Forget white... it's a wet Christmas

Torrential rain and floods cause chaos on one of the roads' busiest weekends

Heavy rain and gale-force winds are expected to bring misery to millions of travellers attempting to leave the country or return home for Christmas this weekend.

Unseasonably heavy rain has already led to flooding across the country, and forecasters predict the conditions will continue throughout Sunday and Monday.

By yesterday afternoon the Environment Agency had issued four severe flood warnings – meaning there is a danger to life – across south-west England and a further 129 flood warnings across Britain.

The Met Office also predicted that strong winds will hit parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north of England today, with winds of up to 80mph blowing through the Shetlands.

The bad weather has had a severe effect on Britain's travel networks in one of the year's busiest weekends for travel; many road and rail routes have been plunged into chaos. Conditions were so dire in the South-west that First Great Western told rail passengers not to travel. On the roads, the A38 from Bodmin towards Exeter was closed because of flooding, with further road closures and delays around Cleveland, north-east England, and near Chichester in West Sussex.

Mike Williams, from the Environment Agency, said: "We would urge people to take extra care when planning their journeys and be aware of the risk of flooding.

"People need to keep up to date with the weather forecast and remain prepared for flooding in their area and stay away from dangerous flood water or attempting to drive through it."

The emergency services were also forced to evacuate hundreds of homes due to the floods, with Devon and Cornwall being among the worst-hit areas.

Braunton in north Devon was reported to be cut off, with homes and shops under water after the River Caen burst its banks. One of the town's residents, Elma Blackmore, 67, said the wet weather had left the town isolated. "You can't get in or out of Braunton because the main road is flooded. It is blocked from Chivenor as well, no traffic can go through," she said. "Nobody can get in or out at the moment. You can get to the edge of the village, but not into the shopping centre."

In Helston in Cornwall police were forced to rescue people from their homes as rising river levels threatened to flood their properties. And fire crews were called to some 70 more flood-related incidents across Cornwall yesterday in locations including St Austell, Lostwithiel, Looe and Penzance, the authorities confirmed.

In the Midlands, the Environment Agency said last night there were 54 flood alerts in place along with 27 of the more severe flood warnings, with major rivers such as the Trent and Severn expected to rise throughout the day.

And communities in North Yorkshire, which were hit by flooding last month, were again preparing for the worst last night. The River Ouse in central York rose to four metres and the River Derwent remained high.