FEATURE: Singing in the Rain – How Todmorden’s 100 year old theatre fought against the floods

THE Christmas Holidays have been a grim reminder to the people of the Calder Valley, showing us just how powerless we can be in the face of mother nature. However, the spirit and support shown over the last few weeks has been incredible with stories popping up from all over the North of people coming together to help each other out in the floods. This is one of those stories.

The Todmorden Hippodrome is one of the largest community run theatres in Britain, over 100 years old and run by charity group Taods – the Todmorden Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society. In the last 15 years it has been flooded 4 times. the worst of which being in 2000 – which caused £200,000 worth of damage.
Throughout December, Todmorden has had flood warning after flood warning and after seeing the flooding in Cumbria, many locals were preparing for the worst. The News had been warning them about Storm Eva and on Christmas Eve the Environment Agency called and messaged people throughout the area, warning them that what was coming was going to be immense.

With sandbags at the ready and pumps in working order, people braced for the floods. Calder Valley – and the Hippodrome – prepared itself to weather the approaching storm…

“The rain came down like we’d never seen it before” says Steve Clarkson, lead set designer at the theatre. On Christmas Day the water began pouring down from the valleys, causing the river to rise and parts of Todmorden to go without power as the electricity cut out. However, for many people, Christmas Day continued as normal, the rain after all was incredibly deceptive – not so heavy as to cause drama or shut everything down – but constant and persistent.

For 18 hours it poured and warnings from the Environment Agency kept coming, with the level increasing each time. By 7pm on Christmas Day, flood sirens were sounding throughout the Valley. Though parts of town were flooded it seemed as if it wasn’t going to be too bad, it looked as though it would be a similar flood to the ones that Todmorden has become used to over the years.
The river was high and the rain was strong but the weather began to die down into the night, it seemed as though the new flood defences had done their job. Though wet, Christmas Day had come and gone without major problems. Most people in town went to sleep believing that things would look better in the morning.

A small band of volunteers, however, decided it was better to play safe than sorry with the theatre – throughout the night they moved anything and everything they could from the lower stages of the Hippodrome to the safer levels above the stage. While other people slept, they moved costumes, boxes, equipment and curtains, makeup, ironing boards… Everything that they could get their hands on. By the early hours of the morning, the rain had returned and this time it was relentless.

Volunteers try to move everything they can to above ground in preparation of the storm - photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome
Volunteers try to move everything they can to above ground in preparation of the storm – photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome

By 7am Todmorden was filled with a cacophony of noise – phones ringing, flood sirens blaring and water flowing through the streets. The River Calder had broken its banks.

“All the sounds seemed to be of water,” said one of the Hippodrome’s actors, who wishes to remain anonymous, “as if the world was newly given over to water and humanity was being edged out.”
The messages from the Environment Agency this time weren’t giving warnings about the weather, they were telling people to evacuate for their own safety.

“The worst thing about the floods was seeing people have to be evacuated from their homes,” says Beth Sutcliffe, 18, “families who’d just celebrated Christmas Day having to choose what possessions they could keep was heart breaking. There was just so much water that no one could do anything.”

The water was rising quickly and the theatre began to fill with water. Taods volunteers that arrived early in the morning found that the dressing rooms had already started to flood.

A youth theatre volunteer stares at the flooded dressing rooms - photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome
A youth theatre volunteer stares at the flooded dressing rooms – photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome

The water in the river, being held back by the town’s new flood defences, was now 5 feet above the theatre’s ground floor. With the sewer grids backed up and the river full to capacity, the rest of the water had nowhere to go but inside.

A steady stream of volunteers arrived at the Hippodrome with their Boxing Day plans on hold to salvage and protect everything they could.

“By 9am the level of the water in the dressing rooms had passed the electric meters and fuse board” says Steve Clarkson, 40, “We decided we had to abandon that part of the theatre, we just couldn’t risk the safety of our volunteers.

“As we watched we could see the water level rise and steadily go past the levels they’d reached in 2000. Looking out onto Halifax Road we could see the water rising and the street outside the theatre was fully covered in flood water.”

The dressing rooms flooded with water - photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome
The dressing rooms flooded with water – photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome

At 10 o’clock the water started to flood into the theatre, despite the sandbags it breached the main door, the fire exits and every entrance it could find, pouring inside and trapping itself in the lower levels. “It was possible to actually stand there and watch the water level rise,” Steve Clarkson says.

The flood walls were still holding the bank-broken River Calder back at this point, all of the water hitting the town had been surface water – unable to find a way to escape and thereby filling up the Valley like a bucket. But, at around 10:30 the river burst its banks on Rochdale road, flowing like a white water torrent around the Golden Lion and directly into the Canal.

“The water was so dirty” said Bobby Begrazzi, 17, “It was like raw sewage and everything from upstream that wasn’t nailed down seemed to be with it.

