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Twas a very, very wet year!

By john workman  |  Posted: January 13, 2013

THe River Stour in flood, Christmas Eve 2012.

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Precipitation is a meteorological term that describes any product of the condensation of atmospheric water vapour that falls under gravity, whether it be drizzle, rain, sleet, snow or hail. But no matter how much you dress it up, those who live in England have experienced more of it in 2012 than any previous year since official Met Office records began in 1910.

Streams and rivers provide the land with a network of natural drainage that under normal circumstances can cope with average amounts of rainfall. But when rain arrives in sudden downpours, such as during summer thunder storms or after prolonged and abnormally wet weather, the like of which we experienced last year, rivers either swell quickly to create flash floods, or grow steadily and inundate floodplains. And when land further afield is already waterlogged, any natural drainage through the soil becomes impossible and flood water spreads quickly.

These days almost every new weather front that brings rain seems to trigger floods somewhere in the country, and according to weather experts and the scientists who are continually assessing data they receive on climate change, we will have to get used to a milder, wetter climate in the future.

We thought long and hard about how best we could sum up 2012 as a record wet year, and in the end turned towards the Black Country's very own River Stour, a water course that can boast the destruction of one of the Dark Region's most famous historical sites; and yet reveal a natural beauty where it joins forces with the Mousesweet Brook.

Rising from the Clent Hills and fed by several header streams, the length of the Stour and all its tributaries equals a total of 130 miles before it reaches the River Severn at Stourport, and it is a river that can change character very quickly, from a babbling brook to a surging torrent. Although there are few geological obstacles en route to the Severn, its deep gorging of the underlying sandstone promotes an extremely fast flow when fed by heavy rain.

During the Black Country's industrial heyday the River Stour was reputed to have supported more industry per mile along its banks than any other river in the country. But we have to go back to the early years of the 17th century to reveal the day the river's awesome power destroyed historically important Cradley Forge. Sandwiched between modern day Quarry Bank and Cradley Heath, Cradley Forge was the site of probably the earliest significant metal working to take place on the river.

It was Dud Dudley, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Dudley, who managed the forge and made considerable quantities of iron, including bar iron for muskets and carbines, and iron for great bolts fit for shipping, by burning pit coal. So prolific were his manufactured wares, that he had to send samples to the Tower of London for scrutiny.

But whilst riding high on a wave of success making iron by burning pit coal instead of charcoal, it was another wave, this time forged by nature, that brought devastating consequences to the forge on May Day, 1623. The time of day that a great swell from the River Stour completely destroyed the forge and swept all before it isn't known; nor is the weather that prevailed at the time.

However, weather observations recorded around the country at that time make interesting reading; for instance, the previous year (1622) had produced inclement weather throughout, resulting in a poor harvest primarily caused by excessive rainfall. It was also noted that this had been the second very poor year in a row. The ground was probably saturated, as it is today, and any excessive rain would have combined to flood the land rather than be absorbed by the soil. According to observations, the south of England experienced a very hot and dry summer in 1623 which could well have sparked thunderstorms. We have therefore forged our own scenario about what happened on that infamous May Day in 1623 ...

The forge was probably at a standstill because of May Day celebrations, and a warm, late spring day slowly built towards a thunderous conclusion by the afternoon. The Clent Hills just a few miles away, still sodden from two years of excessive rainfall, couldn't deal with the thunderstorm when it struck.

Fuelled by water running off the fields a mighty wave began to make its way along the Stour Valley, collecting debris as it went and gathering speed. Everything in its path was swept away, and when it reached Cradley Forge the swollen River Stour showed no mercy, smashing into the timber buildings and carrying off all and sundry in its wake. The damage was so severe Dud Dudley was forced to abandon the site, never to return.

And the River Stour continues to bare its teeth at times of excessive rainfall. In a picture (courtesy of Jill Guest) taken in the early years of the 20th century, the swollen Stour occupies the attention of a group of Cradley folk who stand at the bottom of Little Hill, Lodge Forge, situated very close to the site of Dud Dudley's famous forge.

On May 9th 1908 the County Express reported, "In common with other localities on the banks of the Stour, Cradley Forge district suffered from Sunday's flood. The Stour rose to such a height that by Lodge Forge Inn the road was submerged. The flood invaded the Warm Pool and all the traffic was stopped.

Rising above a four foot wall, the water flooded the works of Messrs. F. Hipkiss & Co. The yards of some of the low-lying houses were invaded by the waters, the flood reaching the doorsteps of the houses."

 It would appear that excessive rainfall and floods are nothing new.

jworkman@ blackcountrybugle.co.uk

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