Floods waist-deep and rising in Yorkshire's tourist villages

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IN THE darkness of the early hours of yesterday morning, Peter Long pulled on his wellingtons and started building a fence to stop his pets from escaping his front garden.

There would be nothing particularly unusual in that, except that the pets in question are koi carp, living in the garden pond of his house in Stamford Bridge, North Yorkshire. The fish were in danger of being washed away in floods that have swamped communities of the Derwent river valley.

Mr Long, who owns a petrol station and a hardware shop, managed to save his fish by hurriedly knocking together a makeshift fence.

But thousands of other residents in the area, which encompasses some of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Pennines, are seeing their lives severely disrupted by the river, which has swollen to a level unprecedented in living memory.

The deluge, caused by snow melting off the North York Moors and the Wolds and unremitting rain that caused the river to burst its banks, has cut off villages, waterlogged homes, swept cars off roads and left a swathe of the area without any power.

As environmental officials likened the flooding to "a rapidly filling bath with the taps on full blast", the villagers of Malton, Norton, Pickering, Stamford Bridge and Elvington were coping with the stress that comes from seeing your house and your belongings submerged, your business closed down - and tourists gathering on the edge of town to gawk at the scene.

The Derwent has risen remorselessly over the past few days to nearly 10 feet above normal, at its highest since the "Great Floods" of 1931 and 1947. The scene it created in the pretty villages of the moors, where the television show Heartbeat is filmed, was surreal. Locals getting about in boats and canoes were exchanging greetings with policemen and firemen in their own boats on the way to pick up the stranded.

A caravan site in Stamford Bridge, where King Harold defeated Harold Hadrada of Norway in 1066 before rushing south for his fateful encounter with William the Conqueror, was flooded and abandoned.

One village, Haxby, was marooned, while at Thorganby, Bubwith, East Cottingwith and Barmby the Environment Agency was knocking on doors to say that they were in the path of the storm water flowing downstream and there was strong risk that their homes would go under water later this week.

Those already affected were coping with what they say in these parts is typical Yorkshire stoicism and self-sufficiency. Although an emergency shelter had been set up at one of the villages, Norton, few stayed.

Sheona Patterson, of North Yorkshire County Council social services, said: "Three people slept here overnight, but we have had people also coming in for something to eat or for help in finding accommodation.

"It would appear that a lot of the people affected have friends and family who have been able to help. People really seem to have rallied around and helped each other."

At Old Malton, the Reverend John Manchester boarded a police boat to check on his elderly parishioners. He said: "Some left, some didn't, and we have made sure that all are all right. There isn't a bed-and-breakfast to be found in Malton. Everyone is using them."

Joe Braithwaite, who had been helping with rescue efforts at a nearby village, shruggedand said: "You have got to laugh about it because there isn't anything much else one can do. You can't fight nature, sometimes you just have to clear up after it."

There was, however, some exasperation at the authorities, in particular the Environment Agency. Peter Hynd said: "They [the Environment Agency] came along with a truck full of sandbags, but meanwhile the whole of the square of Stamford Bridge was flooded. We weren't warned until far too late. It is a damned joke. We are waist-deep. There are tables and chairs floating around. It is dreadful - it's devastating. We won't be open for another week at least."

The Environment Agency maintained that it had sent out warnings, starting with an amber alert on Saturday. A spokesman said: "All we can do is send the warnings out. It is up to the people to pick them up. The emergency planning team also stated there had been no problem at all with the warning system."

North Yorkshire's emergency planning officer, Robin Myshrall, said that long hard work lay ahead to repair the damage. "There are a lot of people who have had their lives severely disrupted and are all facing their individual emergencies at the moment. That is something which is going to take a long time to put right. We will be doing our best to ensure that period is as short as possible."

Ryedale's Conservative MP, John Greenway, said the Government might need to step in to help. Mr Greenway, whose constituency office is one of the buildings hit by flooding, said: "It's the worst disaster in most Malton and Norton townspeople's memory. I feel so sorry for the families and businesses affected. It's awful."

Humberside Police, responsible for the Stamford Bridge district, hit out at "rubber neck" families visiting the village and allowing their children to paddle in the flood water.

For Mr Long, the safety of his carp was a small consolation. His petrol station acts as a village shop, and all his Mother's Day cards, stocked up for this Sunday, are floating towards the North Sea on the bloated meltwaters of the Derwent. With typical Yorkshire phlegm, Mr Long said yesterday: "It's in the lap of the gods."