Tewkesbury battens down as flood waters rise once again

Elaine Nichols spoke for many in Tewkesbury yesterday as she pushed wet sand into pillowcases and rubble sacks before stacking them on top of a plastic sheet covering her front door. She said: "We are a town on tenterhooks. The sight of any water where it shouldn't be is enough to make me and my neighbours have a panic attack. We reach for the shovels."

Some 300 metres from the front door of the neat 1960s semi that the 37-year-old teacher shares with her husband and two children, a vast expanse of water that had escaped the confluence of the river Avon and the river Severn bore testimony to the unease felt by her and others in the Gloucestershire town that was rendered an island and devastated by the flooding of last July.

Mrs Nichols moved back into her house shortly before Christmas after work costing £25,000 to repair and restore her family's home had been finished. As she put it: "It would be cruel beyond belief if we were hit again just after we've taken down the Christmas decorations and begun to sleep easy in our beds again."

Hers was one of 1,600 homes in Tewkesbury that were badly damaged by the extraordinary floods seven months ago. The mere suggestion that the billowing, mud and sewage-laden waters could return is sufficient to send a paroxysm of anxiety through those who are still recovering from that ordeal.

By last night, the Environment Agency had issued 181 flood watches and 63 flood warnings, including one covering the stretch of the Severn that passes through Tewkesbury, after a band of heavy rain swept across southern England, causing disruption and localised flooding from Dorset to Dover. There were no severe flood warnings, the highest level of alert, and the agency said conditions were not as extreme as they were last July.

But forecasters warned that the next 48 hours will be crucial for Wales and the South-west. If further heavy rain falls today and tomorrow, rivers could start to overflow. As the floodplain was saturated by wet weather last week, it could lead to flash flooding.

An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: "People should be vigilant over the next 48 hours as the rain water moves down from the hills and into the river system. We have moved quickly to put up flood defences where necessary."

All of this was of little comfort to concerned homeowners in the worst-hit corners of Tewkesbury, a town founded for its strategic position at the meeting point of two of England's major rivers and now haunted by their insidious, destructive power.

Heavy rainfall last weekend once more brought the flood waters to within 10 metres of the town's medieval abbey. Yesterday they were still lapping around the historic centre as it echoed to sound of the machine tools of builders still putting right last summer's damage, and homeowners once more moved belongings to upper floors and made sandbag barriers.

Julie Irwin, 42, like many in the town's flood zone, is still living in a caravan. She shares her temporary home with her husband, three children, three cats and a dog. The caravan is parked on the drive of the family home, which is awaiting the arrival of contractors to rip out saturated floors and replaster walls. She said: "I am still living in a caravan, as are many others – they don't float very well. I just feel we are sitting ducks. My middle daughter's anxiety levels are very high. She keeps watching the television and saying, 'We are going to flood, we are going to flood.' People's mental health here is in question.

"I heard that an elderly man had a stroke on Friday because he was so worried about what was going to happen here."

Mrs Irwin headed an effort last month to highlight the continuing effects of the flooding in Gloucestershire by sending a Christmas card to Gordon Brown depicting the damage. The verse read: "Away in a caravan/ No room for a tree/ Merry Christmas from the flooded residents/ Of Tewkesbury." The town's council sought to allay some concerns yesterday by issuing sandbags despite the absence of a severe flood warning.

Residents in the old parts of the town centre pointed out that the large expanses of water on the flood plains around the town, appearing to create the impression that it was once more about to be inundated, was normal during wet winter weather.

Chris Pike, director of commercial services for Tewkesbury Borough Council, said: "We have not had reports of any properties flooding in the borough. But we do understand that people have a heightened level of anxiety after the events of last summer and we have raised our response to meet those concerns. We would not normally issue sandbags at this point but we are happy to do so in recognition of the worries that people have."

Others put a different complexion on the problem. Jim Arnold, 68, a retired truck driver, splashed into the flood waters in a pair of waders and he walked his two spaniels besides a bloated river Avon.

He said: "Bloody marvellous. This river has been doing this long before the first straw hut was built here. Every now and again it shows us who's the real boss around here."