Meeting the people behind the Eastbury Village Flood Prevention Association
PUBLISHED: 12:27 18 August 2015 | UPDATED: 12:28 18 August 2015
Something had to be done about the misery of flooding in Eastbury, so local residents began a extraordinary campaign. Jan Raycroft and Maureen McLean report
Raising funds for any good cause can be tough work, even when those set to benefit are children clearly in need of urgent support, or sad-eyed pets requiring a helping hand towards a new life.
So imagine the task facing those collecting donations for something as intangible as a ‘feasibility study’. Nothing photogenic there to tug at the heart-strings, and something that may come to nothing at all. You might wonder whether the whole thing was the equivalent of pouring your money down the drain, which is particularly apt as this is the remarkable story of how the small West Berkshire village of Eastbury joined together to ensure they had a flood alleviation scheme.
As we sit in Eastbury’s Plough Inn, enjoying a couple of the best pub sandwiches for many miles, it’s hard to contemplate the task that faced those campaigners – and yet they’ve achieved their aim. With us are two of the leading lights of what is now Eastbury Village Flood Prevention Association, Liz Goodman and Caroline Potter, who live with their families in nearby homes close to the River Lambourn, which passes through the settlement between Newbury and Lambourn itself.
Today it’s a picturesque scene, the archetypal English countryside village, but not one you could appreciate in some recent times.
Liz says: “I think it was the flood of 2007 that was a defining moment for many people. We were all severely affected and the legacy was enormous, we suffered psychologically as individuals and as a close, small community – it wasn’t just about properties, although obviously there was a lot of damage to deal with.”
And then came the floods of January and February 2014 as once again the tributary of the Kennet burst its banks and gushed into Eastbury. Some families had to be evacuated as groundwater poured up from beneath floorboards.
In fact the 2014 deluge was almost two years to the day from when residents had met with the Environment Agency and West Berkshire Council in The Plough to look at possible solutions.
Liz explains: “We knew right from 2012 that it was going to be a long process. You end up learning about things that you might never have encountered before. For a start, there was that ‘feasibility study’ to look into options and confirm the scope of any viable projects.
“Can you imagine discovering you needed to find £4,500 just for that? And yet some 300 people came from across the valley – just about the whole village and those who live nearby – to take part in our own little local Olympics and Jubilee celebrations and we raised £2,000 in one day. With a donation, we were on our way.”
The next big turning point came in September of that year with the formation of the flood relief association: “It cemented us together, showed that we were serious, and here to stay,” says Liz.
She describes Caroline as “my fund-raising co-pilot” and praises the efforts of numerous villagers, including David Woodhead, Bobbi and Barry Keeling, Chris Capel and Sue Riley. All brought different skills to the table, whether that was seeking out grants or going through complicated documents.
Both ladies are also full of praise for local MP Richard Benyon, who came onboard in 2012 and stuck with the project, regardless of any political challenges. Caroline tells us: “Without Richard’s support we would never have been able to achieve what we have. And in 2014 when the flooding was back he was here helping with the bailing out.”
When it became apparent that Eastbury could be rescued from the threat of flooding misery, the real work – and some extraordinary fundraising – began. It was time to learn about business cases, the likes of hydrological modelling, and why sluice gates would have to be ruled out for environmental reasons.
The answer was an area to the north west of the village that could be used as a storage area for excess water, and the introduction of what is known as a ‘throttle and bund’ to cause the gushing river to meander and return to its best natural state as a clear chalk stream teeming with wildlife. Indeed, at one stage the project had to be redesigned – and went up in cost – when water vole holes were discovered.
Landowners Rooksnest Estate waived their right to compensation for the natural storage area being on their land (Liz says: “We will always be indebted to them for that kindness”) but then came the start of the biggest fundraising effort to date.
There was a presentation to the Environment Agency. Caroline recalls that as ‘back-room girl’ she found this unnerving. Front of stage Liz thinks the EA were probably looking forward to seeing the back of her!
There’s no easy route to government funding, often you have to match funds or find a proportion of costs, and in this case Eastbury was being asked to come up with £65,000 in a matter of months towards the £700,000 plus project.
And they did, with donations from, among others, Greenham Common Trust, the Fred & Marjorie Sainsbury Charitable Trust, West Berkshire Council, Thames Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, Waitrose, and local people determined to reach the target.
In September last year Richard Benyon was once again in the village, this time for a turf-cutting ceremony launching the construction work by Amalgamated Construction (AMCO). A time capsule was buried so that future generations might one day learn this story through the Village Views parish magazine and pictures and essays by local children. As the months of winter passed, villagers watched developments… and were grateful that this year they would avoid the floods.
A few weeks back the MP returned, this time with philanthropist Dame Theresa Sackler, to preside over the official opening of the flood relief scheme. Everyone looked down on a bubbling and sparkling stream that is now a friend rather than a threat.
There is, of course, the possibility that some truly extraordinary event could over-ride all precautions, leading to future flooding. But in that scenario residents will suffer less damage and have more time to prepare.
Richard Benyon said: “This flood scheme is a credit to the EVFPA, who have worked tirelessly for years and whose efforts will ensure Eastbury is better protected from flooding in the future. I have seen for myself on a number of occasions the effect flooding can have on the village and I look forward to opening the flood scheme.”
We’ll leave last word to Liz: “Even though it felt like a long journey reaching this point, the end result is just fantastic, and beyond expectations. Not only have the Environment Agency delivered a flood scheme, but they have also implemented environmental enhancements, which have recreated a meandering chalk stream. This is a total win-win as it will benefit the wildlife as well as the community.”
• Major project to beat the floods in Marlow - Here’s something none us wants to see this year: sandbags and emergency workers dealing with the aftermath of the devastation caused by flooding. In June work will start on a flood alleviation scheme in Marlow, to protect homes in the Pound Lane and Firview areas.
• How the people of Wraysbury united to fight the floods - It’s impossible to record all the selfless acts and kindess, but here Jan Raycroft tells the extraordinary story of Wraysbury.