“I’m pretty sure I saw parts of a shed and even a fridge flowing through the river”

A teen tries to keep his feet dry as the flooded water fills the park - photo credit Craig Shaw
A teen tries to keep his feet dry as the flooded water fills the park – photo credit Craig Shaw

With both the rainwater and the River Calder flowing directly into it, the canal became a torrent, flowing faster than even the river and bursting at the seams.

“I saw the water come cascading across the car park of the Medical Centre and Lidl Superstore opposite” says Steve Clarkson, “I realised we were now in serious trouble. It was coming towards us like a tsunami.

“There was nothing we could do to save the theatre from more damage,” he continues “all we could do was stand by and watch. If we didn’t have those flood defences, we’d have been knackered – it would have come above our heads!”

It was a heart breaking scene as the flood water undid thousands of hours of volunteer work spent on restoring the theatre: the stalls seats were submerged, the foyer was flooded – destroying the new disabled toilets the theatre had only installed 2 years ago – and water levels were so high that the walls (only repainted in September) were soaked. As Steve puts it: “There was nothing that could be done to stop it.”

All the seats in the stalls were damaged by flood water and will need to be replaced - photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome
All the seats in the stalls were damaged by flood water and will need to be replaced – photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome

The flood damage was far worse than the flood of 2000 but the new defences had done their job. The river wall had held back flood waters that would have seen the water reaching the first floor of many houses. By 10pm the water was receding again, leaving behind nothing but a thick layer of mud and sewage.

Todmorden had been devastated by the floods but its community had become stronger, by the very next day the town hall had become a crisis centre, clean-up had begun and people from all walks of life were working together to help recover from the tragedy. “It really brought the community together,” says Bobby Bregazzi, “people were helping others no matter who they were, if you needed food, there was loads. All in all, I thought it was pretty exciting, nothing interesting ever happens round here.”

The Hippodrome was no exception to the generosity, on the 29th of December volunteers from Todmorden, Littleborough and all over Calder Valley came to help the theatre recover everything caught in the flood.
“When I heard the theatre flooded yet again my heart sank,” says Martin Cook, executive and artistic director of the Hippodrome’s youth group, “I’ve been a member of the theatre since I was 10 years old, I had to help out but seeing the sheer number of members who came to help us salvage what we could was overwhelmingly heartening.”

It wasn’t long before the theatre was packed with volunteers, old members, new ones, some had even brought family members along to help out. A human chain went from the foyer entrance all the way up to the top of the circle, people were darting in and out of backstage moving anything they could, even the sweets from the tuck shop managed to be recovered.

A line of volunteers moves equipment from the flooded storage to safety - photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome
A line of volunteers moves equipment from the flooded storage to safety – photo credit Todmorden Hippodrome

“There were so many people there that we were all done within an hour and a half” says Martin “and without anyone having to do huge amounts individually – as they say many hands make light work.
“It’ll be a tough few months but the Hippodrome will bounce back, bigger and better than ever.”

It isn’t all good news though, as of writing the theatre is still wet, damp and without power as proper work has not begun. Steve Clarkson says ” It’s even harder this time than in 2000, even things as simple as getting the dehumidifiers organised is difficult as so much of the North West is flood damaged that there aren’t enough to go round.”

Thankfully the Hippodrome is insured but this possibly could be the last time. “We’ve now had 5 floods in the last 15 years, says Steve “and this was the worst one in our history.”

The Hippodrome isn’t the only building in Todmorden with these worries: insurance companies have already stopped offering home contents cover to properties that are known flood risks.

Fears are growing throughout Calder Valley that as our towns are flooding more and more frequently, the insurance companies – already charging high amounts because of the flood damage – may end up dropping our towns altogether.

“House insurance prices have become ridiculous in Todmorden with the amount of floods,” says Chris Stott, a member of the theatre, “we’re having to forget about being covered and start relying on help from each other instead.”

While the theatre waits for professional equipment and news of its future, members are trying to find alternative options for staging their productions: the theatre itself won’t be able to reopen until June.

Because of this February’s show of ‘Pyrenees’ and April’s production of ‘Sunshine on Leath’ have both had to be cancelled because of the floods while comedian Carl Hutchinson’s had to be relocated to Halifax Road Social Club for his show on the 28th.

Plans are also being put into place for events and trips so that members of the theatre can still get together: 19 members have had nominations in the National Operatic and Dramatic Association awards for the North West and shall be travelling to Blackburn at the end of January to see whether they’ve won.
Meanwhile, members are still showing up to help with the repair effort. The Todmorden Hippodrome may be closed for the time being, but the community spirit that breathed life into the 100 year old building is still going strong, despite the mess.

“I like to think of our volunteers as a large and slightly dysfunctional family,” says Steve, whose wife Helen, 18 year old daughter Jess and 15 year old son Isaac are all prominent members of the Hippodrome “and I know that we’ll be back stronger than ever; though maybe with a few more sandbags and a bigger pump this time!”

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