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Six months on - still recovering from the wrath of Storm Dennis

By Mark Andrews | Bridgnorth | backtobusiness | Published:

Much has happened since floods brought chaos to the banks of River Severn. But, six months on, the impact is still felt.

Severe flooding in Ironbridge in February

Chris Harrison anxiously waits for a delivery. After a month operating out of a mobile catering unit, he and his wife Sharon Shenton are working round the clock ensuring their cafe will be ready to reopen on Friday.

It will be the first time in six months that the Dale End Cafe, in Coalbrookdale, near Ironbridge will be able to welcome its customers back.

And Mr Harrison, who has run the business for two-and-a-half years, is taking nothing for granted.

"We're hoping to be opening barring a flood caused by the latest storm," he says wryly. And it is hard to blame him for being cautious, having seen his business flooded four times this year.

Dale End Cafe owner Chris Harrison

It is six months since Storms Ciara, Dennis and Jorge tore through the West Midlands, but it seems longer. As the world became fixated with the coronavirus pandemic, the extreme flooding which left Ironbridge, Bewdley, Shrewsbury, Stourport and Bridgnorth underwater has largely been forgotten, overshadowed by later events.

But for many of those who saw their businesses devastated by the worst floods in 20 years, the ordeal is far from over. Indeed in many cases, the problems have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus.

"We were hoping to reopen two or three months ago, but we were delayed because the Covid outbreak meant we couldn't get the final piece of equipment we needed," says Mr Harrison.

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"It's been a long, treacherous six months, but we are very grateful to all the companies which have stepped in to support us."

Among these was Telford Transport Solutions, which kindly lent them a mobile catering unit which they nicknamed the Battle Waggon.

Restrictions

But within nine days of opening that, the business was forced to closed again due to the coronavirus lockdown.

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The business was able to reopen from its mobile unit when restrictions were relaxed last month, and the couple are now finally preparing to move back in to their newly renovated cafe.

Mr Harrison, 47, says there is still a lot of work to be done. The mobile wagon closed for the last time on Sunday afternoon, and the couple will be working flat out this week to ensure the new-look cafe is ready in time for Friday's opening.

"There have been many times when we have wondered if it was worth carrying on, but we have had so much gracious support, and that is what we are all about, we are a community cafe," he says.

"To go through one flood was bad enough, but going through a second flood, then a third, then Covid, and a fourth flood in June, it's very hard. If it wasn't for our customers, and loving our jobs, we wouldn't be doing it."

At least the end is in sight for the Dale End Cafe. For the award-winning Salopian Bar in Shrewsbury, the pain continues.

Ollie Parry surveying the damage to his cellar at The Salopian Bar in Shrewsbury

Ollie Parry, who has kept the sports bar in Smithfield Road for 15 years, should now be preparing for a busy bank holiday weekend, on the back of hosting a packed house during the Euro 2020 football tournament.

Instead, he is still wrestling with red tape, does not have a firm date for when his pub will be able to reopen, and has been forced to take out a bank loan to keep his business afloat.

"I'm hoping to be open by December, but it could be February, it's out of my hands," he says.

"It's the insurance company, they are very slow to respond.

"I was flooded before, in 2010, and that went straight through, but this time I think the insurance industry is struggling.

"They've had to deal with the floods, and then Covid-19, I think a lot of their staff are working from home. Sometime they will send me an email, and I will respond right away, but it is another three weeks before they reply to me.

"You do wonder whether they are taking their time and hoping that some of us will go bust in the meantime, so they won't have to pay out.

"I have had to get a bank loan to keep us going."

He says the one good thing about the delay is that it has given him the chance to reconfigure the building.

"The one good thing is it has given us a blank canvas," he says.

Ollie Parry, owner of The Salopian Bar, Shrewsbury, pictured surveying the damage to pub in March

"When I first took over, I adapted things a bit, but because of the flooding we have had to gut everything."

He says he will be changing the layout of the pub, enabling some of the expensive equipment previously installed in the cellar to be kept above ground level.

The cellar, which was still flooded in March this year, has now been cleaned completely, Mr Parry can see a path to reopening – providing his insurance company gets its act together.

But he adds that the social distancing rules in place at the moment would have made it impossible for his business to trade profitably anyway.

"If we had been ready to open on July 4, when the other pubs did so, I think we would have been out of business by now," he says.

"We're only a small pub and we would only be able to get about 30 people in, and we would not be able to make a profit."

All his staff have been furloughed throughout the pandemic, and he says the support from both central and local government has been crucial.

"The government support for Covid-19 has been brilliant, I can't fault it," he says. "It has all been very efficient."

An aerial view of River Severn flooding in Stourport Photo: Dave Throup/Environment Agency

When the flood barriers were breached in Bewdley, one of the worst-hit businesses was the Black Boy Inn in Kidderminster Road.

