More flood misery for thousands of people over the festive period

Swathes of South-west cut off after worst seasonal weather in living memory

Thousands of people face a struggle getting home in time for Christmas with more heavy rain forecast to cause further flooding today, causing travel disruption across the country.

The wettest festive weather in living memory continued with renewed downfalls in the South-west last night. The rain is expected to spread over much of southern Britain raising the flood risk as it adds to already swollen watercourses and saturated ground.

The usual Christmas Eve retail boom is still expected today, with an estimated 17.2 million people – 36 per cent of the adult population – hitting the shops. They will spend at least £1.3bn between them, according to research from Sainsbury's Bank, up from an expected spend of £1bn last year.

But in many places other people will have more pressing concerns, such as keeping floodwaters out of their homes and managing to get to their Yuletide reunions with relatives in spite of severe problems on roads and rail.

Flooding has been so bad in the South West that First Great Western advised passengers not to try to travel west of Taunton unless their journeys were essential.

Symbolic of the worst of the problem has been the damming exercise on the London-to-Exeter railway line at Cowley Bridge, near Exeter in Devon. Engineers, rescue crews and Network Rail staff have struggled to prevent the line, which runs along the River Exe floodplain, being overwhelmed by the swollen river.

Plastic water-filled dams have been used for the first time in this country to prevent the line, now closed until after Christmas, from being swept away entirely. It is already thought to have suffered damage. "When the water has receded we will walk the line and see what we need to do to re-open it," said a Network Rail spokesman. "It is more than likely the water will have washed away a lot of the ballast – the crushed granite the railway line sits on."

Rivers in the South-east, Midlands and North-east will continue to rise over the next few days, with the Severn in Worcester set to peak at 5.3 metres last night, more than double its usual level. The Environment Agency has sent out over 110,000 warnings to people at risk of flooding since last Wednesday.

Latest figures show around 400 properties have flooded since then, making for the most dismal pre-Christmas period imaginable for the householders, although flood defences have protected 20,000 more properties across England and Wales, including 4,000 in Cornwall.

Dozens of communities across the country were affected by floods over the weekend, in the South-West in particular, with Lostwithiel in Cornwall and Barnstaple in North Devon among the worst hit, along with parts of south Wales.

Emergency services rescued people swept away in their cars and in Umberleigh, near Barnstaple in Devon, a woman was saved by a lifeboat after she was found clinging to a tree on the banks of the swollen River Taw.

Robin Gisby, director at Network Rail, said: "We apologise to passengers who have had their journeys disrupted at this busy time and we are doing all we can to keep things moving. However, safety is our priority."

The roads were also affected by flooding, with the eastbound A27 near Chichester and westbound slip road to Reading services on the M4 both closed.

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