It feels a little like sitting beside a sleeping lion: Wonderful to be so close but when will he start to stir? First the horrific floods in Somerset, now the Thames is at its highest for over 60 years. To the west and south, vast swathes of countryside are already under water. The Thames, a constant companion in this part of London, no longer seems a gentle friend. Its black waters are filled with the menace of drowned homes and sodden dreams. I can’t begin to imagine what those poor people in Somerset, Surrey & Berks are going through. I look at the river, the channels and docks surrounding us and wonder : When will the lion roar?
The powers-that-be are making lots of soothing noises : Andy Batchelor, operations manager at the Thames Barrier, has stated categorically “there’s no risk to the centre of London”. I’m sure that’s what Datchet thought too, but at least if we were hit, we’d have the satisfaction of knowing the politicians also had wet feet (Westminster and the Houses of Parliament are themselves in the Thames flood zone). Nonetheless, I do feel lots of love and affection toward the Thames Barrier right now. In the past three months, it’s closed a staggering 28 times – that’s a fifth of all closures in its entire 30 year history (For the full story of the Thames Barrier and to see it in action, have a look at one of my earlier posts here). With the river already so full, there’s a risk high tide could push the extra water back upstream and flood the capital. The barrier keeps the sea safely at bay until the tide has turned.
“If you don’t want to get flooded, don’t live next to a river”. For all the nation’s sympathy and support, go on-line or read the letters pages in the press and you’ll see plenty of comments just like this. Harsh certainly, but fair? Yes, there have been some ill-advised developments in recent years, obviously encroaching on known flood plains and yes, you might be foolish to buy there, but equally there are houses now affected which have never before flooded in their history. Can you really tell these homeowners ‘it’s all your own fault’? Riverside living has been a mainstay of civilisation for thousands of years. If the risks now are potentially greater because of human intervention and global warming, simply walking away from the problem is hardly a solution. Quite apart from anything, where do they expect everyone to go? There are 1.6m people alone living on the Thames floodplain, never mind the rest of the country!
When we moved back to London, we ended up by the river more by accident than by design. Most, however, actively choose it inspite of all the risks: According to Savills estate agents, riverside property in London commands at least a 20-30% premium over equivalent accommodation inland. Unexpected indoor swimming pools aside, life by the water does offer some significant practical advantages. In this congested little island, have a room with a view and someone’s bound to build a bloomin’ great tower block right in front of it. The river is a natural buffer – blue belt vs green belt. Likewise, commuting by river is a million miles away from the sardine crush of the tube – a guaranteed seat, scenery to die for, even a cafe and bar on board. Absolutely fabulous, provided you find your sea legs (it can get a little bumpy en route): Mine, sadly, are still lost at sea.
A year on, however, I’ve realised the appeal of the water is so much more than mere practicalities. Like the best arranged marriage, what starts as a matter of convenience becomes a real affair of the heart. The bustle of river taxis, the comedy of water birds, the lapping of water against the shore – the sound of the river breathing whilst she sleeps. I could never tire of watching the river, her ever-changing moods. Even on the darkest days when all seems hopeless, her constant ebb and flow is a comforting reminder : Life goes on.
It’s estimated around 6000 homes in the UK are currently flooded. In the absence of significant shifts in global environmental policy, living by the river probably is daft but for all its stupidity, I now couldn’t imagine living anywhere else: I love it too much.
As they say, love is foolish.