What do you do if it floods?: Torrential rain has disrupted the lives of people around Chichester. We follow one couple battling to save their home

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The Independent Online
WHEN the flood first came to the cottage at Cobbler's Corner, all the sandbags in the world could not have kept it out. The water did not come in by the door; it bubbled up through the carpets from cracks in the concrete floor.

That happened on the morning of Tuesday, 4 January. Ever since, Sue Martin, 35, and Ian Chivers, 37, who live at Cobbler's Corner, have been fighting day and night to save their home and belongings. 'It's like a living nightmare,' said Mr Chivers. 'The last 11 days have merged into one like a very bad dream.'

The cottage - late 17th- century, Grade II listed, flint- and-brick with oak beams - stands in the hamlet of Singleton, below the South Downs in West Sussex. The story of its ordeal by water - a case study in the way the elements can turn your world upside down - begins on 3 January, the day before the flood.

Monday: In the evening, villagers were worried about the abnormally high level of the river Lavant. Normally no more than a trickle, the Lavant is a chalk stream that descends from the Downs to Singleton before running on to Chichester and the sea.

On this day, however, after the heavy rains of December and the new year, it had become a torrent, causing such concern locally that sandbags were sent up from Chichester and piled on the village green just in case.

Tuesday: Ms Martin and Mr Chivers were woken by someone banging on their front door at 7am. Ian opened the door to discover floodwater lapping the doorstep and a neighbour laying down sandbags. During the night the pond in the centre of Singleton had overflowed, flooding the village green and Cobbler's Row, outside Cobbler's Corner. Down the high street, which also passes the cottage, the Lavant, too, had burst its banks. Water had flooded over the road and was threatening the ground floor of the Horse and Groom, one of Singleton's two pubs.

'We immediately moved everything upstairs: furniture, televisions, the hi-fi, artist's materials from my studio, books and music tapes,' Ms Martin said. Within an hour the water was three inches deep inside the house, and there was too little time to save the living-room carpet or a two-month-old studio carpet. 'It was seeping up through cracks in the concrete floors. I burst into tears.'

Ms Martin, who owns the pounds 250,000 cottage and adjoining tea-room, telephoned her parents in Chichester and asked them to come up and help. While the rest started bailing with whatever came to hand, her father used a specialised vacuum cleaner to suck up water.

That evening she and Ian lifted the kitchen cooker and the fridge on to pedestals, two bricks high.

Wednesday: The water was receding, so the day passed relatively uneventfully. The weather forecast for Thursday, however, was 'pretty horrendous'. They mopped up and paced around on the soggy carpets, and phoned their insurance company to arrange for a carpet assessor to visit on Friday.

They also found time to give an interview to a reporter from BBC's Countryfile, who was doing a programme on rivers.

Thursday: As predicted, the rain began again, and Ms Martin watched, helpless, as water started 'bubbling' through the floor next to the stove.

They spent the afternoon emptying the contents of their kitchen cupboards into cardboard boxes and either moving them upstairs or transferring them to higher shelves.

Friday: The carpet assessor arrived and agreed that the couple would need new carpets throughout. The rest of the day, and Saturday, were spent mopping up.

Sunday: In the evening the couple went to help the landlady of the Horse and Groom to move furniture in the waterlogged pub. They returned home to find that the water had risen in some parts of the house to up to six inches deep and the tea-room had succumbed to the flood for the first time.

'Every inch it got higher,' Mr Chivers said, 'it just threatened something else.' They put a third layer of bricks under the cooker and fridge. By now the rising water was threatening to reach plug sockets on the walls, so Ian switched off the electricity to one half of the house - there are two separate ring mains. With this, the couple lost their only source of heating. At midnight the Midhurst fire brigade started pumping water out of the house.

