It was unusual for a Tuesday in April. Hot and muggy with a sky that couldn’t make up its mind between white and blue. Work was dull – 2004 wasn’t an exciting year, work wise. About six o’clock I gave up trying to struggle with a report written by a worthy if verbose junior and pulled on my cycling gear.
If London becomes intolerable – and I’m very patient with my city and its many failings – it is when it becomes so humid that the pavements sweat, the tarmac on the roads shimmer like black jelly and the passers by develop the complexion of flu victims – pallid, pasty and puce.
Wheeling my bike up the slope to the security gates I stopped to strap on my helmet and breathed in the air – like a mouthful of uncooked dough. I freewheeled down the one way street (the wrong way) and turned into Tudor Street, heading for Blackfriars Bridge. You knew a storm was coming but it was only as I eased out onto New Bridge Street and saw the yellow, apocalyptic sky to the south over Elephant & Castle that I realised it was going to be a humdinger.
April 27th 2004 and my part of South London experienced a 100 year deluge – 4 inches in 90 minutes. The whole of April’s average rain while a chicken roasted.
The first spots hit me as I left the death traps of the roundabout at Elephant and headed due south along the Walworth Road. The spits became drops became dollops as I pedalled the three miles to Denmark Hill and King’s hospital. Hail joined in as I rose from my seat and narrowed my eyes to climb the hill past Ruskin Park. Leaves and branches flooded back past me. The road had disappeared under the tide and the street lights strained to penetrate the gloom.
A point came when the water was so much that I couldn’t see; like I was underwater and blinking it away no longer worked. By now my clothes were soaked, my trainers full and my skin that slick oily texture you get if you spend too long in the bath. At least I wasn’t cold.
Once I’d crested the hill and turned onto Sunray Avenue things improved – the tree cover helped let me see at least – and I began to enjoy the novelty of skimming through a continual ford. No doubt it wasn’t safe; no doubt at any moment my wheels could have aquaplaned and I could have joined the flood.
Through the Village the roads were empty of people and traffic. At the entrance to Dulwich Park I stood, amazed as the sand from the horse rides was washed, like London’s own long-shore drift into the road. By now I really wanted to be home, under cover, watching this event remotely.
The last part of my journey takes me under a railway bridge. The dip down is some ten foot to give enough clearance for the many school coaches that pass by. The dip was full of water and in the middle sat a car, the water halfway up the door. I had no other way home and I was so wet I thought, ‘sod it’; I climbed off and waded into the grim lake to push my bike to the farside. I thought momentarily about the car owner, wondering where they were. I soon found out. The driver, a women of about thirty, sat inside, staring ahead. She jumped when I tapped on the window and wound it down a crack.
A nod that told a different story.
‘You sure you don’t want to get out?’ I’m no engineer and I guessed the water would never reach a dangerous level but even so.
‘I can’t. The water will ruin the car.’
‘You could climb out of the window.’
The ‘that’ was of course what I was standing in, a murky brown syrupy soup that swirled and eddied around my legs; it was oddly warming.
‘I’ll wait for my husband.’ The window went back up.
I stood there, up to my thighs in both dirty water and a dilemma. On the one hand, it seemed safe enough to leave her. I doubted the water would rise so far as to reach the windows and anyway the seals must be fine or she would have said. On the other there is a pub, the Alleyn’s Head just past the bridge. If I could get her out she could shelter in the dry and safety. And it did seem a bit mad to stay outside when you weren’t sure what the weather might throw at you next.
Sometimes I get these mad ideas, a mix of showing off and altruism. The car was a small one – Nissan Micra or something and I’m a big strong boy (in my head at least). I tapped again. ‘Let the handbrake off and I’ll try and push you out of the water.’ I remember her looking at me for the first time. Not exactly pity, not exactly gratitude. More a sort of ‘well, there’s nothing else on the telly tonight’ look.
I took part in a competition once, as a boy scout when we had to lift a dead weight, a car I think and prop it up with bricks. Someone – the Archaeologist probably – knew the only way we would be strong enough was to put our backs to the car, and push with our legs. It worked. So I did the same. I had a number of doubts – I wanted to be called Thomas when I was a child – my parents gave the Archaeologist a middle name and omitted to give me one and to assuage my jealousy and hurt they added in Thomas for a few years until I decided I didn’t care (I did, I just hid it well). Doubting Thomas of Dulwich, that was me: would my footing slip? What exactly was in the water that had collected here? It was opaque and things brushed past my legs constantly, which might be twigs and leaves or even the flotsam and jetsam of schoolboy littering, but might equally be something less attractive.
The car began to move and the water gurgled and sucked at my legs. I felt good. This was going to work. Slowly, inexorably me and the car climbed the slope as one, until the water dropped below my calves and I could make out my socks. I heard the window go down and called for the driver to put the brake back on.
The driver’s door was clear of the lake and the woman climbed out, unfurling a brolly. I still don’t think she trusted my motives because she backed away quite quickly, albeit with a couple of hastily expressed thank yous and made for the sanctuary of the pub. I smiled and ‘no problem’ed after her.
With her gone and the car safe, I took a deep breath and turned for my bike. As my feet came free of the water, I looked down; sitting on the top of the laces of my trainers, glinting in the sodium glow of a street lamp sat a slick, apparently freshly-minted turd.
Was that what the woman saw? Is that why she didn’t want to stay? I flicked it off and headed home. At least there I could bath in clean water.
All this came back to me today, walking around Dulwich and Belair Parks with Dog. Both parks are currently a mess due to the flood alleviation works being undertaken in part as a response to the 2004 floods but also the Herne Hill floods of 2013, albeit their cause was man made – a Thames water main gave way. At least this disruption might save me from a repeat of that wet night and its faecal aftermath.