I have been a city dweller for most of my life but my early childhood was rural with a herd of Friesian cows as immediate neighbours and the woods closer than the village shops. With such a background, The Archers has always felt like catching up with old friends and it was a terrible shock when the village suffered a devastating flood in March 2015. Time was suspended, in Ambridge at least, as the events of a single night were dramatised over several episodes. After the waters subsided the causes and consequences of the flood continued to be explored, intensely at first then periodically, as the village recovered and reflected.
Individual and community stories can be a useful source of information for understanding flood events but need to be used with care to ensure that they do not compromise privacy, security or wellbeing. This makes a dramatised story, where the reactions and responses of fictional characters can be explored in detail, very useful as the basis for considering how resilience measures might be developed and deployed.
One aspect of the flood that has been revisited has been the involvement of a certain Rob Titchener. He had been implicated in blocking a culvert that contributed to the extent of the flooding; he had been reluctant to help with rescue then hailed a hero for his actions; and there was suspicion over his involvement in the fate of a dog, Scruff, as well as the later disappearance of a migrant worker, Stefan. These were woven in to the larger scenario of his coercive relationship with Helen Archer, which reached a shocking conclusion last year.
It was as this story played out, that I discovered Academic Archers - a forum where storylines were discussed not just for their entertainment value but by experts with an intellectual interest in the storylines. So when a call for papers to be presented at a second conference was made, just days after characters had been discussing the drying times of their properties near the River Am, I took a deep breath and submitted an abstract.
By fortuitous timing, the Flood Resilient House at BRE Watford was launched just a week before the conference. Speaking to assembled built environment and insurance professionals before opening the house, Emma Howard-Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, emphasised the need for personal responsibility and welcomed the project as an opportunity to demonstrate and test solutions.
This provided some useful details and photographs to use in my talk alongside mapping from fan fiction. The house also featured on BBC Countryfile the next day though I am not sure how many of the audience will have seen it as the first section (08:30-16:30) was during the Sunday evening episode of The Archers!
Every student is different but mature students have had more time than most to accumulate differences! In my case, I have returned to study having worked in practice, qualified as a Chartered Structural Engineer, had children and taught at a post-92 University. But in each stage of this traverse through my portfolio career, I have been grateful for the support and inspiration of the Institution of Structural Engineers. This has included, but by no means been limited to, technical talks offering a window on others' experience. It is perhaps easy to take these for granted with the luxury of a choice of research seminars and talks on campus almost every week, but for Engineers outside research-intensive Universities the talks provide a valuable connection and opportunity for professional development. However, as a parent, it can be difficult to attend meetings, even when they are local. Six pm starts are great for those able to go straight from work but are not so easy when the logistics of juggling after school and evening childcare means dashing home before hand!
So I was delighted to see that the Institution of Structural Engineers President’s Inaugural Address this year was to be made available on Livestream. It was still challenging to get the children rounded up and fed for 6pm so it was a few minutes after that I tuned in but without the embarrassment of clunking doors and finding the last remaining seat. And as a remote viewer, fire evacuation procedures were of limited relevance in any case! By the time 2017 President, Ian Firth, started speaking, I was happily settled and beginning to appreciate further benefits. As a shorter than average Engineer, I am used to seeing only part of presentation slides unless the lecture theatre has a particularly generous rake or I have managed to get right to the front. This time I could see every slide and hear every word. The talk itself was interesting and entertaining; well worth catching up with as a webinar if you missed it live.
But an unexpected benefit of an evening webinar was revealed later. I’ve previously tended to join lunchtime events, linking to ICE Yorkshire for Jenny Cooke’s "Lunch and Learn" talk on Communicating Climate Change (still available) and to the BRE for an update on Peter Bonfield’s Property Flood Resilience Action Plan. These took place whilst my children were at school but with an evening meeting they were at home. My son first walked through as pictures of buildings following natural disasters were on the screen. He quickly concluded that Structural Engineers were not yet rivalling Danger Mouse in keeping London safe and returned to the TV. However, about a quarter of an hour later he rejoined me, just as Ian Firth was talking about the need for bridges in poor developing societies. This really grabbed his attention, not just because the children were of a similar age but because he also relies on a bridge for his daily walk to and from school, across the River Frome in Bristol.
Hapenny Bridge across the River Frome, Bristol
He continued to watch with me through to the end, though was rather dismissive of the Robot Bridge Building as he’d seen it all before on Dick & Dom’s Absolute Genius: Monster Builds! The next day on our walk to school, we were able to discuss the talk further and think about how he would improve the bridge. This led rather neatly into a weekend where we saw both Second Severn Crossing and the Clifton Suspension Bridge from unusual perspectives.
A privileged view of the Second Severn Crossing
So thank you IStructE for allowing me the opportunity to see such an interesting talk - and thank you Ian Firth for inspiring not only me but a 10 year old who is already considering whether he might be able to follow Brunel beyond the Avon Gorge.
An edited version of this blog is available on the IStructE website