Four killed as Britain is lashed by storms

Floods: Experts predict rain and gales will continue until Christmas after Met Office confirms worst autumn for 250 years

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Four people have died in the latest round of gales, downpours and flooding to hit Britain, which left much of the West Country and Wales battered yesterday.

Four people have died in the latest round of gales, downpours and flooding to hit Britain, which left much of the West Country and Wales battered yesterday.

A couple aged in their late fifties were drowned when their car plunged off a bridge into a swollen river near Crediton in Devon. A 19-year-old driver and her 17-year-old passenger - both agricultural students - were killed in a head-on collision near Winchester.

Many others had narrow escapes as winds of up to 70mphand an overnight downpour of more than an inch-and-a-half of rain created chaos on roads and railways. Several people were rescued from cars trapped in floodwater and a caravan park had to be evacuated in a major operation. A helicopter from RAF Chivenor joined a lifeboat to ferry nearly 100 people to safety from the Hazlewood Holiday Park at Dawlish Warren on the coast south of Exeter, which was flooded in the early hours.

The cause of the storm was another turbulent Atlantic low pressure system which formed off Portugal earlier in the week and swept over the West Country.

Yesterday the Meteorological Office said the conditions making this autumn Britain's most sodden for at least 250 years were set to continue until Christmas. Its new long-range forecast predicts more rain and gales for most of this month, although it will stay mild, with more appropriate seasonal weather - dry, settled and frosty - returning after the holiday.

The couple who died drowned after their Honda smashed through a bridge parapet at the height of the storm in the village of Cheriton Fitzpaine and overturned into a swollen tributary of the river Dart. The car was discovered yesterday with the woman still trapped in the vehicle; her husband's body was found further downstream. The students were killed when their car was in collision with another car.

The high winds forced the closure of the Severn Crossing near Bristol and at the height of the storm, west Wales was practically cut off from the rest of the country when two major roads into the region were closed by flooding.

Railways in particular were hard hit; services in the South-west could be affected for up to a week after First Great Western halted trains at Taunton due to a flooded bridge just north of Exeter. Buses were organised for passengers to and from various locations in Devon to Bristol.

Passengers travelling through the Bristol area to London and south Wales on First Great Western services were also delayed as trains were diverted around a flooded tunnel at Chipping Sodbury. A landslide closed part of the railway line between Hereford and Abergavenny in Gwent.

Nearly a million people tried to access the Environment Agency's website on Thursday after maps of all Britain's flood plains were published on-line, the agency said yesterday. The record number of visitors made access difficult if not impossible at times but the agency said it was trying to accommodate as many inquiries as possible.

Occupants of the Dawlish Warren caravan park found in the early hours of yesterday that water was lapping around their caravan doors. Dozens of families were rescued by an inflatable inshore lifeboat or an RAF Sea King helicopter as hours of torrential rain caused floods several feet deep.

In Exeter, yesterday's flooding was the last straw for a pub landlord. Gordon Henderson had only reopened the Cowley Bridge pub a few days ago after clearing earlier flood damage. He has now decided to give up the tenancy and look for another job.

The pub, which is close to the river Exe, has been flooded six times in the past four years and after the last one in October his insurance firm withdrew further cover.

"I cannot believe it has happened again and I am so fed up with it that I have given in my notice to the brewery," Mr Henderson said. "We will miss the pub, but in a way I am glad we are going."

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