Tewkesbury: the town that turned into an island

It is a historic market town and a celebrated stop on the Cotswold cream-tea route. But after the deluge, its 10,000 residents found themselves at the centre of the flood misery
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Tewkesbury owes its existence to its location at the confluence of the rivers Avon and Severn which meet on the meadows below its fine Norman abbey. A crossroads of trade and a gatepost to the western kingdom, it was here that the armies of York and Lancaster clashed in one of the decisive battles of the War of the Roses.

Reminders of this history lie all around this charming market town, a celebrated stop on the Cotswold cream-tea tourist trail, where coachloads of visitors admire its Tudor architecture and narrow alleyways. In one of the Abbey's inaccessible burial vaults can be found the bones of George Clarence, dispatched according to Shakespeare - with the dramatist's regard for the historical record - in a butt of malmsey.

Elsewhere in the crypts lie the bones of the foot soldiers who met their death either in the Bloody Meadow or in the sacred environs of the Abbey itself when Edward's IV's Yorkists defied the medieval rules of sanctuary to slaughter their Lancastrian quarry.

The talk yesterday was that the bones of both royal houses were now mingling in the catacombs of the Abbey for the first time in centuries. But even for locals with a keen appreciation of the long sweep of history afforded by this corner of Gloucestershire, the events of recent days have proved testing in the extreme.

The rain began falling at 3am on Friday morning said Berengeria FitzHamond-Davis, who lives in the Abbey's 700-year-old converted grain store on the banks of the Severn. By daybreak the water was up to her knees. Yesterday, however, she was refusing to be cowed by the devastation the flood had wreaked on her home.

Dressed in a pink bonnet and silver high heels, she was showing passers-by the damage. "If you live in a place like Tewkesbury you know you are going to get flooded at some point. But it hasn't happened like this for 150 years,'' she said.

Her initial reaction, she said, was to move her seven cats to safety upstairs, followed by her collection of 16th- and 17th-century oil paintings. Most had been saved, but wading through the filthy brown water in the candlelight yesterday she was still able to point out antique furniture and books lost to the flood.

Tewkesbury was yesterday little more than island in the English countryside, where cars bobbed uselessly in the flooded streets, and where ruined possessions began stacking up outside the front doors of homes. Roads into the town were impassable to anything but boats, while those armed with rubber boots were forced to brave the quagmire of the disused railway track - the only land link with the outside world.

The town, with its population of 10,000 is the worst hit by this weekend's floods. Freshwater supplies are non-existent with the local Tesco handing out thousands of bottles of drinking water to desperate locals.

Electricity supplies are touch and go with fears that the still-rising water levels might yet engulf a nearby sub-station plunging Tewkesbury and the rest of Gloucestershire into darkness.

John King, a retired fire-fighter, described hearing a sound like a "train'' as the torrent raced towards his bungalow. "It just tore down the streets; it was several feet high and was travelling about 20mph, which is extremely fast. It was just devastation, total chaos, cars floating past, rubbish, all kinds. You just can't stop water at that power. "

The sick and elderly were among the worst hit. Patients at the 55-bed cottage hospital were removed from the lower ward and taken to nearby health centres. Those too ill to travel were cared for by staff on the upper ward. No one knows exactly how many houses have been affected though hundreds are thought to have been hit. The final cost will run into tens of millions of pounds. The town's normally bustling historic centre was still thigh-deep in water yesterday. All the shops were closed, and a few pubs were serving those who had decided to see out the crisis with the help of alcohol. Dozens of holidaymakers caught out by the rising tide were enjoying extended stays free of charge in local hotels. Ironically many had come to see the town's Water Festival, which was due to be celebrated on the two rivers this weekend but is now postponed until the waters subside.

In what has become an all-too- common sound this English summer, the sound of TV news helicopters could be heard over the deserted streets.

Tewkesbury has suffered a double whammy in the weekend storms, which saw between four and five inches of rain fall on the already sodden ground overnight, as much as might normally expected in the whole of July. On Friday morning heavy rain over the Cotswold escarpment began draining into the fast-flowing Avon bringing the first floods. By Sunday, heavy rain in Worcestershire had swollen the Severn to dangerous heights. To make matters worse, two other tributaries, the Swilgate and the Carrant Brook, were also at unprecedented levels.

A further surge in the water level is expected later today when the heavy rain which fell over Wales at the weekend finally makes its way downriver.

According to a local independent councillor, Mike Sztymiak, the events were all too predictable. "It is true that we live with flooding in Tewkesbury and this is exceptional but it is exactly what people would say would happen if both rivers flooded at the same time.''

The last major flood occurred in Tewkesbury in 1947 when the deluge followed the bitterly cold winter of that year in which snow fell for 40 consecutive days. Then it was the spring thaw that brought devastation. Since then new homes have had to comply with tougher planning restrictions to avoid a repeat of the disaster. But there is concern that the 1,500 flood-proof new homes built over the past 10 years in the Newtown area have changed the way the water flows through the town with devastating consequences for the eastern neighbourhoods.

And once again it is the historic quarter of Tewkesbury which has borne the brunt of the flood. Over at the Abbey, 60 people spent the night in the church hall while a further 20 bedded down elsewhere in other precinct buildings.

Yet something of a party atmosphere had developed over the weekend. The Abbey served a curry night to all-comers while a local Irish band provided al fresco entertainment in the flooded town centre. Even last night, many were trying hard to see the positives.

Gary Coates, a local stonemason, helped his neighbours escape their homes. "There are quite a lot of elderly and disabled people that live by me and it has been great getting to know them for the first time even though we have been neighbours for years. The essence of the past few days has been that great community spirit has emerged,'' he said.

At the height of the deluge 40 locals helped barricade the doors of the Abbey with sandbags, preventing major damage. In return the Abbey had provided assistance as well as meeting its normal schedule of services without interruption.

Outsiders praised the hospitality they had received. Tim and Susan Brewster seemed unfazed to have missed their flight back to Fort Worth Texas. "Last week we walked on the hills around the town and our guide pointed to the fields by the river and told us how they all could flood. We never thought we'd see it for ourselves,'' said Mr Brewster.