My wellington boots sink into the dark, wet earth in the bed of the gully as I heave on the handle of a log lifter, taking my share, with three other volunteers, of the weight of a ten-foot long, two-foot diameter section of Scots Pine trunk. We set it down, regroup, then lift again and neatly bed it into the slots that earlier had been cut, with mattock and spade, into the gully’s steep bank. From above descend other members of our team with bundles of smaller branches – which they have been busily cutting to size with bow saws and loppers – to stuff into the gaps around the stacked larger logs. My five-year-old son is among them, eagerly sliding down the banks with armfuls of brash, clawing his way back up again to race down with more. His enthusiasm could be mistaken for urgency, as if he believes the floods that we are preparing for are imminent. For it is indeed a dam that we are building.
For two years now, Slow the Flow – founded in the aftermath of the floods which on Boxing Day 2015 devastated our town of Hebden Bridge and other communities in the Upper Calder Valley of West Yorkshire – have been coordinating volunteers like us in the construction of leaky woody dams like the one we are building this morning. Every other Sunday, a few more are built in the gullies that run down through the National Trust woodlands of Hardcastle Crags and Crimsworth Dean. We add seven more today, bringing the total built so far to a staggering 371. While the gully in which we are working does not have water flowing down it at the moment – rather, its sinewy path is filled with a torrent of wild garlic, its heady spring scent rising as we trample its leaves underfoot – even after a modest day of rain it, and hundreds of other gullies like it, will funnel water that has fallen on the moorlands and pastures above the woods down to the Hebden Water, which joins the River Calder in the centre of our town. So efficient are they at this that too much water tries to get through Hebden Bridge at once, and the banks of the Calder and the Hebden Water cannot contain it. The aim with these dams is not to stop or store the water, but to slow it; to flatten the hydrograph – which plots flow against time – from a sharp, high peak to a lower, elongated rise and fall. Six weeks ago, during a deluge on March 16th, it is plausible that it was Slow the Flow’s efforts that delivered the crucial few inches of space in the rivers that made the difference between the near-miss that it thankfully was, and yet another flood.
Through social media and a regular presence at public events, Slow the Flow have perfected an inclusive and welcoming message that brings volunteers along Sunday after Sunday to join in. Today, there are 13 of us; first-timers and old hands, people who have done little of this kind of volunteering before alongside those with a professional interest (a visitor from a fledgling catchment management project in South Yorkshire hoping to emulate this approach, a couple of undergraduate geography students). We organise ourselves naturally into groups and tackle the different tasks; brash-processing and gap-stuffing, log lifting and slot digging. A core team – Drew and Rob – wield the chainsaw and operate the winch that drags the logs across the woodland floor and into the gullies. We stop to chat to each other and find out why we’re here. Friendly banter echoes through the woodland about who should slop through the mud to retrieve the loppers or why someone is idly standing in the cats cradle of ropes and cables of the winch’s perhaps only slightly hyperbolically-named ‘triangle of death’.
The easy-going atmosphere belies the sheer productive achievement of this group, which it is difficult to overstate. In just a few short years it has not only carried out and coordinated the hard graft of dam construction, but also organised conferences and courses on natural flood management; gathered hard evidence of the approach’s effectiveness through an innovative river level monitoring scheme; and engaged hundreds of volunteers in making their own communities safer from flooding, all while forging solid partnerships with funders and like-minded organisations. All of this amply justifies the awards it has won and its increasing citation – most recently in the House of Commons during the debate on the declaration of a climate emergency – as a model for how to make communities more resilient in the face of flood events which will only become more common as climate breakdown takes hold.
The pride in participating in this effort is evident on the group’s faces as we pose on the new dams for a photo at the end of our morning’s work. We gather the tools and ascend back up the wooded hillside – through the scent of bluebells and pine needles, under the calls of chaffinch and goldcrest – to make our way back to town. When my son and I arrive in town – overdressed in the warm spring sunshine in our wellies and work clothes – it is thronged with visitors and children are paddling in the now-benign Hebden Water beside the 500-year-old packhorse bridge. It is a scene that could so easily turn to the horror of yet another flood, so it is reassuring to know that Slow the Flow will be back working in the woods upstream again soon.
An edited version of this post is on Slow the Flow’s blog.