Rivers of York

Probably most well known nationally for bursting its banks, the River Ouse is 52 miles long and bisects the city, over the years aiding the city’s progress – and occasionally its periodic demise from unwanted and fearful ‘travellers’ such as the Black Death and the Danish invaders.

Nowadays it provides leisure amenities: fishing, canoeing and rowing, boat trips, strolls by its banks and pleasant scenery for the observer from many of its wonderful bridges, and every July the York Rivers Festival. For many the flooding potential of the Ouse holds fear; York’s centre has seen this realised many times, in spite of flood defences, bringing major disruption for roads and businesses.  Thanks for Ian of Jorvik for this info.

History of flooding:

1263 Floodwater rampages down North Street as far as the junction of Bridge Street and Ouse Bridge.

1316 Floods hold York Castle to siege washing away essential earthworks.

1564 An ice jam, caused by huge chunks of thawing ice borne upon flooding waters smashed away parts of Ouse Bridge.

1625 and 1638 Highest floods in York ever recorded.

More recently there was serious flooding in 1947, 1978, 1991, and 1995. However, 2000 saw the worst floods on record for that century. The River Ouse rose to an astonishing 5.5 metres above its normal level, flooded 540 properties and put a further 320 seriously at risk. For the next three days, the commercial and industrial life of the city was virtually brought to a standstill. When the waters subsided the damage at that time was estimated at well over £2 million.

More recently, following heavy rain which began on 21 December 2015, water levels in the Rivers Ouse and Foss rose rapidly. The Foss Barrier was duly lowered and the pumps activated. However, the water flows exceeded the capacity of the pumps and, in addition, water leaked into the pump house affecting the electrical operation. At 3 pm on 26 December, a decision was made to raise the barrier and the pumps and power was turned off. This led to extensive flooding in central York requiring the evacuation of properties and businesses and resulting in major damage. An enquiry, public meetings and exhibition were held in 2016 resulting in a £45 million investment to upgrade the capacity of the barrier pumps along with numerous other flood defence projects to prevent a repetition of the catastrophic floods of Boxing Day 2015.

By contrast, the River Foss, which, along with Wormald’s Cut, encircles Rowntree Wharf is relatively benign in modern times although the Romans found that the Foss combined with the Ouse provided a natural defence, and built their fortress of Eboracum here.

In the fourteenth century, the Merchant Adventurers built their hall upon its banks and during the following centuries, York remained the residence of merchants and the commercial centre of the North, with the navigation of the Ouse playing a vital part in commerce and the carriage of cargoes.