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Moving on after the deluge

by
19 December 2014

2014 was the year of the floods. Rebecca Paveley gathers the memories of some of the people who lived through them

JANE TWITTY

Inundated: views from the tower of St Peter and St Paul, Muchelney

Inundated: views from the tower of St Peter and St Paul, Muchelney

A YEAR ago, householders on the Somerset Levels were watching the skies anxiously. Villages had flooded the previous year for as much as a week, and they feared a recurrence. But what followed, as the New Year began, defied even the most gloomy predictions.

Dr Liz Nightingale was one of those who spent Christmas fearing the rain. Her home is on the edge of Muchelney, which, in Anglo-Saxon, means "big island".

She and her husband had spent the days since New Year pumping out water over the banks to keep it away from their home. But, when they woke on 2 January, 14 inches of water had burst its way into the house, and they had to move upstairs. Their animals - lambs and pregnant ewes - had to be moved, urgently, to friends, or to the one field that remained above the level of the floodwater.

Despite the incoming water, she remained relatively sanguine. The flooding the previous year had helped to prepare them, she said. "We'd had all [the electrical] power-points raised after the first year's flood; so we did have heating and lighting this time, and we were able to live upstairs for eight weeks.

"We had had time to prepare, and so we were more organised. The previous year, my husband had broken his leg, and my son was in Afghanistan; so it all helped to put the flooding in perspective."

But, as days turned into weeks, the smiles of even the most optimistic householders marooned on Muchelney wore thin. Many households in the Levels had not been as lucky even as Dr Nightingale, and many left their homes, or were evacuated by the emergency services.

All the villagers in Moorland near by were evacuated from their homes. And, even now, a year on, only half have returned; the others are spending this Christmas in temporary accommodation.

DR NIGHTINGALE is also churchwarden of St Peter and St Paul, Muchelney, which rapidly became the centre of life for everyone left in the village. The only way in and out was on the boats run by the emergency services, which ferried children to school, brought in food, and provided transport for those needing help or medical attention.

"It is the only community building in the village, and it became a café for the emergency services, a grocer's shop, a place of worship, and a sanctuary. It was everything to everybody," Dr Nightingale says.

"In times of difficulty, people come together, and there is a great sense of community. But it was the length of time last year that made it so unusual. We are very worried again this year: it is a very frightening thing for people, wondering if it will happen again."

The Environment Agency has dredged the local rivers, which, people in the area hope, will prevent a recurrence. The Nightingales, like others, have also invested in their own flooding-defence systems, and have installed a bund wall (an embankment, or wall, of brick or stone) to try to keep the water out.

The Team Vicar in the Langport Area Churches, the Revd Jane Twitty, said: "Everyone around here is holding their breath each time we get rain. The fields are pretty drenched with water, and the water table is very high.

"At our harvest festival, we prayed for a good winter this year, and people in the village held a post-flood barbecue. The community spirit is good, and we are building on that."

The Somerset Levels were not the only area of the country affected by the consequences of the torrential rain. Over the Christmas holidays last year, a huge swath of southern Britain was hit by flooding, after days of gale-force winds and heavy rain provoked extraordinary scenes of swans floating down usually busy roads, and partially submerged cars sailing through town centres such as Guildford, which, just hours before, on Christmas Eve, had been packed with shoppers.

 

HUGE numbers of people were left without heating or lighting on Christmas Day, as the floods and storms hit southern counties of Britain.

Ruth Lloyd, who has a two-year-old child and a baby, was able to stay in her home in Wimborne, Dorset, but had no power for more than 48 hours, from Christmas morning through to Boxing Day.

"It was cold, and very difficult with little ones," she says. "We couldn't cook anything at all, and had no lights in the house. But we knew that, compared with many, we were relatively lucky." The bad weather and threat of flooding continued for weeks.

The Revd Michael Roper, Priest-in-Charge of St Paul's, Egham Hythe, remembers seeing the water levels of the Thames rise, and going to check on those in sheltered accommodation close to the river, to find that their homes had already fallen victim to the floodwater.

His church was used by The Sun as a delivery point for thousands of tons of sand, to help people who were filling sandbags. "It was a bit of stunt, but people were grateful for it. In the church, we served coffee to people waiting to fill up their sandbags.

"After that, the church became the relief centre for the area. In the beginning, the army weren't involved, but we had a Sikh charity delivering thousands of tonnes of sand, and Muslim youth-groups shovelling sand to help people. In that way it was tremendous.

"We acted as a clearing house, and a point of contact for people who had relatives locally: they would phone us, and we would check they were OK. There were many elderly people living on their own, and they were afraid; but they didn't want to leave their homes, and we found them just sitting inside, with no heat or power.

"The church hall was full from floor to ceiling with food and clothes, and we delivered medicines to people who needed them, and helped those who wanted to leave their homes but couldn't."

Mr Roper went from door to door in waders, checking on people, and delivering food and support. His colleague, the Vicar of St John the Baptist, Egham, the Revd Jeff Wattley, used his sailing dinghy to check on parishioners.

Although the water had long since gone, and much of the damage had been repaired, the fear of its happening again was still a very present reality for people, Mr Roper said. "Some of the children have been traumatised with it. I've been going into schools and trying to get children to express their fears.

"People are very worried about this winter; they can't face a repeat of it. We are told it's a one-in-100- year occurrence - it was a freak combination of weather; it won't happen again. But many of us are afraid it will - very afraid."

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