Floods stall Britain's great Christmas getaway as severe weather warnings are issued in south-west


Heavy rain caused misery for rail passengers in many parts of the country today, while homes and businesses in south-west England were hit by flooding.

Motorists and shoppers also faced difficult conditions on one of the busiest weekends of the year for travel and shopping.

Four severe flood warnings - which means there is a danger to life - were issued in Devon and Cornwall.

The town of Braunton in north Devon was effectively cut off, with homes and shops under water, after the River Caen burst its banks.

Heavy rain continued across much of the country throughout the day as the Christmas getaway continued.

The Environment Agency (EA) said there was a heightened flood risk across Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Bristol, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, West and East Sussex, North Yorkshire, South Wales, Ceredigion and Gwynedd.

Many people had their Christmas travel arrangements disrupted as rail services were badly hit.

The First Great Western train company advised passengers whose travel was not essential to avoid any journeys west of Taunton in Somerset because of flooding and landslips.

Arriva Trains Wales told passengers to avoid any rail travel in South Wales.

Both operators were using road vehicles to transport passengers, but efforts were hampered by a lack of vehicles and flooded roads.

East Midlands Trains suspended services between Derby and Nottingham because of flooding, while there were no trains between Stirling and Perth.

The Highways Agency said there were a handful of flooding incidents affecting roads, including the closure of the A21 in both directions near Battle, East Sussex.

A spokesman said: "There have been isolated weather-related incidents on other parts of our network today but traffic at these locations remains generally free flowing."

Some 14 Football League matches were postponed due to waterlogged pitches, including the Championship game between Blackburn and Brighton.

The Environment Agency issued two severe flood warnings in Braunton, and one each in Helston and Lostwithiel, both in Cornwall.

A spokesman said the River Caen breached a section of the flood defence in Braunton. The £1.2 million defence scheme was completed in June when the agency said the works meant flooding would be reduced from a one in 20 chance of occurring in any one year to one in 100.

Following floods in the village in 2004, the Environment Agency created a flood defence plan, working in liaison with the parish council.

Liz Spear, chairman of Braunton Parish Council, said a river was running through the centre of the town.

"It's disappointing really because the Environment Agency have just spent over £1 million on new flood defence schemes - two flood defence schemes - this year but they've been totally overwhelmed," she said.

Business owners in Caen Street surveyed the damage to their properties and expressed concern that there could be more to come as the water level on the main street remained waist-high several hours after the initial flood.

Mark Ridge, 37, became the landlord of the London Inn pub seven months ago with his wife and two children, spending £90,000 renovating it.

He said the flood has been devastating for his family.

"We were hoping this weekend would be our bumper weekend, to carry us through January, February, trade-wise, but it's just killed it now," Mr Ridge said.

"You just can't put words to it how devastated you are - you work hard all year round and this happens three days before Christmas."

Annette Essex, 48, runs Top'n'Tails pet shop in Braunton with her husband, Martin. She said that in 14 years of living in the town she had never seen flooding that bad.

"Suddenly at 6am the banks of one of the rivers broke and the water came flooding down Caen Street and into the high street and we were under about 3ft of water in our store area," she said.

"It was like a torrent of water. It was quite scary because you could hear the swish of the water and the whole road just turned into a river in the space of about 30-40 minutes."

Cornwall Council said more than 160 properties had been affected by flooding since the early hours of this morning, including 40 in Millbrook.

In Lostwithiel around 195 people were advised to leave their homes, and a rest area was set up in the Community Centre.

The EA has issued 149 flood warnings - where flooding is expected - across almost all of England and Wales, and 348 flood alerts, where flooding is possible.

In Scotland, 17 flood warnings - mostly in Tayside - and 15 flood warnings were issued by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

The Met Office released amber weather warnings, which mean "be prepared", for heavy rain and strong winds across south-west England, Yorkshire and Humber, Wales, central Scotland and the Grampians until tomorrow morning.

Tony Conlan, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "We've had a band of heavy rain across the country, with south-west England and South Wales the worst affected.

"We could be getting figures of 70mm-80mm (2.8in-3.2in) in places by the end of the day.

"In the daytime tomorrow there will be further rain for the bulk of Scotland but most of the country will be dry and mild.

"But there's a likelihood of another area of heavy rain tomorrow night moving across all of southern England, potentially increasing the problems in south-west England."

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: "Exceptional weather conditions are having a serious impact on the transport network at what is already a difficult time of year.

"The Highways Agency and Network Rail have emergency staff working round the clock to keep motorways and rail tracks open where it is safe to do so while train operators are working hard to keep services running.

"We urge people travelling through the most affected areas to plan ahead and check the latest travel information. We will continue to ensure everything possible is being done to help people get to where they need to be for Christmas."