On Saturday morning I stepped out into the street after climbing out of bed at the crack of 10.30 only to spy police cars and a small crowd at the top of the street. Asking a neighbour what the fuss was I was told that the road had been closed because of the sink hole. Now get that phrase right, it was the sink hole not a sink hole, the implication being that everybody knew about it, as should I. Scratching my head and squinting my bleary eyes I considered going back to bed but decided this was the sort of thing that I really ought to pay attention to, but not until after breakfast. If my neighbours and I were going to tumble into the Hell Mouth as seen on everything from Hollywood blockbusters to the recent documentary on Florida’s sink holes, I was going to make sure I didn’t have an empty stomach. Who knows what dining opportunities there are in Hell, although I imagine they are tastier than those in Heaven. (Heaven for the weather, Hell for the company as the song goes and I imagine that applies to their eateries too.)
Before long there was all manner of kafuffle going on outside including a helicopter hovering in a position that seemed to be just outside my front window and, strangely, there is one again as I write my account two days later. Let’s hope, then, that having spent the weekend doing more interesting things this is still early enough for me to jump on the topical bandwagon.
Taking a wander up the road it turned out that the hole was really close, less-than-those-signs-on-the-motorway-that-say-it’s-300-yards-to-the-junction close. I’d say the thing is 250 yards away on the corner of a street of new houses built less than five years ago. There wasn’t much to see apart from some guy in hi-vis clothing apparently digging a hole, which didn’t seem to be very sensible no matter how you considered it. The various nice policemen didn’t really have much to say other than that they’d evacuated seventeen houses and that things were now under control.
Returning home I was on the phone to a concerned relative when a neighbour came into the room and interrupted, suggesting that she’d been told that we might have to evacuate. Suddenly I found myself thinking of the vast house swallowing sink holes in Florida as described on a BBC Horizon documentary only two weeks ago.
Apparently the problem in Florida is a layer of clay on top of porous, water soluble, rock, often limestone. The houses are built on the clay which remains stable while water, over thousands of years, erodes the rock beneath. Eventually the rock is no longer sufficient to support the remaining clay which collapses when it either dries and cracks or softens at times of high rain fall and drops into the void beneath. Hertfordshire is completely different to Florida in terms of landscape. Hertfordshire is hilly and temperate whereas Florida is flat and has alligators. However there are similarities in that Hertfordshire has chalk hills beneath a layer of clay instead of limestone as they have in Florida. When you begin to think about it it’s surprising that Hertfordshire isn’t more known for sink holes as chalk is considerably softer than limestone, more porous and, you might imagine, more easily washed away. Could there really be voids beneath us?
It seems sink holes are becoming more frequent occurrences and the recent spate of them in the UK are ascribed to the extraordinary amount of rain we’ve had this winter. In many cases it seems that the clay itself has washed away and in some places there might have been in filled clay pits that have opened up again. With all the recent rain the culprit would seem clear but there is talk of a water leak. Judging by the size of the hole you might imagine that there would have to be a lot of water leaking for a long time.
So the neighbour interrupting my phone call with the single word ‘evacuation’ lent an air of credible fear to what had until then been a curiosity at a safe distance. A 35ft wide hole twenty feet deep is no concern but add an official hint of further evacuation, even at this apparently safe distance, and the imagination runs wild. My mind began to visualise thoughts that I’d not had since they switched on the Large Hadron Collider with the consolation that if the world got sucked into a black hole at least France would be sucked in a few seconds before Britain. From the mention of possible evacuation my 250 yards of safety collapsed into nothingness. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door with a policeman asking me to move my car from the road because of the congestion. He could have been asking me anything but in that moment he triggered a full evacuation panic complete with thoughts of, ‘What could I live without?’ and, ‘What should I absolutely take with me?’ Strangely my physical possessions seemed unimportant and I was mostly concerned with my PC, software and data. What does that say about me?
Moving the car, as I prepared to load-up never to return, I found myself encountering sinkhole tourists. Talking to the police later it turned out that there hadn’t been any advice regarding further evacuations and my neighbour had merely been told by a policeman that if he was in this situation he’d have a bag packed ready to leave.
Having said that even the mistaken experience of having to leave and wondering what to save brings the whole experience home to you and it makes you feel for the poor souls who have had to get out of their homes at a moment’s notice. One resident told the story of not even being able to grab her purse. What must that do to your life when your home contains everything you own and is your place of refuge?
Running away to Colchester until the following day I watched the excellent new Lego Movie, which interestingly turns upon the main character, Emmet, falling down a sink hole where he begins his journey to become a hero, his perceptions are challenged, he transforms, and so the world transforms with him. It’s a brilliant film, you don’t have to have kids, I don’t and I still had a great time. If you ever had Lego as a kid, and who didn’t, you’ll enjoy to it even if it’s recognising the colours of the original bricks.
Leaving the film is was still early so we wandered around Colchester thinking about pubs and beer and soon headed for the excellent music venue The Bull. It you don’t know The Bull it’s a proper old fashioned live music venue with bands in the main pub and a second stage in The Soundhouse out the back. Colchester seems to have a thriving live music scene, something that Hemel Hempstead once had but that seems to have been killed after the changes in public entertainment regulations some years ago. The judgemental blue noses of Hemel have finished off the local music scene and left us with a soulless town with nothing going on other than bars that are little more than corporate run alcohol warehouses while Colchester is thriving and vibrant.
The main bar in The Bull was just a little too packed so we tried out the back. Walking into the Soundhouse we found the excellent cover band The Kicks playing a truly brilliant selection of mod, punk and rock. Their performance was tight and energetic with tracks mostly taken from the seventies and early eighties with a bit of leeway for the best tracks from decades either side. When they dropped in a couple of Blur tracks or other more recent material the fit was perfect. If anything the crowd didn’t seem to appreciate what they were listening too, as their response to The Kicks’ impassioned rendition of All or Nothing (Small Faces) was a bit lukewarm. But perhaps I’m older than I’m prepared to admit and the rest of the audience didn’t have the same association with the music. Talking to the band after, swapping stories of Steve Marriot (late lead singer of the Small Faces), I happened to mention that I’d come all the way from Hemel to see them and it seemed news of our local sink hole had reached Colchester. Okay that wasn’t strictly true as I’d come over to see the film and generally have a night out, The Kicks were serendipity.
Over night it had occurred to me that we used to talk of subsidence but these days we speak of sinkholes. Returning home on Sunday the house was still there, as were the police. The nice policeman sitting in the car playing with his iPhone (because he had little else to do) said that the engineers had explained that subsidence is the movement of land whereas sinkholes were already there. In this case nobody had been prepared to commit either way. I was particularly pleased, when I looked over towards the hole, to see another three policemen gingerly venturing towards the edge of the Hell Mouth to get a better view.
Indeed there was a hole, and the police were looking into it.
Just goes to show when escaping a sink hole, the only way is Essex.
The road reopened today after nine months. If I ever find out any more about what they spent so long filling in I’ll post an update. If anyone else has any information I’d be grateful if you could post it here.