Storm Desmond and me: Zoe Gilbert

Wordsworth House surrounded by flood water on 5 December 2015

Zoe Gilbert was looking after her new-born twins when floods hit Cockermouth in November 2009. Those floods devastated Wordsworth House and Garden, Cockermouth – as well as leaving Zoe homeless for five months. Six years on, the Wordsworth House visitor experience manager and her team were better prepared when floods crashed over river defences.

What impact did Storm Desmond have at Wordsworth House last December?

This was the second big flood we’ve had in ten years. In 2009 we were flooded significantly; our garden terrace split in two, walls were down, trees were left close to collapse, and debris was strewn across the garden.

Two weeks before Storm Desmond arrived, we’d stocked up on sandbags after being warned of another storm. After 2009 the Environment Agency had put in many flood defence measures in Cockermouth, but by 4.30pm on Saturday 5 December, the river was flowing over the top of the flood gates adjacent to Wordsworth House.

The house is mostly closed over winter – but staff still came out to help move furniture and shop stock upstairs. John Wordsworth’s massive wooden desk, which William would have known when he lived here in the 1770s, was dismantled and heaved to the second floor.

By about 6.30pm we had to leave. It was pitch black and a stream was running through the visitor reception. In the back courtyard the floodwater was thigh-deep. Sandbags floated uselessly around our legs.

What have you been doing since December 2015 to fix the damage?

We couldn’t get into the house until Monday morning. The police had cordoned off the area and flood waters remained high.

I had to get in over the garden wall. The gardens and cellars were still underneath three feet of water. Our shop stock had been left floating in the flood water. When the floodwater drained away, our garden was left under a thick layer of mud.

Wordsworth House garden after the December 2015 flood
Wordsworth House garden after the December 2015 flood

Our brilliant team of staff and volunteers went into action mode straight away. Having already cleared up after 2009’s flood, it was slightly easier second time around.

We did a lot of the clear up ourselves. Local volunteers from Cockermouth helped our gardener, Amanda, clear mud and branches from our walled garden. If you’d seen the stunning display of flowers over the summer you wouldn’t have been able to tell that the floods had happened. She was so happy to win a Cumbria in Bloom award this year, which is a testament to their hard work.

The kitchen garden at Wordsworth House is filled with heritage varieties
The heritage garden at Wordsworth House

What are you doing next?

Before Storm Desmond, everyone thought that the 2009 floods would be a once in a century event. If these floods are going to occur regularly, we’ve got to think about how you can adapt and be more flood-resilient.

Cockermouth has the confluence of the rivers Cocker and Derwent at the heart of the town. Wordsworth House, William childhood home, is vulnerable to being trapped between two torrents.

An expert on flood resilience visited us recently and pointed out that it was likely the building was designed to be flood resistant: the lime-washed walls can be washed down and repainted, while porous, stone-flagged floors let the floodwater water drain out.

We’re now working to see if we can flood-proof the modern areas of the house. We’ve rendered the toilet block and the new cubicles are made of water-resistant material, so that if we flood again we can just hose it down. We’re currently exploring whether it is possible to fit custom-made flood gates for our visitor reception and Discovery Room.

It’s not an easy fix, as our building and walls are Grade I listed, but we have to continue working to find the best solution for the long-term protection of this special property.