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24 September 2014

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You are in: Cumbria > Memoryshare > The Cumbrian floods 2005

Gordon Swindlehurst

Gordon Swindlehurst

The Cumbrian floods 2005

BBC Radio Cumbria's Gordon Swindlehurst looks back at the floods which struck Cumbria in January 2005 ...

It was at 0530 on January 8, 2005 that, having driven five or six miles eastbound from Appleby, it became clear that only an idiot would be on the A66 in THAT wind and rain.

Gusts of 100 miles an hour were picking up shed roofs and pine boughs and flinging them across the roads like so many handfuls of grass.

Police in flood water at Appleby

Yet it was around 18 hours earlier that it had become clear the radio station would have to be on the beat in the wild weather which plunged half the county into darkness, brought boats on to the city streets of Carlisle and saw homeowners become long-term tenants as floods up to 13 feet deep put Cumbria into headlines worldwide.

It was under the watery sun of a Friday lunchtime that I'd felt compelled to call base and suggest they'd need me out and about the next morning.

Having covered flood events on the Eden before, I knew from the swollen shape of the river that it WOULD burst its banks with much more rain. And that was just what was forecast overnight.

I also knew that Appleby would be the first sizeable community to feel the floods' force when it came … and that Carlisle then had eight hours before it, too, bore the brunt.

So it came to pass that, shortly after four in the morning, my mobile rang, and I set off for Old Westmorland.

St Aiden's church surrounded by flood waters

St Aiden's church surrounded by water

While the dark water which engulfed the Eden Valley saw the BBC website register three MILLION hits in a week as the world sought to see how Cumbria coped with its deluge, it's the wind that people forget.

A man died in Longtown when his caravan was crushed by a barn wall blown in by the gale. And the hard shoulder of the M6 was already an elephant's graveyard of overturned artics as I hit the road..

Thank the lord for 4x4s. As pretty much the first car down the eastbound A66, I hit every flood between Penrith and my goal. Ground clearance is a great thing.

Appleby finally - amazingly - arrived. Parking halfway down Battlebarrow, what struck me first was neither the half-mile width of the river, nor its dark, chocolate colour. It was its speed.

Improvements to the town's flood defences were hastening the water northwards, and with it a flotilla of timbers and canisters from a builder's merchant's upstream.

One of the big orange gas bottles washed up at the bottom the hill then, being empty, blew another 30 yards up the slope before barrelling back down into the new lake on The Sands.

People's possessions on the street after the flood

It was over the way in Chapel Street that homes had been evacuated the previous evening, and it was there that I wanted to be.

The road from Tebay to Appleby was out of commission, flooded in the dip at Hoff. So it was eastwards, towards Brough, that I began to drive - before being driven back by a mixture of flying trees, high wind and genuine fear.

Instead, I'd try the side roads leading to villages like Cliburn and Morland. But each one got me just as far as the river. And each one had been redecorated with outdoor furniture by the time I retraced my tyre-tracks: a telegraph pole here, a shed roof there … back on Battlebarrow, a symbol made flesh lay, legs-up, in the middle of the street. A drowned rat.

It was on the Bolton road that I flagged down a pickup with my torch to warn him that the road was out. The driver pulled up, wound down his window and, before I could speak, said: "You must be Gordon Swindlehurst."

Who else would be daft enough to be out in such a place at such a time?

As day dawned, I headed back up country, realising only then that the road I'd driven earlier was, in fact, a causeway between flooded fields.

Flood sign on Joiners Arms, Caldewgate, Carlisle

Flood sign on Joiners Arms, Carlisle,

A mixture of local knowledge and lateral thinking saw me hit town around one. That left two hours before "high water" was expected on Warwick Road.

With the mobile phone system stymied by storm damage, reporting developments was an on-the-hoof affair. Literally, it was down to old-fashioned legwork.

Wellies waded me through the front yards to where householders watched helpless as the waters rose. Back at base, the emergency generator kicked in as power failed throughout North Cumbria, and the engineer sent out a note saying: "Please don't boil a kettle. You WILL take us off air."

As 15 double-decker buses of water A SECOND passed under the Eden Bridges - carrying as passenger at least one unfortunate, upturned black and white cow - crowds leaned over the parapet to watch the muddy onrush subsume the cricket pavilion.

Elsewhere, inflatable boats were lifting people from first-floor windows and ferrying them towards dry land. The North Cumbria Technology College at Harraby became a base for evacuees. So it was there next for yours truly.

Carried to safety from the flood-waters

Carried to safety from the flood-waters

And then, eventually, home. Having awoken in darkness to a loss of electricity, a lack of telephone communication and a note reading "Gone to Appleby. National emergency", my then partner wondered, politely, where the hell I'd been all day while she'd been stuck in the dark.

Just enough battery in the laptop allowed her to see. One of those three million hits on the BBC website came from a candlelit terrace in Brampton.

The first shot to flash up showed a boat outside the old fancy dress shop, round the back of the police station in Carlisle. The top of the large ground-floor window was just visible. Just.

How went the day? With difficulty, I'd say

last updated: 13/09/07

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