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The deluge: flooding in Barnstaple, UK in 2020

Photo by Chris F on

Meteorologists had spoken of the chance the rain, so when I glanced out of my front room window early on Morning afternoon, the glowering sky didn’t come completely as a surprise.
The weather had been close and sultry for several days perhaps a storm was to be expected but the cloud cover overhead looked dense and threatening.
The early afternoon became twilight. We turned on the lights and expected rain.
What we didn’t expect was the torrent we received.
“Look at that rain!” I exclaimed, as I gazed out of my front room window. This was heavy.
Nevertheless, it was a surprise when a slight figure in a green waterproof darted her way past our window and towards our front door. The doorbell rang and I answered it to see the sodden figure of my next-door neighbour.
“Please can you come, Keith. My back garden is flooding and I’m worried about the house.”
Wearing just shorts, socks, and a thin t-shirt, I grabbed the nearest available footwear – a pair of elasticated, leather ankle boots and followed her out into the downpour.
The distance from my front door to hers was a matter of a few yards but still I was dripping wet by the time I got there.
She took me through the house to the back. The garden was inundated. Already the water was ankle deep and I wished I had made a better choice of footwear. I had no alternative but to step into the pond now forming just inches from her back door.
The rain hammered down.
Things weren’t helped by a loose gutter which the torrenting water had wrenched from its fixings.
My neighbour waded into the flood to fetch anything that might help me fashion some kind of temporary repair to the guttering, now cascading rainwater onto me.
Whilst she struggled to keep the rising waters from entering her kitchen, I fumbled as best I could with makeshift tools to prop up the now sagging gutter.
Still the blackened sky continued to empty vast volumes of precipitation onto us. The torrent made it almost impossible to see. I took off my glasses and struggled to wipe the cascading water into my face, but I was by then soaked to the skin several times over.
The rainfall showed precious little sign of abating. Children’s toys were bobbing about like tiny boats on a storm-tossed ocean on the lake that had hitherto been a back garden.
I thanked providence that our house was built just a few crucial inches higher, out of the reach of the encroaching waters. At least, I hoped that was the case.
I managed finally to prop the guttering back into place with a length of wood which I had to snap to an appropriate length. That provided a temporary solution to that problem, but it was the least of anyone’s worries. The sheer volume of water pouring down from the skies was too much for any drainage system to manage.
My neighbour told me her husband and sons would soon be home. I thought it was time I checked in back at my house.
The waters were now ebbing into her house as my neighbour tried to stem them. Nevertheless, good manners dictated that I should remove my soaking wet boots before walking back through. I prised them from my feet with a suck and a squelch and emptied the water back into the garden before picking my through her house with them in my hand and squeezing them back on at her front door.
The rain was finally starting to ease up but the bow waves from cars ploughing through the river which had previously been our street sent the waters slopping up to and under the front door, soaking the mat.
I waded back home to find that all was relatively well. Again, I prised off my ruined boots and peeled off my sodden clothes, which clung to my body like a second skin.
Our house had come through the deluge more or less unscathed. One of the power circuits had tripped but otherwise we had escaped the effects of the downpour.
I got into dry clothes and this time had the foresight to slide on a pair of Wellington boots.
I ventured outside again.

As the sun broke, it glinted off the newly- formed lakes in the nearby park, the tops of benches and litter bins poking through like tiny islands.

As quickly as it had come, the rainstorm had passed. The torrent had persisted for perhaps twenty minutes and the skies were now clearing.
In the street, small groups of neighbours were starting to deal with the aftermath.
Although the rainfall had stopped, the sheer quantity of water was more than the drains and runoffs could accommodate and the it was still about a foot deep. Impromptu work teams were endeavouring to shift the standing water.
I headed back next door and assisted by bailing the water onto the flowerbeds – the only convenient drainage.
Out on the street, it seemed that other houses had been worse hit. I did what little I could. I picked up a bucket and started bailing.
The mood was not one of anger, distress or bewilderment but rather a very British one of resignation and sang-froid.
When I had done all I could to help, I headed further afield to survey the damage.
Nearby streets had been even more badly affected than ours.
Locals used buckets and brooms to clear away the remaining water as best they could. Homes were ruined. Cars were marooned but thankfully there seemed no loss to life or limb.
There were a few mutterings about a lack of protection, sandbags and the like but most realised that the flood had crashed onto the town without warning. No one could have foreseen what would happen.
Police and fire brigade were going about their business. The police directing cars around deep pools of water that still partially blocked the streets.
A nearby culvert, usually little more than a lazy brook had turned into a roiling torrent of white water and the level was close to breaching its banks. Three weeks-worth of rainfall were gushing into the nearby river.
As the sun broke, it glinted off the newly- formed lakes in the nearby park, the tops of benches and litter bins poking through like tiny islands.
Dogs porpoising gleefully through the water seemed to be making the most of their new aquatic playground.

The next evening, I returned to the street where I had seen semi-submerged cars. All the water had gone but the evidence remained.
Carpets, furniture, books, all dumped in ruined, soaking piles on front lawns.
Stacks of sandbags and makeshift barriers were stacked against front doors. Too late to help but ready should the inundation return.
Running into a friend, he told me how the water had rushed through air vents into his home. How a neighbour had watched aghast as the waters percolated up through his floorboards and how another had already been told she could have to wait six months until her house would be habitable again.
Other stories began to emerge.
One friend spoke of how her house, being at the top of a hill, should have been safe but the rainwater rushed off the land behind her and spewed straight through her home as her family frantically scrambled upstairs with arms full of their possessions.
Further afield and even more dramatic stories emerged; businesses, just limping back to normality after lockdown, thrown back into chaos by the sudden, unexpected inundation, a door wrenched from its hinges by the sheer mass of on-rushing water, and most dramatic of all, a woman in her eighties, pulled to safety by firemen through the window of her submerged basement flat.

As the days pass, there is little outward sign that anything out of the ordinary happened on an otherwise unremarkable Monday in August.
The last of the standing water has gone. People are getting on with their lives. Only the detritus piled outside of damaged houses gives any clue that anything extraordinary happened.
We obsess over the weather here in Britain but despite its unpredictability, it is usually pretty benign but I’ve found myself watching the skies now with a new sense of foreboding. Dark clouds appear more threatening than before. Every spot of rain feels like a portent of worse to come.
Perhaps it was a freak occurrence but with climate change hanging over us like the sword of Damocles, a freak occurrence might not continue to be quite so freak after all.
Watch the skies!


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