By Luke Massey
Additional material by Will Bedingfield
The summer of 2013 will be seared onto the memories of many for the scorching heatwave which made park-lounging in a 30°C heat seem commonplace and produced the sharpest rise in workplace shirking since the Olympics.
But for residents and shop owners in Herne Hill, it wasn’t the soaring temperatures which were historic. It was the surreal and destructive scenes which saw Half Moon Lane and the centre of Herne Hill transfigured into a south London Venice, when an 88-year-old water main burst.
The dawn flooding surged into the streets to create a metre-deep river, on which rescue crews sailed as local businesses and residents reeled from the shock of damage to stock and building interiors.
Thames Water accepted responsibility for the damage, with reports putting the cost at around £4 million.
While the catastrophe brought national headlines, the media’s attention was predictably fleeting once the bizarre spectacle of an urban river lost its lustre.
But almost 6 months on, some of the affected businesses have yet to reopen: livelihoods remain fragile in this previously thronging suburb of London. The impact of a hollowed-out high street is that even for those who have managed to reopen – stomaching the emotional, physical and financial cost – footfall in the area is said to have decreased due to the reduction in shops seeing customers drift elsewhere.
Southwark Council wrote to Thames Water in October 2013, asking them to match the £100,000 it had set aside to assist affected businesses.
Councillor Peter John wrote: ‘If Thames Water matched the £100k contribution, it would make a big impact and help return Herne Hill to its former glory. This gesture would demonstrate how committed Thames Water is to repairing the damage caused by its burst water main, not just to the buildings, but to the life and soul of the area.’
Thames Water agreed, as a ‘gesture of goodwill’.
We spoke to business-owners in the area to find out exactly how they’re coping and to investigate the legacy of the flood.
Tapas restaurant Number 22 (you can guess where it is on Half Moon Lane) had been established in the area for close to a decade prior to the flood. It remains closed.
Owner Chris Adnitt tells me that ‘everything had to go.’ And he means it. From wine and stock through to all of the business’s equipment: ‘We’ve had to write off almost all of our equipment (fridges, ice machine, catering equipment, furniture, the bar itself…) as well as all the stock we were carrying.’ The whole ground floor, rear storage room and basement have had to be ‘stripped out, dried out and rebuilt’, says Chris. ‘It’s unlikely we’ll be open before April’.
‘The first three days after the flood were very dark times,’ says Ben Kindred, of Kindred Bakery (23 Half Moon Lane). ‘It was like: how do we get over this?’
As a baker used to early rises, he was already in the shop at 5am – the time of the flood. He describes how what they first thought was just a leak which would ‘trickle down into the gutter’ transformed into a tsunami. It started to come in so we barricaded the door’ he says laughing, ‘flour floats you know?!’ ‘Literally, within 10 to 15 minutes the water was knee deep.’ After that, it was ‘save what you can.’ The shop re-fit will cost around £50,000.
Jan and Patricia Peacock have been running Mimosa delicatessen (16 Half Moon Lane) since 1999. Following the flooding it was closed for almost four months, reopening at the end of November.
They described the impact of the flood as ‘full and total damage to our goods and equipment’: with almost £20,000 in food, wine, paper products and linens ruined.
Thankfully there was no structural damage, but ‘everything was rendered unusable except for the structure’ – it was an ‘empty shell’. The result was that they ‘had to rebuild from scratch, including electrical, flooring, plumbing and gas.’
The Peacock’s reflected the views of many when they described how their ‘initial shock’ swiftly turned to a ‘realisation’ of how much work they had to put in alongside the insurance company.
Some say that Thames Water have been very helpful, while others, such as Londis owner Ken Gangadeen have had a nightmarish experience. ‘The fixtures and fittings alone have cost £40,000, Thames Water have provided £30,000 so I have to find £10,000 for myself.’
Gangadeen says that he is being asked by the insurance assessor to provide photographic evidence or invoices when making claims: ‘it’s impossible… because our store room downstairs was washed away.’ He also claims that the insurers are undervaluing stock. It seems an understatement when he says ‘we are having a lot of problems.’
John Amir of the bike shop Bon Velo (27 Half Moon Lane) reopened on 4th December: ‘122 days’ of closure, he says, all spent sorting out the shop.
On the morning when John heard about the flood, he said he thought it would only be a ‘bit of water – no big deal’. When he arrived it was a different story. But, he says: ‘I wasn’t totally overwhelmed, it was just a matter of fact that it happened so you just get on with it.’
For Bon Velo, keeping in touch with customers and being reliable in servicing bikes is imperative. ‘Really we won’t know until a year on to see if business has been harmed or whether we’ve lost any customers’ says John.
And many share these concerns over the long-term economic damage to the area. Chris Adnitt (Number 22) presents this starkly:
‘Herne Hill has always been an area that has struggled with its own identity. The Half Moon Lane side of things is a hangover from Dulwich Village whereas when you cross under the railway bridge, the Brixton influence can be felt. The terrible road layout and traffic issues further conspire to carve the area up. I feel like many Herne Hill regulars will have been pulled to either the centre of Brixton or Lordship Lane in East Dulwich – it may be difficult to get those people back.’
This brings into sharp relief the letter from Southwark Council to Thames Water asking it to help repair the damage ‘not just to the buildings, but to the life and soul of the area.’
Many shop owners said that community support has been fundamental in getting back on track. Vicky Brown of toy shop Just Williams (18 Half Moon Lane) which lost around £40,000 in stock from its basement, says that the flood ‘brought the community closer together.’ ‘Support from our customers has been amazing,’ she says, ‘they’ve really shown their loyalty.’
Vicky also believes that the impact of the flood has ‘brought a lot of the shops together’ and built a stronger network between them. Speaking to the businesses, it’s clear that the fact that so many were thrown in at the deep end together provided a basis for communication and mutual support.
Some shop owners have sought to make the best of the situation.
Mimosa’s Jan and Patricia set about reorganising the shop space: ‘We took the opportunity of replanning the layout and flow to make it more compatible with customer patterns. We are really pleased with how it has turned out.’
Just Williams invested in new internal facilities for their kitchen area, and Ken Gangadeen says that he ‘redesigned the front of the shop a little bit to make it more visible.’
Similarly, for Kindred Bakery, Ben says that the flood damage ‘pushed us into looking for a bigger bakery to move forward with the wholesale because we are at capacity. So it’s helped us in that way, but retail-wise we’re about a third down from what we should be.’
Some small relief has also arrived in unexpected ways. When Anthony Kindred (Ben’s father and owner of Kindred Bakery) complained on Twitter that traffic wardens were driving away the scant business which was coming to Herne Hill as well as making life difficult for the builders repairing the shops: the council responded.
Anthony, whose family have been bakers since the 1600s and who is President of the Craft Bakers Association, tweeted: “Why does Southwark council send traffic wardens to Half Moon Lane all day. We’re trying to recover from flooding.”
Having picked up on his tweets, Southwark Council announced that there would be an amnesty on parking tickets in the street’s bays until further notice.
Such little gestures not only make a material difference – they are an important symbol of support and solidarity with local people and locally-owned businesses.
The future of this vibrant community-focused area is still unclear. But the overwhelming feeling from speaking to so many shop owners is the stoicism and determination to make it work.
As Chris Adnitt (Number 22) says: ‘on the one hand I feel like 9 years of hard work has been wiped out – on the other hand this is a chance for a new beginning.’
With footfall down and some businesses still closed, the lifeblood of this hub of independent shops must come from all of us. It is in times like this that communities which cherish local businesses must galvanise: putting our money where our mouth is, and rebuilding the life and soul of this community as they have rebuilt their businesses.