Later, a crew from ITN turned up to interview them about the flooding and at 2.45am, a BBC crew arrived for the same purpose. The couple got to bed at around 3.30 am

BY THIS time the village sewers were flooded. Several residents had sewage rising in their homes and Sue and Ian had placed large weights on the sewer manhole covers near their cottage in an attempt to prevent the effluent from overflowing.

Southern Water assured them there was no danger of their fresh water supplies being contaminated or of there being any health danger from free-flowing sewage because the waste was so diluted by floodwater. 'There's not too much of a smell,' Mr Chivers said. Once it started drying out however, Ms Martin added, 'there will be a really horrid stench'.

Meanwhile, the main A286 route from Midhurst to Chichester through Singleton was impassable because of floodwater, and four agricultural pumps were pumping out some 75,000 gallons of water a day from the flooded pond, roads and waterlogged gardens.

Singleton's police constable, Malcolm Scott, reported that he had 'seen off' two 'freelance' loss adjusters who had attempted to enter the village to drum up trade. (Later in the week, someone took advantage of the confused situation to rob the other pub, the Fox and Hounds, of smoked salmon, scampi and several garden tools).

Monday: An electrician arrived to isolate the low-lying sockets in one half of the cottage and rewire the boiler so that the heating could be used. The cooker and fridge were still working, but by this stage the couple were living mainly on sandwiches.

The rest of the day was spent clearing up and fielding constant phone calls, from neighbours and friends offering help and media organisations seeking interviews. Neither of the couple could sleep that night.

Tuesday: At 5.50am GMTV arrived to do a live broadcast. Having lost so much sleep, the couple tried to rest in shifts. Mr Chivers went to bed while Ms Martin waited up for a loss adjuster who was coming to assess damage to the property. He was sympathetic, said that the couple were fully insured and were entitled to move into other accommodation at the company's expense if they wished to; if they wanted to eat out, they should keep the receipts to reclaim the costs later.

As far as the cottage and studio were concerned, he said, they should wait for the water to subside and then hire six commercial humidifiers to dry out the house. Meanwhile, the insurance company would send them an initial payment of pounds 1,000 towards the cost of the machines.

The extent of the damage was by now becoming clear. The floors would have to be repaired, the skirting boards renewed, the walls replastered and the kitchen units replaced. Given that the cottage walls are around 18in thick, it could take 18 months to dry out.

In all this time, neither Ms Martin, an artist, nor Mr Chivers, a freelance computer- software designer, had been able to do a stroke of work. When, later in the day, Mr Chivers drove to Havant to try to do some, it began raining and he had to return home.

In the evening he helped other villagers and council officials lay sandbags down the high street in an attempt to keep the Lavant at bay.

Wednesday: At 11.30am Anthea Turner and a crew from Blue Peter turned up. It was raining again and there were fears that a full inch of rain might fall by the end of the day. The police and emergency services set up headquarters in the, by now closed and flooded, Horse and Groom.

Lifeboatmen from the RNLI station at Selsey arrived with inflatable dinghies ready to evacuate people from their homes. In the event their services were not needed, although several families moved out to stay with relatives and friends as the waters kept rising.

At 1pm Mr Chivers called the fire brigade again and for three hours they pumped out the house before giving up the struggle. Later that afternoon the electrician returned to isolate the plugs on the studio side of the house, which were by now threatened.

By the evening Ms Martin had been interviewed by reporters from Sky Television, Radio 4, Radio Sussex and the Press Association (not to mention the Independent on Sunday) and Mr Chivers, browned off by the media attention, had gone to help other villagers dig up a culvert they believed was acting as a bottleneck, preventing the waters of the Lavant from escaping freely beyond the village.

Thursday: The worst, it seems, is over.

Now all the couple have to do is wait for the waters to subside, recall the electrician, switch on the humidifiers for weeks if not months, agree the insurance claim, choose new kitchen units, call in the builders, buy new carpets, and move the furniture back downstairs. In two years their lives may return to normal but at least, with any luck, they won't have another visit from Blue Peter.

(Photograph omitted)