Villagers fled from flash floods, on a night of chaos and confusion

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Thompsons the butchers has traded for three generations and more than 100 years from a shop perched precariously close to the river Rye in Helmsley, North Yorkshire.

Thompsons the butchers has traded for three generations and more than 100 years from a shop perched precariously close to the river Rye in Helmsley, North Yorkshire.

But nothing could prepare the family for the night when "the roads turned to rivers" - as their local vicar described the village's flash floods yesterday.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Mr Thompson, 58, standing in the mud-caked shop. "Within 20 minutes, the water was halfway up the door. I just thought 'let me be out of here, there's nothing to be done.' I just ran for my life."

The rainstorm before Sunday night's flooding lasted just 45 minutes in Helmsley. But the floodwaters the storms unleashed across North Yorkshire brought destruction to the tune of tens of millions of pounds.

Local police confirmed that no one had died, and all those reported missing were accounted for. But homeowners who had watched as a month's worth of rain - 70mm - fell in three hours knew that the clean-up operation was only just beginning.

There had been dramatic scenes as an air-sea rescue helicopter from RAF Leconfield was drafted in to lift people to safety from tree tops and buildings after the storms, which began to lash parts of the country from about 5pm. Villagers fled their homes as the waters hit, only to watch from high ground as the current carried away their possessions.

In Helmsley, the wall of water reached heights of 6ft. For the Thompsons, that meant the destruction of £1,500 of meat, £15,000 worth of sheep and a seven-ton truck belonging to Brian Thompson, who has spent 40 years developing the business his father and grandfather established.

Mr Thompson was enjoying a glass of wine with his supper and heard a weather forecast report that the storm had passed off, at about 7pm. Then the deluge arrived: the by-product of gallons of water from up-valley engulfing the swollen Rye. He just managed to get his two dogs upstairs in time but the meat truck outside was immovable and he sacrificed it to the tide.

Some locals muttered about the absence of a flood defence system in Helmsley. But Mr Thompson, like the Meteorological Office, knew that no such protection could have spared him his losses. The storms were so localised that no meteorologist could have predicted who would be struck. Helmsley seemed the last place to take a hit, since floods like this have not struck the market town since 1752, when 12 people were killed.

Across a 20-mile area around North Yorkshire's Hambleton Hills, dozens more found themselves in a similar position. Five miles north of Helmsley in the worst hit village of Hawnby - cut off after the stone bridges on the village's two approach roads were destroyed - Mary Griffiths clung on to the wire mesh of her cattery as she helped remove 40 of her animals from ground level.

All but three were saved but she was taken to hospital with heart problems. "She wanted to give the animals a fighting chance," said her daughter.

At Hawnby's Norman All Saints Church, most of the gravestones were knocked down by the flood. The body of a drowned calf lay on one yesterday afternoon. An 18th-century mill house on the nearby Arden Hall estate was flattened, to the dismay of the Earl and Countess of Mexborough, the estate's owners.

Villagers in Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe close to Thirsk, were equally bewildered about the metamorphosis of the usually serene Sutton Beck into a raging torrent. Huge chunks of stone, some weighing up to half a ton, were ripped from the bridge and hurled into the road. Garden furniture was reduced to matchwood as the water poured in torrents through homes.

Rachel and Graham Lamond led their children Amy, 14, and Alastair, 12, to safety higher up Sutton village as water smashed through their home, destroying furniture and carrying away possessions. Mrs Lamond's Vauxhall Astra and her husband's Volvo, which had been parked in the stone garage next to the house, ended up in the garden, while Mr Lamond's sailing boat was discovered jammed against a tree 100 yards from the house.

By lunchtime yesterday, the couple had not established the whereabouts of their fridge freezer. They had checked against flood risks before buying their property but were told that the last problems had occurred 50 years ago.

"It's heartbreaking," said Mrs Lamond. "You want to clear things up but you just don't know where to begin."

Retired teacher Ruth Mitchell, 89, whose cottage home alongside the beck was wrecked by water and debris, escaped upstairs on her stairlift when the flash flood hit. "I had a torch with me and flashed it out of the window hoping someone would come and help," she said.

With the storms came power cuts, plunging 17,000 homes into darkness. Last night, about 6,000 homes and premises in South Shields, Sunderland, North Yorkshire and East Yorkshire were still struggling without electricity.

Fearing for residents in the more remote hamlets, North Yorkshire Police deployed helicopters to sweep over the flood zone for much of yesterday, though the Rye was too swollen for the use of divers.

The biggest concern was for some of the 8,000 motorcyclists who had gathered on Saturday night for the Farmyard Party festival in the 13,000-acre Duncombe Park estate, near the bikers' Mecca of Helmsley. Many had camped on low-lying land near the Rye but with the river awash with ruined motorcycles yesterday morning it was unclear how many had lingered until Sunday night.

One who had, Colin Harbinson of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland, had thrown his belongings on to the seat of his £8,500 bike and made a dash for it as the water began flooding across the field. Even at 15mph, with the bike in first gear, he could barely shift the bike as water washed around his boots. "I saw a caravan washed under a 6ft bridge. The tide seemed to bear no relation to the course of the river," he said.

Fewer than 100 motorcyclists had been present, and all were accounted for. "Thank God most of them had left on Saturday, or lives would have been lost," said Lady Feversham, who provided a transit station for the bikers in the early hours.

The vicar of Helmsley, the Rev David Wilbourne, abandoned Evensong on Sunday when he arrived to discover water running down the church's inside walls and his organist afraid to leave his car. "People are sanguine about this. Ours is a community a long way from any other town and people look out for each other," said Mr Wilbourne. "But the not knowing if things were going to get worse did frighten people. They entered a territory of the unknown."

Drinkers rescue couple seconds before car sinks

An elderly couple were rescued after floodwaters engulfed their car in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Drinkers from the Railway Inn at Walkergate spotted the stranded couple and waded into the flooded road to pull the man and woman to safety.

The couple, believed to be in their late sixties or seventies, were stranded after their Nissan Micra stalled in a dip in the road where rainwater had collected. The water had reached chest height by the time they were reached and, moments after they were pulled to safety, their car sank.

"The man thought he might have been able to get through the water in his car, but when he got up to the edge, he tried to get it in reverse and the car stalled," the pub's landlord, Ted Laughlin, said. "The water rose so quickly it was unreal. Now the car is a write-off."

The Tyne and Wear fire service was inundated with so many flood-related calls after Sunday night's rain that other brigades, including one based in Scotland, had to help. About 37,000 customers also lost electricity as a result of the storms, with power cuts from Northumberland to Lincolnshire.

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