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Comment: Water way for Nature to show she’s got the upper hand
Getting the train back from Manchester to Watford the other day, it felt like the end of days. The rain was pouring down, the wind was howling, and the landscape was desolate. And that was just Hemel Hempstead.
The north had been lovely. Sunny, dry, even slightly warm but then, in a change to the normal stereotype, it just got worse and worse the further south we went, with the flooding and misery coming into play the nearer home I got.
There were forlorn sheep, cows and horses all starding at the corner of the field that had now been turned into a swimming pool. Bits of farm machinery poking out above the water and rivers that could no longer be distinguished from the flooding around them. It is a remarkable sight.
It’s not so long since I drove past Tewkesbury, a town that seems to spend half its life being flooded and welcoming TV reporters wearing waders.
It was, of course, flooded, but you can see why. It’s flat and low, built on a flood plain near rivers that always seem about to burst their banks.
Basically, if you wanted to build a town that was bound to flood, it would be Tewkesbury.
But Hemel Hempstead? Kings Langley? Watford? Chorleywood? Everywhere, frankly, in our bit of the world? These aren’t places that should look like giant puddles, and yet now, as we swim from home to school, or paddle to the shops, we’re confronted by water in vast quantities.
Across the country, it’s caused some huge problems. There are homes that have been destroyed and businesses ruined.
And yet there is still something peculiarly comforting about the fact nature can still rule this world with some ease.
However clever we all think we are, however much we think we have taken complete control of the world upon which we live, all it’s taken is a few weeks of rain to cause chaos.
It’s a good time to remember that fighting the elements is a fool’s game.
In Chorleywood, there is a road called Green Street – pictured above – that floods at the merest sight of rain.
Water runs into it from the surrounding fields, gathers in a dip and – bosh – the “road closed” signs go up.
And whenever it happens, someone’s car always ends up stuck in the flood.
I do mean always. There are two car service stations in the village, which has always struck me as a pretty generous allowance for a relatively small place.
I suspect a significant percentage of their trade, though, comes from people who've driven their car along Green Street, laughed off the flood warning and then found themselves stuck with a car that’s spluttered to a halt in two or three feet of standing water.
Don’t do it. Seriously. For one thing, few things in life are better at destroying a car engine than water.
Cylinders are designed to squash air and petrol, which have the happy habit of being, well, squashable.
Water, on the other hand, can’t be compressed, so when your engine tries to do that, the water fights back and your engine comes off worst.
That Green Street puddle has written off more cars than just about anything else I can imagine.
For another thing, it’s dangerous. You hear stories of more vulnerable people being trapped in these cars, shivering and stranded. Why take that risk? There’s always another way.
Of course, that other way will be a mass of potholes. The roads of Chorleywood are now falling apart in quite spectacular style, once again forcing me to come to the conclusion this is the pothole capital of the county.
I simply don’t believe any other place has quite the consistency of lousy road surfaces Chorleywood can boast at this time of the year.
You can now spot the locals, who swerve all over the place in a desperate attempt to avoid their tyres or suspensions being wrecked by these cracks and crevasses.
It may be another revenue stream for the service stations (makes me think we might need another one to cope with the impending rush), but it’s an extraordinary nuisance.
I’ve been to bits of rural Pakistan where they still use donkeys and carts and where the elders walk round with large guns and toothless smiles.
And they honestly had better roads than Chorleywood.
The water doesn’t help, of course, but the pothole problems pre-dates the flooding. It’s a legacy of years of quickly patching over our roads and hoping for the best, but also of the growth in car use.
More cars directly leads to more holes in the road, just as more rain leads to more floods. And in both cases, the fix involves spending money.
And that’s the real issue here. Local authorities have less money to spend than they used to.
I don’t really have any doubt that our politicians would like us to have lovely smooth surfaces on every single road and drainage systems that whisk away water and playing fields that never get waterlogged.
But infinite generosity costs infinite money and that’s not realistic.
Indeed, the coffers are stretched now. We may be on the cusp of an economic revival, but austerity still is the watchword of our public spending, which you can trace back to the downturn of recent years, which you can probably trace back to the banking problems of five or six years ago, and from there to bad mortgage loans given out in the United States.
So if you want to blame someone for the potholes, blame reckless American bankers.
Personally, I’d rather see the money spent on the pivotal things – keeping schools going, paying for special needs education, supporting vulnerable people, making sure the main roads work, supporting the emergency services and collecting the rubbish.
A raft of flood defences are a nice “to-have”, but they may have to wait until there's more money in the coffers.
As for the potholes, I suspect we spend more money patching them up than we would if we fixed them properly in the first place.
Or maybe the village is being managed, Prisoner-style, by someone who thinks everyone in suburban England should end up driving a spotless four-wheel drive Chelsea tractor. And frankly, on the evidence of the school car park, they’re slowly getting their way.