— Ellie Broughton

Nature writing

This was first published on the Elsewhere blog.

On Boxing  Day I walked up Brockle Beck, a little stream outside Keswick. At the bottom of the path sits Spring Farm. A heap of sodden toys, carpets and chairs lay outside next to a silver Rolls Royce that gleamed in the sun.

Marks from the floods, which had happened two weeks ago, were still present. From the mounds of soil by the roadside to the still-wet floodplains around the Derwent, the water’s draughtsmanship was everywhere.

The footpath led up Brockle Beck through the woods. There were still sweeping traces down the lane of leaves and gravel, marks made by the overflow.

A 30-foot oak lay on its side in the riverbed, redesigned by the force of the floods.

A photo posted by Ellie (@elliebroughton_) on

Snapped branches and washed-up bushes framed the now-tiny stream, a picture of a disaster described through ruins.

Further up the track, a bridge had tumbled into the water, as if a subject of a primary school art class on perspective. It had been decorated with yellow tape advising ‘do not cross’.

I visit the Lakes every Christmas to see with my parents, who moved here ten years ago. Their house is hundreds of feet above sea level, thank God, but every year now the rest of the county faces what used to be ‘freak’ flooding.

The signs are everywhere. Even as the Virgin Pendolino climbs Shap, you can see how swollen the river has become, how much spray churned up on the M6.

This year, the storm came two weeks before Christmas. I knew things were bad when my mum uncharacteristically texted to tell me ‘not to worry’.

A quick Twitter image search revealed the road to Thirlmere washed away in a starburst of gravel. In Keswick, murky river water lapped over the tops of the town’s four-year-old defences.

Cockermouth has seen some of the worst of it, hit three times in the last 11 years. In 2005 the town saw its worst flood since 1822; in 2009 residents faced what was called a once-in-a-thousand-year event. Last month the town flooded again, with an estimated 400-700 homes and businesses inundated.

Many businesses in Cockermouth were back up on their feet by Christmas, just as York went under and Tadcaster evacuated. But any shop by the river had to be gutted, and now lay empty. Winter sun fell through the shop windows onto bare plaster walls. Dehumidifiers stood alone, humming to no-one. A thigh-high watermark still stained the brickwork outside.

The language of the land here is water. Windermere was named for its lake, Cockermouth for the river Cocker, Morecambe for the ‘crooked sea’ (more came).

Cumbria has been the spring for so many words for water courses. Meres, gills, becks, holms, tarns and forces existed long before the south had rivers and super-mares.

But as we drive back to the Northwestern Fells over the Honister Pass it is clear that ‘draughtsmanship’ is not a good metaphor for flood damage. The damage is violent.

Chunks of earth have been bitten from the banks of the stream running down Honister Pass. The waterfall at Buttermere, usually just a silvery scratch in the dark woods, is today thick as a keloid scar. New weather patterns fluctuate and jag; the land suffers.