As a boy, William Wordsworth loved to play and read on the banks of the River Derwent, which flows past Wordsworth House. As an adult, he remembered it as ‘the fairest of all rivers’ and ‘a tempting playmate’. On November 19, 2009, the ‘playmate’ of his memory turned into a raging torrent.
After days of exceptionally heavy rain, it was running high and fast. By mid-morning, the bottom of the Georgian kitchen garden had started to flood.
By 2.30pm, the water was lapping at the back door of the house. Minutes later, it was pouring down the steps into the cellars, where mini geysers began spurting through the wall.
Shortly afterwards, the River Cocker, which joins the Derwent in the town centre, burst its banks, turning Main Street into another river.
The water was soon creeping up the steps towards Wordsworth House’s front door, which sits – thanks to the cellars – half a floor above ground level.
Running out of time
Realising the tide could soon be inside, the staff dismantled William’s father John’s desk and carried it up to the first floor.
A set of Hepplewhite dining chairs followed, but there was no time to save anything else – police officers on the opposite side of the road were yelling at everyone to leave before they were trapped.
They waded across the street to safety, not knowing when they would return or what they would find.
Before long, the water was almost three metres deep in parts of the town centre and flowing at up to 25mph. Hundreds of people had abandoned homes and businesses, but more than 500 were trapped.
The emergency services, armed forces, Mountain Rescue, RNLI, coastguard and inshore lifeboat combed the streets by boat and helicopter, plucking people from windows and roofs.
The water receded nearly as quickly as it had come, and by Monday morning staff were allowed back into the house.
A scene of devastation
Waiting nervously at the police cordon with other business people and householders, they could see that part of the front garden wall was gone and the eight-foot wooden gates had been ripped from their fixings and carried off.
Let through, they found a scene of devastation. The shop was wrecked. The front courtyard was almost impassable, and visitor reception was little better, with furniture and debris everywhere. Everything was coated with silt.
They rushed into the house to find a minor miracle – the water had reached halfway up the joists but no further. The air was horribly damp, but William’s home and its precious contents had survived.
Back outside, the sight of the once-lovely garden brought them up short. Huge chunks of wall were down, heritage plants had been torn out by the roots, and the tree-lined terrace where William played was open to the river, back wall gone and earth half sucked away.
The rushing water had woven brightly coloured wool from the local knitting shop around trees and bushes, and dumped booty from shops and homes.
They found dozens of DVDs, chocolate bars still in their wrappers, potatoes by the sack-load, animal feed and dog coats, women’s underwear and shoes, toys and baby clothes, and even a small chest of drawers and a wicker linen basket.
A mammoth undertaking
Bolstered by messages of support and offers of cash from around the world, the team put on their protective gear and got to work.
The air hummed with the sound of generators and pressure washers, as staff and volunteers removed barrow loads of slit and filled skips with everything from drowned plants to waterlogged computers.
The flood water had burst open several doors, making it impossible to secure the property, so for the first couple of nights someone had to camp in the building.
The team faced weeks of stripping out and emptying dehumidifiers, followed by weeks more of building work and refitting, but they never doubted they would get everything done.
At 2am on Saturday, March 13, 2010, the final section of panelling was put in place in the all-new visitor reception. Nine hours later, Wordsworth House and Garden reopened to the public, with a flood exhibition in the cellar and a children’s flood trail.
The great flood of Cockermouth is now as much a part of the Wordsworth House and Garden story as William Wordsworth, little boy who loved the River Derwent.