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Can Lightning Strike Twice in the Lakes?

As the anniversary of the monumental Lake District flood looms, Martin Hickes – a witness to the disaster - talks to local residents who are nervously looking to the skies in 2010.

It was a flood of near ‘Biblical’ proportions.

The ’once-in-a-lifetime’ deluge which last year devastated homes and businesses in the Lake District was only supposed to happen every thousand years.

But this year, as the anniversary of the record cataclysm looms, it’s perhaps understandable why hundreds of Lakeland residents are looking to the skies this November.

Images of broken bridges, flooded streets and the tragic death of a police officer hit the headlines nationally and persuaded many tourists that The Lakes was a no-go area in 2009.

As Windermere and other lakes rose by as much as three metres in the space of 48 hrs, bookings were cancelled, as far ahead as spring 2010, while the tourist board's emergency hotline received calls from people asking simply, "Can we still come to Cumbria”?

The River Derwent and the River Cocker which drain the Borrowdale and Buttermere valleys could not contain the amount of water which hit the hills.

By early afternoon on 19 Nov 2009, the main street of Cockermouth was a raging torrent. Many had to be rescued by boat from the upper floors or even the roofs of their houses.

The River Greta in Keswick also burst its banks, flooding homes and businesses.

Across Cumbria numerous bridges collapsed under the force of the water.

Around 1300 homes and businesses were destroyed by the floods in Cockermouth, Keswick, Ulverston, Workington, Kendal and other smaller communities.

In popular Bowness, the lower reaches of the town became almost indistinguishable from the advancing Lake Windermere.

Dozens of businesses moved upstairs if they could, but many succumbed to the rising tide.

And while Cumbria Tourism was quick to reassure tourists that many areas of Cumbria were unaffected,  the flood impacted severely on the local economy and particularly on tourism.

According to the Met Office, the unprecedented level of rainfall was due to an Atlantic weather front becoming almost stationary over Northern Ireland, Cumbria and south-west Scotland.

The front and the south-westerly winds associated with it drew very warm, moist air up from the Azores region. The rain was intensified by the effect of the mountains causing record breaking rainfall totals. The ground was already saturated from weeks of heavy rainfall and disaster was inevitable.

The floods were indiscriminate in who and what they affected.

The Lakeside Hotel, situated on the shore of Windermere by Newby Bridge, had all of its ground floor flooded. Owners have since invested £200,000 to enhance the facilities - including its kitchens, bar, restaurant and conservatory.

And at the luxury Windermere Marina Village, in Bowness, some 20 boats sank, as staff were taken completely by surprise by the rising waters.

In fact, millions of pounds have been invested in a revamp of facilities by tourism businesses blighted by last year’s floods across the area.

Many are now hoping that – in what would be a cruel twist of fate - lightning will not strike twice.

Thomas G Noblett, managing director of the prestigious Langdale Chase Hotel, which overlooks the northern shores of Windermere, says he is not the only one concerned that the flood could happen two years in a row.

He says:

“I think very many people in the Lakes will be very very nervous this November. Even as I speak, similar patterns to last year seem to be developing – we’ve had five days of heavy rain already and very many of the hotspots on the roads are becoming impassable with flooding.

“I reckon we lost around £25,000 in trade last year with direct loss of trade at the time and later cancellations through the misconception that Cumbria was shut, thanks a misunderstanding about a key bridge being down.

“The key factor last year was that the ground was already waterlogged when the deluge hit, which was the major influence on the rapid rise of the lake and the flooding of the valleys.

“The same cycle of weather patterns seems to be happening now and I can tell you I am very nervous for what might happen in late November again. People say it can never happen again, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out again this year.

“We are quite fortunate in that the hotel is positioned quite high above the lake, but our lower grounds were flooded and one of our expensive boats went through the roof of our boathouse when the lake rose. Of course the message to people is please come to the Lakes, but it is certainly true that many of us are looking to the skies again.

“I train daily in the lake as a keen swimmer and know the lake like the back of my hand and I have a strange feeling again about it again this year.”

Jason Dearden, managing director of the Windermere Marina Village, which abuts the lake, is more cautious.

He says:

“Yes, of course everyone is nervous this November, but it is important to bear in mind that we had a series of extraordinary circumstances which led to the events of last year, most of which were probably traceable back to 2008.

“In the October of that year, we had very heavy rain followed by an unusually wet summer, and then we had a mini flood before the very heavy flood of 2009. The ground was already sodden before the extraordinary foot and a half of water which occurred in that short space of 36 hours or so in Nov 2009 hit.

“So what was very unusual in the run up to the flood was we had an ‘A-B-C series’ of irregular events occurring which preceded the downpour.

“Although it is has been raining heavily so far in November this year, we have had the driest period from Jan-Jun this year in 74 years – at some stages near drought conditions - so I think if the rain were to happen again, that there would be some take up capacity in the ground and in the Langdales. There’s also a lot more awareness in Bowness and in the region generally.

“We have invested some £3.5m since the flood at the village and the marina and have been working very closely with the Environment Agency which is undertaking a lake level study on an ongoing basis.

“I have lived and worked in the Lakes for many years, and in terms of perspective, it is important to remember the events of those few days were extraordinary. We knew there was going to be heavy rain and responded as best we could, but even our expectations were exceeded by what actually happened.

“I’m glad to say thanks to a lot of hard work all round and in partnership with various bodies and contacts, we are operating well again and very much looking forward to welcoming guests to the Lakes again this winter.”

Currently around the county, a far-reaching £3.2 million action plan has been drawn up to deal with extensive damage to the county’s vast network of public rights of way.

