Drought and Flood

Chapter Six of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

Chapter six explores the the extremes of the river – drought and flood.

Drought and Flood

Gordon Worby said the Rib regularly flooded up to The Armoury door.  As the Rib receded, pike trapped in pools in The Armoury’s boundary ditch could be snared with a loop of wire on a long stick.”  Flooding is of course a river’s natural response to heavy rain, and it’s only we humans who object to it and try to manage it.  We can go back into antiquity here on the Rib to show that even the Iron Age population was up against it, and the Romans, who had built a bath-house by the river at Braughing, lost it to flooding!  Nothing had changed in Braughing by the 18th century when the vicar, George Smith, recorded in his diary for 1715: “It was a very wet year: 4 or 5 floods and many bridges lost”.

Another notable flood occurred in October 1762, when a huge area of eastern England was affected. A major drama occurred in Buntingford when: “the post-boy in passing a water [sic] at Buntingford, was thrown down, and narrowly escaped being drowned by hanging on some brickwork of the bridge; the horse was drowned, and with very great difficulty the mail recovered.”

Probably the most serious flood event in living memory took place on 16th September 1968, which, being in the age of photography, means that numerous photographs of the horrific effects still survive today. In Braughing, Victor Tott recorded in his diary: “I got up just after 6.00 am, it was not raining, I left home just after 7.00 am and walked down into the village, the sight that met my eyes, water everywhere, the little stream that runs through the village where children love to play and paddle around was a raging torrent, it was not possible to get anywhere near the footbridge, the water was over the woodwork that people walk on.”  It was following this that a flood relief plan was put into effect which helped improve the situation, and the river was dredged in 1978 to improve the flow.

Flooded water meadows below Standon and the Lordship, December 2020

The natural way of dealing with flooding is with meadows.  One of the best places to find meadows is beside rivers, and any field map will show that ‘meads’, ‘medes’ or ‘meadows’ could once be found all along the lengths of both rivers here.  Part of their natural role was to soak up the water, and in some places they were more like marshes.  The success of these meadows was attested to in late Victorian times: “The meadow pasturage in the [Rib] valley liable to occasional flooding is generally of a much superior quality to the pastures of the higher lands.”  These places would once have been full of flowering plants in summer and alive with butterflies and bees.  Some old field names give an indication of what grew in these areas: Flag Mead, Willow Mead, Rush Mead or Wychmarshe (probably from Wych Elms).  There is still a Wych Elm growing in Wychmarshe today!

One notable example of many others was a large meadow on the river at Youngsbury that was called Thundermarsh – the name once again coming from Old English, i.e. Anglo-Saxon.  It may indeed have been a marsh originally, but it was certainly described as meadow in the earliest record found from the 14th century.  So that everyone in the vicinity had access to this, it was divided up into half-acre or one acre strips in the same way that the arable here had been.  Some of these strips are shown, with the names of their owners, on an 18th century plan of the Youngsbury estate – all running at 90° to the river.  This was a fair division, so that everyone had a part in this precious resource.  The reason it was precious and quite literally vital to life was that meadows were cut for hay to feed the animals during the winter months.  Without it, their animals would have died.  But today, without that need, and also without the flooding, Thundermarsh is now entirely arable.  

Apart from the quantity of rain, some flooding may have been caused in the past by attempts that have been made to straighten out those lovely meanders that were mentioned in chapter one.  These perform a function, and without them the water runs faster and causes problems further downstream.  Apart from the straightening work of ‘Capability’ Brown at Youngsbury mentioned in chapter three, a length of the river south of Gatesbury Mill in Braughing was also straightened.  In this case, it was done by extending the leat so that it bypassed the mill and mill-race altogether.  By doing this they had succeeded in swapping the original river’s course for the leat! [diagram/LIDAR?]

Lidar image of Gatesbury Mill. Stane Street crosses horizontally at the bottom

However, this was not the biggest piece of engineering of the river that took place in Braughing.  This occurred between Griggs Bridge and Ford Bridge when a much simpler short-cut was constructed, bypassing a number of meanders.  By doing this they effectively moved the confluence of the two rivers slightly further south!  This sounds like one of those ambitious projects undertaken by the Victorians, but it actually preceded them

From all this, it can be seen that flooding along our river is something that has been happening from ancient times and man has had to deal with it in the best way he knew.  In more modern times, flooding issues continued to plague the riverside residents, and fords were a particular hotspot.  Many cars have had to be towed out of fords along the river, and at Barwick a tow rope was left there permanently!  “In Paper Mill Lane [Standon], by No.3 house there was a flood barrier, a 6” square pole which was padlocked to a post at the side of the road.  When the road flooded the pole was put across the road to prevent the traffic going through.  The Crossing Keeper on the railway kept the key.”  But in recent years we have engineered other ways of preventing such things, and the advent of the internet has given everyone access to warnings and predictions from the Environment Agency and the weather stations on the situation in real time.

The upper reaches of the Rib have also suffered from the opposite problem – drought!  The Rib was often dry in summer as far south as Corneybury, but: “During the summer of 1874, for the first time in the memory of living man, the body of the stream was entirely dry as far as Westmill railway station, more than a mile below [Buntingford].”  It was either feast or famine: only five years later, 3.2 inches of rain fell on Buntingford within the space of four hours!  Droughts could even occur in the winter, when not just the river dried up but the wells also.  One such, in the winter of 1901, was particularly bad: “In the town of Buntingford the shortage of water is seen by the significant fact that for the last three weeks the Railway Company has had to send water to Buntingford Station to supply the [steam train] engines.”  Three times a week 2,000 gallons had to be transported there from Hertford!

N7 tank locomotive taking on water from the tower behind the signal box at Buntingford Station, September 1958.
© Michael Covey-Crump

Around that time they had already been speculating as to why these droughts were occurring: “The volume of water coming down the Rib and Quin in summer time must be decidedly less than in the [18th] century; this, no doubt, arises chiefly from more draining of the land, as well as cutting down of large hedgerows, and rather less of woodland and grass.”  Precisely the same sentiments are being expressed today!

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

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