Thursday, 3 December 2009

The story so far .......

For the past 2 weeks the kitchen table at the gallery has seen many bowls of soup being consumed by refugees from the storms and floods experienced a few yards away down the hill in the centre of Cockermouth. Stories have been shared and morales boosted - and we needed it.
I've been sending out regular e mails to all my friends and clients (same thing really!) giving an account of the floods and their consequences to this community.
So many people replied with their own stories that I decided to start a blog.
I'll start with a catch-up and move on from there.

Friday 20th November
Thank you for all the people who have contacted us re the dreadful floods. Yesterday was a very dramatic day - torrential rain, high winds that just went on and on relentlessly. I had a heavy doom-laden feeling deep inside that something awful would happen - and it did.
We and the gallery are on the high ground and we are fine - those mediaeval castle builders knew a thing or two about site choice.
It is a different story on the Main Street. It is grim. Shops and homes, hotels and restaurants flooded out - rooftop rescues and many shop windows and bridges broken with the force of water - terrible for their christmas stock and trade. The town is wrecked! It will take years to restore our beautiful Georgian Gem town.
Angie is fine and those artists I've e mailed too - many phones are down - even the mobile signal has gone. Contact us by e mail.
We were going to take delivery this afternoon of some new paintings for the christmas show by Helen Tabor. I have just put the images on the web site Web site is ironic I just realised - we've all got webbed feet! The driver can't get through so we have no measurements either.
The rain has stopped, the sun is breaking through, we will be open tomorrow and Monday. if it is possible. The people in this town are brave and resilient. We are all optimistic. Life goes on.
chris, angie and michael

Saturday 21st November
Thank you so much for all the marvellous messages - very cheering.
I think I was in my usual optimistic mood when I said the gallery would be open today. Although the gallery, unlike most of the other businesses in the town is totally undamaged and on high dry ground, there is no way it can be accessed today. Cockermouth is closed off and the A66 is closed between Keswick and Cockermouth - Bassenthwaite Lake has overflowed on to the road!.
Much as I would love to see you (I was intending to make a big pan of soup and coffee) It won't be possible. I shall try to be there and open up on Monday and will definitely be open next weekend Friday, Saturday and Monday with a big warm welcome.
Don't ring the gallery as yet - please e mail. I will keep you informed that way. Mobile signal still non existent. but should be back tomorrow
Please pray for no more rain - all our prayer flags have blown away on the high winds so hope they have taken our request with them.!

Sunday 22nd November
My mail box is full of good wishes - someone in London offered me his holiday home yesterday for however long I might need it. How generous - thank goodness I don't need it. I am one of the fortunate people with a dry house and business.
So - it has been raining heavily and windy again all night. It is still raining now! I was woken at home in the early hours by Red Care in Manchester to tell me the gallery alarm is going off - telephones and electricity are down - even our mobiles aren't working or only intermittently. I still can't get to the gallery which is frustrating. Our good friends Colin and Louisa at the Quince and Medlar restaurant have been over and switched the alarm off. They have been cooking great pans of soup for the emergency teams who are working round the clock and are exhausted. Cockermouth is totally isolated. Both bridges in the town are now damaged and closed (The Gote bridge is damaged and the Cocker Bridge by the HSBC has a huge tree embedded in it.). I feel totally useless. So Aldi is open but few can get to it. Sainsburys is inundated with shoppers - let's hope they can get new supplies through. The police are doing 12 hour plus shifts to stop looting and keeping people out of danger. It is an amazing operation. Large plant is arriving from all over the country. The Merseyside lifeboat has been up and down the Main Street rescuing people - who would have ever imagined such a scene. It is surreal. There is a total feeling of unreality. The whole country is on our side giving help. It is so impressive. Even Gordon Brown turned up in a helicopter yesterday to cheer us up?!
I can only imagine what the people there are feeling. In all the recent floods there has been nothing like this - or even close! Water is just falling out of the sky and gaining momentum as it rushes off the fells. Bassenthwaite lake has overflowed onto the A66 closing it down between Keswick and Cockermouth. It is about four times its usual size and gushing into the River Derwent and down to the coast. Of course The Cocker is bearing all the water from the Lorton and Buttermere fells and joins the Derwent by Jennings Brewery in Cockermouth causing havoc. There will be watery beer for a while I guess!
The main shopping centre is like a war zone. The bookshop which was recently newly fitted out is ruined - just a shell. The water came well above the ground floor. Many of the shop windows broke under the pressure of water and are now just empty shells. Lovely Percy House Gallery is completely gutted - all stock gone. The waters were like a huge conveyor belt carrying wools, tills, Christmas goodies from all the shops down to the coast. The new interior Design shop and the underwear shop in the Market Place as well as Banks - our famous Ironmomgers are ruined. Cockermouth has so many small independent businesses which is what makes it unique and which makes it even more devastating for the owners. The chemists, Doctors surgeries and vets are washed out and operating from higher ground now. However it has brought out the best in people. None of us are giving in. We will recover. It will take time but we will.
Gallery will remain closed until I can get there and until we have electricity! There will be a really warm welcome when we do! Hot soup and mulled wine all round!

