is memory of flooding and wateryscapes playing a key role in the creation of a nation. We dismiss such memories at our peril.


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