While landlord John Cleary was able to pump the water out of the cellar, keeping damage to a minimum, the effect it had on trade was more long-lasting.

"The flooding did hit us very hard," says Mr Cleary's wife Cathy.

"We didn't have any visitors to Bewdley, Bewdley is very dependent on outside visitors, and all that stopped," she says.

"People couldn't come through from the other side of town, we were really relying on the immediate locals."

Mrs Cleary adds that many of their immediate neighbours also had problems of their own, with the houses being severely damaged.

"We do have a lovely community spirit in Bewdley, all the neighbours helped each other," but it was difficult.

Mrs Cleary says she won't be sad to see the back of this year, but believes the coming winter will also be a difficult time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We have extended our outdoor area, and if the weather is nice and sunny, people want to sit outside," she says.

"But if the weather is cold, people seem a bit reluctant to come indoors."

A life-size model of a dinosaur was engulfed by flooding in Stourport after the River Severn burst its banks. Picture: SnapperSK

Further upstream in Stourport-on-Severn, the Riverside Meadows Amusement Park and the Walshes Farm caravan park were also submerged.

The crazy golf hut at the amusement park was left with water just a foot from its roof, and only the head of a life-size dinosaur model could bee seen above the floodwater.

Old Mill Antiques Centre in Bridgnorth was flooded twice when an underwater spring burst up through the flagstones in the basement of the building.

The first flood was confined to a storeroom, but the second one, at the end of February took staff by surprise as it was more serious than they were expecting.

"We had been told it was going up one metre and it went up a little and went down again, so we moved all our stuff back down – it wasn't that bad," owner John Ridgway said at the time.

Old Mill Antique Centre owner John Ridgway cleaning up in the aftermath of the floods

"This time we moved it all out the way again but it's done more damage than we thought it would. We didn't lift everything as high as we needed to.

"We thought it would be at the same level but it came up a lot more. We managed to get all the expensive stuff out the way."

Six months on, having also been forced to close during the lockdown, Mr Ridgway says business is doing surprisingly well, but he is concerned about preventing future repeats of the flooding.

He says he has come up with a solution to the problem, but is still waiting a response from Shropshire Council about whether he would be eligible for a grant towards the £10-15,000 cost of the work.

"The solution would be to raise the floor, and then install a pump underground which would get rid of the water," he says.

"The problem we have got is that as long as the weather continues to get wetter, as seems to be the trend, so does my antique centre."

Jonathan Ruddock, owner of The Lighthouse

Back in Shrewsbury, another business using the disruption as the opportunity for a major refurbishment project is The Lighthouse in Longdon Coleham, which has also been shut since February's storms.

The family lighting showroom was forced to close after two floods in a week wrecked the flooring and lower stairs, and was still waiting to reopen when the realities of the coronavirus crisis reached the area in March.

The rebuilding process was stymied by the lockdown restrictions on building work, and owner Jonathan Ruddock decided to take the gamble of planning a wholescale refurbishment while the shop was closed.

He oversaw the installation of new brickwork, resilient tiling, and a higher floor, both to give the shop a new look and, hopefully, to lower the impact of any future floods.

He estimates the cost of the work at about £100,000.

The work was finally finished earlier this month and the shop is open for business once more – to a great reception from Shrewsbury shoppers.

"It's blown us away," says Mr Ruddock, who bought the shop from his parents 17 years ago. He believes the Lighthouse is the last business in the town to reopen from flood-related damage.

He says: "It's been absolutely fantastic, lots of local people supporting the shop, really positive feedback. I have just had a record August.

"I am quite taken aback at how well the shop has done since it reopened. Everyone that has been in has been really kind and nice.

"It's great to be back and really exciting.

"In February the river was at record level, we had a flood on February 17. We managed to reopen three days later, we then had a record Saturday.

"Then the river flooded on the Monday, it came up quite high in the shop and stayed for a week.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Bewdley to see recovery efforts following the flooding

"There was the fun and games of builders and quotes, and then there was lockdown.

"It has been quite a challenge. It's been hard work and quite stressful."

He is touched by the support he has received from his loyal customers.

"We are delighted and it's just nice to have so much support from people. The shop has been established a long time and it's a shame it took so long to reopen but that decision really paid off.

"We are really appreciative of our nice customers."

In the aftermath of the floods, Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski launched an all-party parliamentary group to tackle problems with flooding along the River Severn, with a view to coming up with a 'holistic' approach to dealing with the problem, rather than the piecemeal approach which has been used in the past.

Last month, the Government announced a £36 million package of flood-prevention measures along the River Severn, which it is hoped will mean there is no repeat of these problems in future. But such work cannot be done overnight, and it could be years before the scheme is finished.

Businesses and residents along the River Severn will certainly be hoping that there is not another repeat of this year's storms six months from now.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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