Vol. V, No. 2 (May 2008)Nearly flooded out of his house in the UK’s 2007 torrential rain, Mike Esbester offers a few thoughts on his experiences.
When I moved to Oxford in March 2007 the land behind the house I lived in was flooded. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to this, but, as the ground there was several feet lower than the house, I didn’t give it a second thought. Quite soon I settled into something of a routine. Working in Reading, I would commute to work. After a 10 minute walk down the Botley Road, one of the main arterial routes into Oxford, I would arrive at the station; from here it is a 25 minute train ride to Reading. I got used to being able to do this – it was a simple thing. There was always motorised traffic on the road – in fact, it was often quicker to walk, as the road was frequently congested. Whatever else it was, this road was not a destination (perhaps it was one of Auge’s ‘non-places’?).
All this changed at the end of July. On Friday 20th alone, over a month’s worth of rain fell in the catchment area for the river Thames, which passes through Oxford. By Monday, the train line to Reading was closed – it had been undermined by the flood waters. So I was confined to Oxford. And by Monday, the Botley Road was closed to vehicular traffic: the various tributaries of the Thames which pass under the Botley Road had risen continually and were in danger of flooding the road. This was the first time I’d seen the Botley Road without vehicles.
The puddles at the side of the road gradually grew, until they covered the whole width of the road; the lake that formed got deeper and deeper. This was the first time I’d seen the road – not much of a road now – without vehicles. Although it was wet, the road was a destination: rather than using it to get to other places, it became a place in itself. People came out on the street, stood and talked, watched and hoped, played. So we couldn’t move as easily or as far as we were used to, but perhaps the movement was more intensive? The circumstances – the lack of mobility – brought people together. Suddenly what was most important for people was not physical movement, but the circulation of news. Everyone wanted information: was there more rain to come? Would the water level continue to rise? Where could we get sandbags from?
Compared to other parts of the world, this really was very minor. But it was exceptional for the UK, and for me. It really demonstrated just how mobility over large distance is central to our daily lives – but that this everyday mobility is actually built upon very fragile foundations. When these foundations are undermined it is interesting that although we are mobile in a more limited physical area, the movement remains important.
Needless to say, we have a short memory: after a few days, the waters receded, and the clean up began. The road has been surrendered to the car once more, the near-perpetual traffic jam has returned, my routine journey to work has re-started, and collectively the residents of the area have shifted the focus of their mobility, from the local back to more far-flung destinations (even to the wilds of Reading!). However, for this resident at least, what was once taken for granted has been questioned. Given that the City Council has told us that we must expect to live with more regular floods in the future, we clearly need to adapt our lifestyles and expectations – and our mobility – to take account of the changing environmental conditions.