After the flood

On 16 August the village of Boscastle was devastated when its two rivers burst their banks. Three months later, shops and hotels remain closed and many villagers have been financially ruined. Arifa Akbar reports
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From the outside, the chocolate box façade of the 16th-century hotel in the quaint Cornish village promises a luxurious stay for those visiting the region for its valley trails and cream teas. But inside the once-illustrious Wellington hotel, the building lies ravaged by one of the most devastating flash floods to hit Britain, which has left most of the buildings near the harbour in Boscastle devastated months after the event.

The village, which until 16 August was always filled with tourists drawn to the conservation area for walks along the Valency Valley, lies largely boarded up. Many of its 700 residents are struggling to rebuild businesses that were washed away in the few hours that the village's two rivers broke their banks.

The main art gallery remains closed and most of the hotels, medieval cottages, gift shops and bed and breakfast accommodation near the intersection of the Valency and Jordan rivers that swelled and overflowed in August have been closed for months. The strip of quaint shops along the harbour is still a no-go area and construction workers in hard-hats outnumber remaining residents, many of whom were left destitute and had to live in rented accommodation.

In an effort to lure back tourists - the summer season usually brings 250 visitors a day - North Cornwall district council and the National Trust, which owns 300 acres of conservation land around the village, are struggling to rebuild the village front in time for the first wave of Easter visitors.

Some fear that the images of floating cars and buildings being dragged away by the engulfing waves will keep visitor numbers down, while others hope they will come to Boscastle to see, if nothing else, how the village, which was made famous by a natural disaster, has regained its composure. The council reported an influx of tourists in the immediate aftermath of the disaster - it was inundated when the cordon to the village was lifted - but the National Trust has reported a sharp decline in visitors in the area.

The trust, which owns six buildings in the vicinity and suffered £1.5m-worth of damage, has so far helped to remove tens of tons of stone and several tons of debris as well as 80 cars from the harbour. While some £1m can be recovered from insurers, the trust will have to meet the outstanding sum.

Andrew Davey, the trust's area manager, said that it would take another 18 months to fully restore the village, and he hoped that the impact of the flood would not remain in people's consciousness for long. "It's difficult to know if people will stay away because of the devastating images of the flood or come to the place to see what's happened since. The whole area depends on tourism and there was an extraordinary absence of people after the floods in places like Tintagel," he said. "My feeling is that next year will be a bit of a challenge, but also that people have relatively short-term memories about these things and in two or three years, the Boscastle floods will be long forgotten."

The bottleneck of private owners seeking help from local building firms may bring delays in restoring the village, as well as the lack of resolution of cases between private businesses and their insurers. The council and the Federation of Small Businesses are both lobbying insurance companies to compensate families to minimise the trauma for residents.

For Scott Roberts, the head chef and manager of the Wellington hotel, repairs to three collapsed floors have led to closure for six months. But the most distressing element of the disaster for him was the loss of irreplaceable personal items. "I was in the car park helping to bring a young girl to safety when the water came in. We lost everything that we owned, all the personal stuff, all the signed Gary Rhodes books that I had collected, the heirlooms, everything was buried beneath 130 tons of mud and rubble. We lost our home, our business, our building. We felt immensely destitute," he said.

The former coaching inn, whichsuffered more than £1m-worth of damage, was left with gaping holes and rubble where tasteful period furniture had once been. One of the reconstructed rooms in the building was a sleek dining area transformed by Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen's Changing Rooms team. The interior designer himself lives only three villages away, in Port Issac.

Private business-owners who were uninsured were left penniless while others remain entangled in a compensation limbo in which they have not yet recovered their huge financial loss. Adrian and Anne Prescott, who own a bed and breakfast business, moved to Boscastle from Portsmouth two years ago in hope of a lifestyle change and a quiet life. While the front of their home remained untouched in the flood, the torrent came crashing through the side, which is 250 metres away from the riverbank.

"I remember running around closing the windows in the afternoon and tucking the curtains up as the water lapped around the house in case the bottoms got wet, and then running into the car to drive up the hill. We came back in at 6.30pm and the furniture inside lay twisted and mangled. The watermark was up to light-switch level with 4ft of mud," Mr Prescott said.

A small copse was torn down as well as two sheds, a fence and a sturdy stone wall. More than 6ft of water crashed through their french doors and destroyed the furniture on the ground floor, causing a total of £40,000-worth of damage.

They are aiming to reopen for business soon, although continuing discussions with their insurers have delayed the recovery, they say. "Three months on, we do not feel that we have progressed very far with insurance," Mrs Prescott said. "You feel like you just can't get on. It's very frustrating and we just want to see it back the way it was."

Paul Broadhurst, a writer and the owner of a stone cottage and bookshop at the mouth of the two rivers, was one of the worst affected. He was not insured at the time of the flood and has spent the past few months painstakingly removing the rubble and attempting to rebuild the demolished structures himself, brick by brick.

"I had thousands of pounds worth of books and artefacts, some of which were salvaged. Some of the unique, historic aspects of the building have gone, such as the gothic arches near the meeting of the two streams. It was very emotional when I first saw it and sometimes, when we talk about it in the pub, you still get a lump in your throat.

"I lost a lot of money, but this village has remained positive and there are worse things that happen in the world. We still live here, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Give it a year, Boscastle will come back laughing," he said.

Mr Broadhurst felt, along with many others who remain positive, that the flood drew the tight-knit community even closer together. A book about the disaster and tales of heroism, published last week, has already sold hundreds of copies. The National Trust's clean-up event, Helping the Harbour, in October, drew residents in huge numbers, who helped to recover 200 tons of stone and remove 75 cubic yards of rubbish.

However, some have complained not only of delays over compensation but also the fear of "bureaucrats" transforming the village and its environment under a feared brief to make it safer. Talk of redirecting one of the rivers as well as other structural changes has worried some residents. Mr Broadhurst felt it would be like "changing the heart of Boscastle". But the council has pledged to do nothing without rigorous public consultation.

Mark Hall, director of North Cornwall district council, said that consultation questionnaires were sent last week to every household in Boscastle, asking for input into everything from where the public lavatories should be placed to how they would like to see the village in 10 years' time.

An Environment Agency report, whose results will be discussed next month, will lead to careful reflection by the agencies involved on rebuilding an infrastructure that will enhance the village's capacity to withstand a similar disaster, or at least minimise its effects. "We want to learn from this," said Mr Hall. "We don't want to rebuild it without improving on it structurally."

Issues to be discussed include widening the river mouth, using special water-resistant plaster and utilising the car park to prevent a future flood from going into people's homes. Even considerations of where to place plug sockets in houses are to be examined.

A sensitive rebuilding programme is in progress to ensure that the architectural style and materials do not jar with the historic character of the village. But for some, no amount of restoration work will fully erode the memories of that harrowing afternoon in August.

A resident standing outside the newsagent's near the heart of the disaster area surveyed the ghostly village and said that nobody remained untouched in the village, whether their home and livelihood had remained intact or not. "It's not just a case of whether you lost your home or business," she said. "People have suffered psychologically. It's been terrifying for us all, to witness the terrible destruction of that day."