diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 02, 2022

It's two weeks since the village of Wennington became the unwilling poster child for UK climate change. On Tuesday morning it was a little-known row of houses on the far edge of the capital. On Wednesday morning it was on all the newspaper front pages burning to the ground.

Wennington's an extraordinary village in many respects. Historic enough that it has a 13th century church. Linear enough that everyone lives on a single side of a single street. Peripheral enough that Essex (or rather Thurrock) starts at the end of the road. Remote enough that it's entirely surrounded by nothing much. Estuarine enough that a huge swathe of Thames marshes is named after it. Connected enough that it gets three buses an hour from Hornchurch. Disconnected enough that two railway lines speed straight past. Substantial enough that I wrote seven paragraphs about it in 2014. And strategic enough that the only employer in the village is a fire station, which given what just happened is as ironic as it gets.

I left it a while and took a look.

It's quite shocking to see a row of houses completely burnt out. These are Marine Cottages, or rather were Marine Cottages because all nine are now uninhabitable. The worst affected are at the eastern end of the terrace - charred roofless shells with the entire upstairs missing and a pile of blackened rubble inches deep across the floor. A few are boarded up but others still have mattresses, cables and ash-coated detritus on display and a clear view through empty windows to the marshes beyond.

It's thought the fire started in a compost heap and crept up to Marine Cottages via their back gardens, so most of the frontage retains its pebbledash, its meter cupboards and its ornamental lanterns. Pretty much all the roofs have gone. At the eastern end of the terrace the destruction is marginally less severe, maybe more from water damage but uninhabitable all the same. And as if to demonstrate how some got supremely lucky, the Old Post Office nextdoor appears unscathed and is still very much home to whoever was belting out loud music at the weekend.

This is Kent View, a run of 20 terraced cottages whose backyards look out across the Thames towards the Dartford Marshes. Sixteen of them also got lucky but the wind whipped round the rear of numbers 17-20 and they too burned out. It's jarring to see roofless brick furnaces with freestanding chimneystacks, while a few doors down a thankful resident unloads a week's shopping from their car.

The church of St Mary and St Peter escaped the conflagration but its churchyard wasn't so fortunate. The medieval building is now completely surrounded by charred grass, which is the natural end state of a tinder dry expanse when a heatwave blaze comes visiting. But don't worry unnecessarily, the fire didn't wipe out a mass of graves because this corner of the churchyard was only ever really grass, and the obelisk dedicated to a Huguenot mathematician is still legibly intact.

Laundry Cottages are fine. Halldare Cottages are fine. Almost all of the semis round The Green are fine too. But numbers 19-22 weren't so lucky as yet another tongue of flame approached from behind and took them out. 19 is still recognisably a house but 20 nextdoor has substantially disassembled. You have to feel particularly sorry for the owners of numbers 21 and 22. Set back up a short drive they were a literal stone's throw from the fire station, but also perilously nearer to the marshes which meant even proximity to the emergency services couldn't save them.

Of the 80 or so properties along Wennington Road about 20% were rendered uninhabitable by the fire that broke out on Britain's hottest day. The vast majority of residents got to live another day in the village they call home. But what's made really clear if you walk through the village today is how that destruction acted like a lottery, targeting four separate locations with conflagration and leaving those inbetween untouched.

Before all this happened, the greatest risk to Wennington from climate change looked like being rising sea levels. The main street's barely five metres above the Thames and entirely unprotected by any kind of flood defence, so a storm surge whipped up from a warming sea could ultimately do the place real damage. But what 19th July showed us is that nowhere surrounded by vegetation is truly safe, and it only takes once-rare drought, once-impossible heat and a little bit of wind to lay a village low.

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