A closer look at flooding in Devon throughout the years
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“When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.” This remark by Samuel Johnson is as true today (of women as it is of men) as it was when he first made it in 1758. English weather is rarely extreme in nature, but it varies considerably. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, it is not always hot or always cold. And occasionally, it is dramatic enough to be really worth talking about.
There have long been incidents of flooding before in Devon. In October 1625, for example, it was recorded, “a momentous flood swept through the valley, causing great devastation. In the town of Tiverton alone 53 houses were destroyed” while in 1877, Exeter, Crediton and many other places were reported to “have suffered greatly from floods.”
On the night of 15th August 1952, the North Devon village of Lynmouth was particularly hard hit when a major storm hit the south-west resulting in 229mm of rain being deposited on the already rain-sodden soil of Exmoor within a 24-hour period. Floodwaters combined with debris such as fallen trees cascaded down from the moor.
A guest staying at the Lyndale Hotel described the incident. They said: “From seven o'clock last night the waters rose rapidly and at nine o'clock it was just like an avalanche coming through our hotel, bringing down boulders from the hills and breaking down walls, doors and windows. Within half an hour the guests had evacuated the ground floor. In another ten minutes the second floor was covered, and then we made for the top floor where we spent the night.”
The flooding at Lynmouth had tragic consequences. According to Wikipedia, more than 100 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged along with 28 of the 31 bridges and 38 cars were washed out to sea. In total, 34 people died and a further 420 were made homeless. The tower collapsed into the river the next day.
At 2am on October 1st 1960 (a Saturday), heavy rain poured down on the small village of Axmouth. Three inches of rain accumulated in the catchment area of the small stream which runs through the centre of the village. The flow of water was such that trees and rocks were carried creating a natural dam behind which a small lake was created. When the dam broke, a huge wave of floodwater considerable enough to have swept people and cars away (had it occurred during the daytime) rushed across the valley.
“As we got near the village, the road just disappeared under water,” Seaton Police Sergeant, Donald Cowling recounted later. “We waded up the street, which was like a river, and then an absolute torrent swept down and we had to cling to the church railings. The road was like a roaring river and dustbins and rocks were being thrown all over the place.”
Later in the month, October 27th 1960 came to be known as ‘Black Thursday” when Exeter experienced its worst outbreak of flooding ever. The city had experienced flooding before: the Exe Bridge had been destroyed by flooding twice in 1286 and 1384. But this was something new. In October 1960, excessive rain resulted in 700 cubic metres of water per second, overflowing the river from above Exwick down through St Thomas and towards Alphington, even flooding Exeter St David’s Station in the process.