UK weather: The rise of the flood volunteer

From the pub landlord in Somerset to farmers sharing food for their cattle, Jamie Merrill hears the stories of everyday heroism

Click to follow
The Independent Online

These days the locals at the King Alfred pub in Burrowbridge are more concerned with sandbags, dredging policy and pumps, than with the five local ales behind the bar.

That's because they are members of a new army of flood volunteers rescuing flooded homeowners, laying down sandbags, delivering supplies and even building temporary new paths through the flood waters.

The fields that surround the pub in the heart of the Somerset Levels have been a watery world of cut off submerged homes and closed roads for more than two months now, and while the Environment Agency (EA) and military battled to hold back rising water levels on Friday, the volunteers were just busy.

At the centre of that relief effort was landlord Jim Winkworth, a member of the Flooding on the Levels Action Group (FLAG).

He told The Independent, "It all started with a meeting in the pub when we realised quite how bad the floods were likely to hit us, and it has snowballed from there.

"None of us are professionals at this, but we knew something needed to be done and there was nobody in authority who was going to help us."

Volunteers arrive with donations at the King Alfred Inn at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels (Getty Images)

Since the worst of the flooding hit last week the group has been overwhelmed with aid donations and its blue hoodies are a familiar sight on the Somerset Levels, where it has become not just a pro-dredging campaign group but practically an emergency service.

Again on Friday the pub was a flurry of activity with volunteers laying sandbags and building a new footpath, with the help of several dozen Royal Marines from 40 Commando.

In a rare victory against the waters the group created a new riverside footpath last weekend. According to Mr Winkworth from "concept to completion" the project,  which uses sandbags and wood chip, took just 24 hours. Fittingly, the path - which has reconnected the two ends of the village - has been dubbed the Winkworth Way by locals.

It's not just locals at work in Burrowbridge though. Ravi Singh who works for the Sikh charity Khalsa Aid, has been in the village for over a week after seeing its plight on television.

He is used to working in Somalia and Haiti but said, "The situation here in Burrowbridge really does have to be seen to be believed - it's like a scene from disaster movie."

Like the dozens of other volunteers Mr Singh has been lending a hand but stands out he said jokingly "as the only turban in the village". He added, "The community here is amazing. Volunteering has become contagious."

Volunteers sort out food donations in the King Alfred Inn at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels (Getty Images)

Away from what the locals call the "flood frontline" on the River Parrett volunteer Rebecca Horsington is at work in nearby Bridgwater organising another arm of the volunteers work.

She is working with the National Union of Farmers to organise the massive effort to get in enough supplies of silage, hay and straw for the animals on the area's flood hit farms.

Normally Ms Horsington is a farm secretary, but since January she's been bringing in forage from donor farms as far away as Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

She said, "The local people here have really pulled together and we have been continually surprised by the generosity of the farming community across the country who are getting in touch on Facebook and Twitter to help.

"We even had an offers of the use of an entire farm in Essex and a load of hay from Aberdeen. It's been just amazing."

Like Mr Winkworth however, she's keen to stress she's an "amateur" who "has no idea" what she is doing but that local people felt they "had no choice" but to take action, when support from the local council and Environment Agency wasn't initially forthcoming.

Volunteers take refreshments at the King Alfred Inn at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels (Getty Images)


She said, "We're an action group who want to see the rivers dredged, we never imagined we'd have to become the Somerset branch of the Red Cross."

Earlier in the week though tragedy struck as two lorries laden with hay bound for flooded Somerset crashed during week’s storms, with one driver on a mercy mission dying.

This spirit of flood volunteering isn't just restricted to the Somerset Levels. In Surrey a prisoner serving four a half years for mortgage fraud was released so he could volunteer in the flood-hit community. Lee Cooper was released after he suggested the idea to the governor of HMP Coldingley and is helping fill sandbags and deliver supplies in a Egham church hall.

While in Worcester resident Christian Gander and his neighbours on Waterworks Road, where typical of many, supporting each other and even setting up a nightly "flood watch".

He said, "The Environment Agency has got a lot of stick, but there are some things you have to take responsibility for yourself."