It means the Lake District National Park can repair or replace all of its 253 bridges and 85 paths destroyed.

In a joint initiative between the LDNP and Cumbria County Council, work is being rolled out in a four-year programme. It includes widespread repair and reconstruction, replacing gates, stiles and signs in a county boasting 7,500 km of footpaths, bridleways and byways.

The system - equivalent to Cumbria’s total road network - saw £1.7m worth of damage caused in the national park and £1.5m throughout the rest of the county.

Dylan Jackman, from the LDNP, said: “An enormous amount of work has gone into surveying the damage and we are very grateful that external funding is now allowing us to get to grips with this difficult and costly operation.

“We are also determined to carry out the work in ways that will lessen the effects of future extreme weather. In particular, we will be looking at methods which will give us some flood resilience.

“Part of this process includes working with our key partners, including Natural England, the Environment Agency, National Trust, Forestry Commission and North West Development Agency.”

Cumbria County Council, which played a key role in co-ordinating the exhaustive rescue and subsequent recovery process across the county, is planning to issue a ‘year in review’ update from Nov 15 highlighting what has been achieved and evaluated since the flood hit last year.

Around 2,000 locally sourced native tree species will also help protect vulnerable land around the Derwent and Greta rivers - which last November saw trees ripped up and carried away - and provide future flood protection.

The Environment Agency has teamed up with Bassenthwaite Lake Restoration Programme and the Woodland Trust to plant the sensitive sites with a range of indigenous varieties.

Project leader Mike Farrell, of the Environment Agency, said the Derwent, Greta, Glenderamack in, Cocker and Marron had already seen extensive action to stop loose soil entering watercourses.

He explained: “We have worked on a number of ‘soft engineering’ techniques, including planting willow spiling, fencing, hedges, even using large logs with small fir trees attached, creating a barrier to hold back eroded banks.

“These measures are very beneficial. Not only do they help improve water quality in Bassenthwaite Lake, but do well as flood defence by slowing river flows and helping prevent erosion. They also create new wildlife habitats.

“It was particularly reassuring to see how banks we have worked on stood up to last November’s overwhelming floods.”

A spokeswoman from Cumbria Tourism said:

“Last November’s floods had a devastating effect on Cumbria’s tourism industry, resulting in an estimated £15.4 million cost to the industry with over £2 million in lost and cancelled bookings. 

“Research conducted with the tourism industry at the time and in the following months, confirmed that confidence about the year ahead was particularly low and almost 80 per cent of businesses believed that the weather had damaged trade with an average loss of 16% in annual turnover. 

“Following on from the heavy rain in November, clean up attempts were severely hampered by freezing conditions and heavy snow through December and January. 

“Tourism trade overall in the UK was down throughout this period but the picture in Cumbria was much worse than experienced elsewhere with occupancy levels down around 7% on the same period in 2008. 

“However, the picture did start to pick up for serviced accommodation businesses in the Spring and occupancy figures from February to July were higher than the same period in 2008 and online bookings have been on the increase throughout the year.  Cumbria Tourism’s website www.golakes.co.uk has already had a record year taking over £2.7 million worth of bookings on behalf of the county’s tourism industry, which also reflects the public shift of an increased internet usage.” 

“All in all, tourism businesses are resilient and have bounced back from the effect of the floods and despite it being a challenging year, visitor numbers have remained stable and we are cautiously optimistic going into 2011.”

A Met Office spokesman said:

“Rainfall for the main event fell within a 36-hour period spanning two consecutive rain days from the evening of the 18th to the early morning of the 20th. During this period, the Environment Agency's rain-gauge at Seathwaite, Cumbria, provisionally recorded 316.4 mm in a 24-hour period and 377.8 mm in 34 hours. The current UK 24-hour (0900-0900) record is 279 mm recorded at Martinstown, Dorset on 18th July 1955 so a comparison with this provides some indication of the extreme nature of this particular rainfall event.

“Twenty-four hour rainfall totals exceeding 200 mm are very unusual - there are fewer than 20 occurrences for the UK recorded in our database.

“Estimates by both the NCIC and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford indicate that the 24, 48 and 72 hour rainfall totals have return periods of the order of 200 years, possibly higher. However, it is important to emphasise the significant uncertainty associated with return period estimates for extreme events.”


Weatherwise: The Lake District on record

  • November 2009: 314.4mm of rain fell in Seathwaite in 24 hours – a new record for England. Cockermouth and Keswick flooded.
  • 7 and 8 January 2005: Storms batter Cumbria – a gust of 111 knots recorded on Great Dun Fell – many trees blown down.
  • Summer 1995: Drought year. Haweswater reservoir 89 per cent empty and the drowned village of Mardale visible.
  • 31 Jan 1995: 100mm of rain overnight cause floods that change the course of Raise Beck - Dunmail Raise - to flow to Grasmere instead of Thirlmere Reservoir.
  • July 1988: Grasmere had its wettest month of the 20th century.
  • Summer 1984: Drought year. Drowned village of Mardale visible in Haweswater reservoir.
  • Feb 1984: Over 600 mm of snow fell in some areas of the District.
  • July 1983: Temperature in Ambleside reached 31.7C, the same figure as in 1934.
  • 1963: Windermere completely freezes over.


  • Nov 1955: Seathwaite in Borrowdale received 204mm of rain within 24 hours, about one quarter of the annual rainfall for Penrith.


Pics captions

Flood 1, 2, and 3 – the scene of chaos in Nov 2009 in Bowness.

Levels 2010 – a boat owner on Windermere cautiously eyes the rising waters again this Nov.