Monday 23rd November
This morning - got to the gallery at last. Had a serious meeting with Angie round the kitchen table about how we will cope in the midst of all this dark tragedy. We are both 100% positive. Castlegate House is dry and unharmed - not even any damp in the wine cellar!(hurrah!)
D'you know I feel so guilty writing that. There is something cathartic about recording this and passing it on to you.
I approached the town from Embleton down Castlegate Drive and everything looked absolutely normal although uncannily deserted. But looking down Castlegate the view is terrible to behold. It is like a film set At the bottom, Police guard the bridge over the Cocker which has a huge tree still impaled on it. The shops stare out with black and empty eyes. The buildings look fragile and vulnerable. There is rubble everywhere all mixed up with coloured wool. How could a small wool shop have so much wool in stock? It is everwhere.The desolation is awful. Owners of the shops were allowed to see them for the first time today. I can't begin to imagine how they feel. Their businesses were bright with Christmas stock a few days ago. It would have been the Big Switch On of our famous lights yesterday. They now just hang bedraggled and unlit. It is heart wrenching.
Angie and I unearthed our silver modern 'tree' and brought it down and erected it - albeit with sadness. We are hoping we can reopen next weekend. We all need a cheering up. The town was totally choked up with cars skirting round the narrow roads on the perimeter. People were hauling heavy bags on foot from Sainsburys.And everybody had a smile. These are exceptional people with Northern grit. This town will survive - I know it will.
Many are asking me if there is a disaster fund set up. I am sure one will be very soon. I will let you all know as soon as we have the details. Gordon Brown has promised £1m - that won't go very far at all. Money will certainly help but it is long and short term morale boosting that is needed as well. Those who have lost everything will need psychological support as well as material. As businesses re-open they will need people and celebration to counteract the present Ghost Town feel. The community spirit is very much alive and well and will provide support.
We now have 100 soldiers on the streets I'm told. (nearly as many as Television teams!). The Emergency services are fantastic. It is impressive to see it all coming together so quick and efficiently.
Thank you again for caring about us all.

Tuesday November 24th
Dear friends
A hurried e mail. Cumbria Community Foundation have set up a flood fund. They are based at Dovenby a few miles West of Cockermouth. They are a first class organisation.
See details below - form on their web site.
Good news - we are reopening on Friday. and will be open Friday Saturday and Monday until Christmas as well as christmas eve.
The Quince and Medlar restaurant are reopening this Wednesday(tomorrow) 01900 823579 evenings only.
Our wonderful B and B - Six Castlegate is also open - breakfast and care there is amazing.- see their web site.
We will do soup and coffee and wine at the gallery as much as we can manage as we have lost our infrastructure of tea coffee shops.
REQUEST - does anyone have a commercial coffee machine to lend us or for us to buy?

Went back to gallery last night as worried about security. The back-up alarm battery is now flat. The town now looks better - now has a few lights although the Main St is still black apart from the arc lights the emergency services are using. (and the media to whom we are also grateful) We have a policeman top of Castlegate 24 hours a day but, as ever, there are the 'desperate bads' who will find an advantage in anything. They are putting yellow jackets on and getting into insecure areas. Unbelievable but true. We have enough to worry about without that.

Cumbria Community Foundation
Cumbria Community Foundation, Dovenby Hall, Cockermouth CA13 0PN. Please write on the back 'Cumbria Flood Recovery Fund'.

