Feature 10 years after great deluge people more aware of river

20 June 2017.....Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis and Jade Roche.  Picture Scott Merrylees
20 June 2017.....Ten years after the Sheffield floods that claimed two lives, a volunteer group has been meeting each week to clear the River Don of rubbish that contributed to the disastrous flooding.Pictured Rochelle Kent-Ellis and Jade Roche. Picture Scott Merrylees

Tireless work by volunteers means the Don is looking much better cared for than before the flood of 2007

It was the day South Yorkshire’s roads became rivers, and its usually calm waters turned into destructive forces of nature.

We’ve removed all sorts of things from the river which could cause blockages, including tyres, sofas, warehouse doors and trees

No one who experienced the devastating floods which left two people dead, hundreds homeless and caused an estimated £1 billion worth of damage will ever forget that day – June 25, 2007.

To mark the 10th anniversary this Sunday we have looked back at the deluge and what has been done since the devastation to protect the area.

Numerous people told how they waded or even swam through the floodwater to get home.

Joanna Smith recalled how she had to swim under a railway bridge in Newhall Road, Brightside, where 68-year-old Peter Harding tragically drowned, to reach her five-year-old daughter who was stranded at school.

She told how she was also one of many motorists whose cars were carried away in the raging torrents.

Vinny Marshall said he was on a number 20 bus at the bottom of the Wicker when water began gushing in and ‘the driver literally told everyone to get off the bus and swim for your life’.

Meadowhall was badly hit, with the ground floor under two feet of water and around 100 shoppers stranded.

It did not fully reopen until weeks after the floods.

Daniel Staniland said he was at the shopping centre that day and had to roll under the shutters to get out of a shop before wading through the waters until he was eventually offered a lift home by a passing driver.

Stranded workers were plucked from offices in the city by rescue helicopters. Simon Wainwright told how he had been rescued from the top of the Chamber of Commerce building, beside the River Don, with one of the flags from the roof wrapped around him.

Many people also paid tribute to Mr Harding and to 14-year-old Ryan Parry, from Gleadless, who was swept to his death in the raging waters of the River Sheaf as he made his way home from school.

Since the natural disaster nearly 140 volunteers have spent thousands of hours clearing debris from the river to prevent the blockages which were a major factor in the 2007 floods which ravaged the city.

Under the guidance of the River Stewardship Company (RSC), a social enterprise working to improve and protect Sheffield’s waterways, they have removed mountains of waste, from fridge-freezers and old machine parts to traffic cones and tree trunks.

They have also cut back invasive species along the banks and kept other vegetation under control so it does not clutter the river, blocking the flow during heavy downpours.

Keeping the river clear is a key plank of the work to protect businesses along the Lower Don Valley, an eight-mile stretch of river from Nursery Street in the city centre to Blackburn Brook at Meadowhall.

A £19 million programme to build new flood walls, repair and raise existing ones and create other defences like dams and flood gates along that stretch is on course for completion this autumn.

But keeping the river clear is a task which must continue long after those defences are in place, explains Hellen Hornby, community team manager at the RSC.

“The river is looking a lot nicer and better maintained than it did when I started in 2010, and a lot of that’s down to our volunteers,” she said.

“We’ve removed all sorts of things from the river which could cause blockages, including tyres, sofas, warehouse doors and trees, and it’s much clearer now.

“Because nobody had really been looking after it, one of the problems we had was that the crack willows had been allowed to grow until they became huge and cracked and fell into the river.

“If we were to stop today, these tiny things you see in front of you, give them a bit of time and they would be massive. Prevention is better than the cure.

Volunteers include a mixture of environmental science graduates and undergraduates who are keen to get valuable experience while making a difference, and retired workers who want to help Sheffield’s flora and fauna flourish.

Paul Winks, from Hillsborough, has been volunteering for four years since retiring from his job as a BT engineer.

His house was not affected by the 2007 floods but he remembers encountering floodwater four feet deep on Penistone Road during his commute home.

He also recalls being kept busy at work over the following weeks and months repairing and replacing damaged equipment.

Although he remains frustrated by the amount of fly-tipping, he says it is satisfying to see more people enjoying the riverside now it is looking smarter.

“If it’s possible to say something good came out of the floods, I think it’s that people are more aware of the river and take more care of it,” adds the 64-year-old.

For more information about volunteering with the RSC, email Hellen.Hornby@the-rsc.co.uk or call 0114 3540012.