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Not in our bit of river

If a south-westerly gale is blowing up the Bristol Channel at breakfast-time on Friday, the people who live beside the Severn at Priding, a few miles south of Gloucester, are going to be in trouble. For that morning the National Rivers Authority is forecasting a three-star bore - the wave which rides on the front of the tide - and if the wind gets behind it as it surges up-river there is every chance that the water will come over the bank.

Further upstream, above Gloucester, hundreds of homes have been flooded during this winter of torrential rain; yet few householders have such reason to feel aggrieved as those in the scattered hamlet of Priding. Were it not for the resistance of two stubborn owners, they would all now be protected from the river by a solidly built wall.

One peculiarity of the Severn below Gloucester is that rainfall does not greatly affect it. No matter how much fresh water comes down from the north, the critical factors are always the tide and the wind.

Jasper Ely - merchant seaman, farmer, cider-maker, fisherman and general expert on the Severn - came to Priding Farm 34 years ago; and he, like other locals, is convinced that the tides are gradually growing bigger. His house stands some 25 yards from the water's edge, separated from it by a lane and an earth rampart on the bank, and protected by a retaining wall round the building itself.

Three times during his tenure he has been comprehensively flooded. The first occasion was in 1981, the second in 1990, and the third on Thursday last week. Always the cause has been the same: a big tide with a gale behind it.

After the 1981 flood he thought, "Bugger me, we'll never see the like of that again." But 1990 confounded him and, as a result, he bought a load of bricks, intending to raise his own protective wall by three or four courses. For various reasons he never got round to this rebuilding; but then in 1991 the NRA announced that it was going to raise the tidal defences along the bank all the way from Priding to Longney Crib, a couple of miles upstream. Jasper and his neighbours relaxed. As he says, "We thought, `Right, we can put up with it for a bit. We're going to have a wall'."

Phase One of the work was duly completed, in the form of a handsome brick wall on immensely solid concrete foundations. But construction ended half a mile short of Priding Farm, when the NRA hit a snag. The householders there own land right to the water's edge, and in order to continue the wall downstream, it was necessary for the authority to obtain their permission.

Two owners, whose houses stand back from the river on slightly higher ground so that they are not in danger of being flooded, refused to have the wall built across their property, because it would impair their view of the river. As someone remarked, "For Nimby read Namfa - not `Not in My Back Yard', but `Not Across My Front Area'."

The NRA went to some lengths to find a way round the objections, producing one design after another and even offering to bury a telephone cable which crossed the view. Yet all was in vain, and Phase Two of the scheme has now been shelved in favour of plans to strengthen the individual defences of the houses still at risk.

The owners are strongly opposed to this idea - not least because, without a full-scale wall, their access lane along the river bank will still be flooded by big tides, and the whole area will be cut off. Meanwhile, their vulnerability was demonstrated all too clearly by the tide on 16 February.

Although rated only 8.7 metres - the amount the river rises at Sharpness Dock, a dozen miles downstream - the tide was driven to a tremendous height by the following gale. The bore came past Priding at 8pm and then, in Jasper's words, "We were watching him. I said, `Put all the plugs in the drains.' Then it was, `Oh, bloody hang me. Here he is.' Whack! Christ! In five minutes he was everywhere - into the house, into the cider shed and stable."

Inside the house, the water gushed up in fountains through the drains and reached a depth of 3ft. Having already disconnected the fridge and deep-freeze, Jasper grabbed what he could and "took upstairs a bit quick". Out on the bank two elver fishermen were caught napping. Their car was flooded to within inches of the roof, and for an hour they had to perch on a gate. On the other side of the river, 50 sheep were drowned.

All this was with an 8.7-metre tide. The one for Friday is predicted to be 9.7 metres. No wonder Jasper and his neighbours are nervous; and no wonder their feelings about the Namfa-ites up the lane are a long way beyond being printable.