Thursday 26th November
We are re-opening the gallery tomorrow - Friday. Big fire - big welcome I can assure you. We'd love to see you but please take note of the following access instructions. There is an easy way and a hard way!
The Cocker bridge and Gote Bridge areclosed and the footbridges are also closed. There are traffic jams in town. It is not advisable to go anywhere near the town centre in a vehicle. Fine on foot but a bit of a trek round via Kirkgate.
THE EASY WAY If coming west on A66, turn off right after the Pheasant Inn (which is open) and take the Embleton road. This brings you into Cockermouth straight down Castlegate Drive and straight to us. You can turn into our car park which holds about 8 cars or park in Castlegate Drive before you get to us. If you overshoot down the hill turn left (the only option) into Market place and immediately right into the (empty yesterday) car park by the river!!! ( only if it isn't raining - don't want to risk another overflow!). Don't try going up Kirkgate - it is narrow and everyone coming the other way seems to be in a 4x4 or bigger! (That was just my impression!). If coming east on A66 keep straight on at all the roundabouts - do not be tempted to turn into the town from these. Keep on until the next left turn to Embleton. Turn left again when you reach the other road and same instructions as above.
Because there is nowhere left for teas, coffees at our end of town - we will do soup, bread and far as is within our capabilities in our lovely big kitchen. You can have your coffee in the presence of our big Sheila Fell , Percy Kelly, Mary Fedden and a few others.
We do need you now if the town is to be kept alive in the interim. It must not turn into a ghost town.

Yesterday was strange. We went over to Yorkshire to collect some things we bought in an auction last week. First trip out since the disaster. Heavy rain and very strong winds all the way. A66 closed to high sided vehicles and the Eden right up to the road in places.
Everyone in the auction house who saw our address expressed sympathy. I couldn't believe only a week ago we'd been there totally innocent of what was about to hit us. It was hard to recall normality.
Back to the gallery to receive the Helen Tabor paintings which couldn't be delivered last friday when the driver had to turn back. They are lovely - worth waiting for. We need to keep our artists going as well - many depend on us for their income.
The police presence has now disappeared at the junctions. Things looked almost normal down the hill. I walked to the Market place where a massive tidying up is going on. It didn't look too bad. The workers are doing a fine job. The tree has now been extricated from the bridge and is lying at the roadside. There were lights in the shops and my heart lifted until I realised they were lit by powerful arc lamps and the movement inside was caused by teams of emergency workers clearing up the interiors. It was just a facade, a cruel illusion Some were dark and untouched because there may be structural defects and they may be unsafe. I wept to see the stock and mess inside and the piles of waste outside on the pavement. Peoples hopes and dreams just lying there ruined. Percy House gallery had laid out their shop beautifully for christmas and now there are just ruins and a wonky gold christmas tree teetering unsteadily in the window. It's the same story with Banks Ironmongers, the old fashioned barber which only opened a few months ago, Lilly and co - the interior designers and the lingerie shop where someone just told me that Jan had converted her to 32C rather than 34B! 'I feel a big part of my life has been wrenched out!' she wrote recalling special times in some of these shops which have given such individual service over the years. That has always been Cockermouth's strength and it will be again.
Of course the shops are just the front line. Little alleys run to the backs of all these premises and house scores of people in the 'yards'. It is a huge, hidden residential area which was densely populated until last week.
The visitations continue. Gordon Brown talked to a lady. 'Call me Mabel' she quickly said. ' Call me Gordon' he replied immediately. She was delighted to be on first name terms with the Prime Minister!). After this we have had a stream of VIPs. David Cameron next offering us great things as though he's already PM, the Archbishop of York who might have a greater influence on God to stop this continual rain, the environment minister, our MP and many more. 'Call me Gordon' is working hard to get a new station and bailey bridges in the Workington area to reunite the split community. It might be Prince Charles next! He is very fond of this part of the country. His favourite valley, Borrowdale, is still flooded and cut off. We know and are comforted that there are a lot of influential people working for us.
The valleys are suffering also. Mark Wier owner of Honister slate mine was on TV last night. He had a narrow escape. He tried to go over the bridge at Southwaite at the beginning of the floods in a tractor and was swept away. He is a very fit man. He's an adventurer who has often been in tight situations but he really thought his time was up. He managed to get out of the tractor door which was under a lot of water pressure and swam to dryer land. He then walked the 3 miles home drenched and singing celebrating his escape. He then got his helicopter out and flew over the scene and filmed it!
Come and see us. We have Christmas cards left for the Autistic Society, books, pots and of course paintings and sculpture. I am trying to compile a list of other businesses that are open. I will let you know.
Chris and Angie and Michael

