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Collapse and cohesion in Tadcaster

Tadcaster underwater
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As the RIBA prepares to launch a new exhibition on regenerating disaster zones, Flora Neville visits the flooded Yorkshire town 

The same night that the eighteenth century bridge across the River Wharfe in the North Yorkshire town of Tadcaster collapsed due to severe flooding in the area, I was Scottish reeling in the town’s community centre building, aptly named The Bridge.

The Bridge is ordinarily used by a Christian charity called the Lower Wharfe Ecumenical Youth Project for their social outreach work. The charity hosts various youth groups, holiday camps, drop-ins and support for single mothers, homeless youths, abused children, alcoholics and drug addicts. The Ceilidh was thrown on 28 December as a fundraiser for the building and the charity’s work.

Floor-length frocks trailing in the rain, we tottered along in the dark to The Bridge. There was the distinct smell of a hob left on as the bridge’s collapse, less than two hours earlier, had triggered a gas leak.

Soldiers, volunteers, photographers, reporters, evacuees and the glad-ragged dancers all negotiated their way round an improvised buffet in The Bridge that miraculously stretched to far more than the numbers it was originally intended to cater for. The seating plan was abandoned but the reeling went ahead.

A couple of weeks later, I found myself again in Tadcaster. Another wet and wind-swept walk landed us on the wrong side of the river for the Angel and the White Horse pub and unable to cross the bridge. It looked like it had been gouged by the engorged river. It will take a year to rebuild and £3.3 million which has just been granted to the town by the Government.

Collapsed Tadcaster bridge

Collapsed Tadcaster bridge

Tourists hoping for a Sam Smith’s pale ale must therefore venture through bramble hedges, knee-deep puddles, over various barbed wire fences and another, much higher bridge, to reach the high street and The Angel and the White Horse. The daily reality for locals who have to drive ten miles down a junction on the major A road to reach the supermarket, is a lot less exciting.

Sandbags are piled up too late on the doorsteps of the houses on the waterfront. Through the windows are devastated interiors; dark and dank and devoid of furniture. The pub, when we arrive, is empty despite the fact it’s Saturday night.

But the sense of community and mutual support as residents pull together is evident. The bar manager who lives above the pub says that locals have been taking each other in until their houses are inhabitable again. The pub’s cellar was ruined on Boxing Day, but by New Years’ Eve, the pub was back in operation. The man responsible for the Shire horses that are kept at the pub, took the horses from their flooding stables and up the road as the storm was in full swing. He stood with them until morning.

The light was fading on the high street as we passed through, and small business owners, and café and restaurant managers were sharing skills, biscuits and tea as they helped each other to patch up their livelihoods.

Next week, the exhibition Creation from Catastrophe opens at RIBA in London. It will explore the ways in which cities and communities are re-imagined and recreated in the wake of natural or man-made disasters, and how architecture fits in to that creation. The exhibition looks at plans from the Great Fire of London in 1666 to current day Nepal, Nigeria, Japan, Chile, Pakistan and the USA. It will explore, ‘a more collaborative way of working that relies on local expertise, materials and community spirit,’ says the press literature which, ‘inevitably results in an altered role for architectural authorship with architects acting as community facilitators.’

Had the exhibition been planned a little later, they might have featured Tadcaster. It is said that the bridge’s collapse has split the town in two. As a town, perhaps. As a community, not at all.

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