They knew the rain was coming in Cockermouth but nobody could have guessed how much and just how quickly it would fall. Yesterday, as the waters began to recede from the worst flood in memory, a thick layer of sludge coated the outsides of the pastel-coloured shops in the Georgian market square. Here, where a young William Wordsworth first mused on daffodils and the beauty of the Lakeland scenery around him, nature had shown a different more brutal face on Thursday night.
Trees and branches were ripped up and dumped where the waters had left them, cars overturned like toys. Furniture from the town's restaurants, normally brimming with tourists, lay discarded among the smashed glass from dozens of broken windows, the flotsam and jetsam of businesses ruined, lives torn apart in a few hours of torrential rain. Wordsworth House, where the poet spent his formative years, lay under a fathom of water.
Over at the Sheep and Wool Centre, where 100 people had been taken after the order to evacuate was given, they were coming to terms with the events of the previous 24 hours. The Long family had been rescued from their home in Derwentside Gardens, carried to safety aboard two liferafts despatched by the Maryport lifeboat.
Council officer Steve Long, 49, and his wife Heather, 50, rode in one boat and their children Emmeline, 13, and Adam, nine, were taken in the other, along with the family's 17-year-old cat Fleur and their two pet rats. They were facing the prospect of a second night away from home.
"We first saw the water coming up through the floor in the utility room at about 8.30pm," Mrs Long said. "We had got home from work a couple of hours earlier and had been completely soaked. By the time we had got the kids bathed and in warm dry clothes it was time to get out. The rescue services have been fantastic; everybody in the town has pulled together."
More than 200 people, many of them elderly, were forced to leave their homes when the river Cocker burst its banks. Seventy were winched to safety by RAF helicopters from roofs and balconies. Some were veterans of previous flooding. A year ago, other flooding hit the town, which sits on the confluence of two of Cumbria's biggest rivers, though it was on nothing like this scale.
With Bassenthwaite Lake filled to capacity and flooding the main A66 into the town, the river Derwent which flows out of it was already a raging torrent before it met a river Cocker horribly swollen to 8ft above its normal level by water running off the Weswater Fells. The combined strength of these two rivers went crashing downstream into Workington, destroying a town centre bridge and sweeping to death PC Bill Barker, who had four children. The tragedy made many in Cockermouth realistic about their loss. But with so many homes and businesses destroyed, roads rendered impassable, gas and power shut off and telephone lines down, there were many weeks if not months of misery ahead after the strange excitement of the immediate aftermath subsided along with the dirty water.
Keith Fairs, 54, was surveying the wreckage of his kitchen shop, where all the stock was destroyed and a rear wall had collapsed under the pressure of water. "I saw my shop on the television news this morning so I knew it was bad but I didn't expect it to be as bad as this," he said. "I started the business two years ago just as the recession started and I was just beginning to see signs of recovery in the town. Now this has happened."
Schoolteacher Sue Ryding, 33, spent the night above the rising torrent in her top-floor flat watching the drama unfold beneath her. "I tried to sleep a bit but the alarms just kept going off and the phone never stopped ringing," she said. "We could see the rescue teams but they said we were better off where we were. The water was chest-high at around 11 o'clock and it did get frightening because the helicopter wouldn't have been able to reach us, so we made a plan to escape over the flat roof if necessary. In the end, we had a couple of glasses of wine and looked out thewindow."
Back at the reception centres, a steady stream of people continued to arrive last night, along with donated clothes, blankets and food. As a crescent moon rose above the Cumbrian mountains the town began to turn its attention to what further rain forecast for the weekend might bring.
The Rev Chris Goddard spent all day counselling those affected by the flood. "There is a numbness here," he said. "People are saying that of course things could be worse and we are alive. But it is still very distressing because for some people everything has gone. I spoke to one family who said that Christmas is gone. They had been looking forward to having their uncles and aunts to stay but now their house is under water. For many families, it is too early to take it all in."Reuse content