Monday 30th November
Oh joy! It isn't raining, the sky is blue and icing sugar has been dredged on the fell tops in the night. It feels as though life is almost normal. As predicted Prince Charles came to give encouragement and was very supportive. Listed buildings are his bag. We can depend on his influence if needed.
Today a walk through the town was heartening. Many of the businesses have regrouped and have rented spaces in Mitchell's Auction premises; chemist, newsagent, toy shop, book shop, building society. Main Street at Mitchells it is called. Further spaces are being created round the corner in a spare warehouse. Boots reopened this morning. People were bustling about the streets looking cheerful and hopeful. Work forces were busily working everywhere and there was a feeling of purpose and optimism. We are hardy and resourceful people here.
This town will return to better than normal. Our Main Street will be even more beautiful than before. It looks as though we will lose our lovely stone Gote Bridge and part of the historic Trout Hotel is unstable and must be rebuilt. These historic buildings have never had to endure this sort of battering before.
Stories are now emerging. The notice in the window of one of our sweet shops said 'No more than 2 schoolchildren allowed in this shop at any one time.' This has now been changed. The soggy paper, still hanging limply in the gutted shop, has been slightly adjusted to 'No more than 2 MPs allowed in this shop at any one time!' Yes, we still have a sense of humour. Louisa from the Quince and Medlar posted her early Christmas cards in the red pillarbox on the Main Street last Thursday. The water that night rose eight - ten feet high - well over the top of the box so she had given them up. She was surprised today to get calls from some of the recipients who had received them 10 days later stamped by the Royal Mail DAMAGED BY FLOOD.
We had a mixed weekend at the gallery. We are still difficult to reach from the town centre despite our gourmet soups made to secret recipes by elves in the gallery kitchen (well, by me actually - that's just a bit of romantic marketing speak!). It is an initiative test to reach it. Divers have not yet managed to get down into the foundations of the Cocker Bridge which cuts us off from the main drag. Maybe with the better weather it will happen soon and let's hope it is basically undamaged. We can't lose all these lovely old bridges for single span replacements. I still have to drive 25 miles round Bass Lake to get to work as the Ouse Bridge is still closed.
The handsome new railway station Workington North has been built in record time which has relieved the pressure on the roads around Cockermouth as people made diversions. Best of all - we will have a mini switch-on of Christmas lights on Friday in the Market Place at the bottom of Castlegate. Time for celebration.
Thank you to all those who have sent donations to the disaster fund but now the best thing you can do is come and shop in the town if you possibly can. Do your Christmas shopping here. It is possible. There are enough places open and willing to give you the best service. This will help keep the town alive in this desperate interin period.
The Cockermouth web site is giving out up to date information of shops that are open on their web Our web site is A copy of Hercules and the Farmer's Wife makes a great hard back book gift at £10 and is based in Cockermouth which is now a recognisable famous name (we'll even sign, gift wrap and post for you.) and we have plenty of Wallbank christmas cards left in aid of the Autistic Society.
Yours full of optimism

Thursday 3rd December
This town is fighting back. We are all supporting each other.
Our GP, Andrew Mason heroically hitched a lift in an amphibious vehicle through the floods and climbed into the flooded surgery which is the other side of the river (except it was all river by then) and he rescued all the patient notes, the computer and files. Allinsons the chemist did the same thing, saved all the prescriptions but forgot the till! Priorities eh? Went back several days later to find the till still intact but wet. Dried out the money in the AGA! Could that be termed 'Money Laundering?' The other group practice in South Street couldn't be accessed from the front so one of the doctors did an obstacle race to the back over walls and gardens to get their records out.
There was a farmer on TV last night standing in acres of rubble. His land is now covered in pebbles and debris - such a shame. It looks like Brighton beach on a bad day. Unbelievable amounts of stones everywhere on good green grazing land. The cameras panned round and there was so much stock from the Cockermouth shops and houses mixed in with it all - heartbreaking.
If anyone has stories, experiences, photographs or memories please put them here so we can all share. Sharing is now the ethos of the town. It will make us strong.