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The little river that roared: Chichester's residents treated the Lavant as a joke. Now, says Tim Weeks, nobody's laughing

Tim Weeks
Thursday 13 January 1994 01:02 GMT

THE POND in the West Sussex village of Singleton is flanked on one side by an arched bridge built of flint and brick and on the other by a thatched cottage. A line of houses called Cobbler's Row links it to the rest of the village. The scene is so idyllic that the British Tourist Board used it on the 'Welcome to Britain' pictures at Heathrow.

Yesterday I watched the men of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution row an inflatable lifeboat on Cobbler's Row. The residents refused to be rescued, although the ground floors of several houses were clearly flooded. 'They won't come out,' said a fireman.

The opinion among those watching was that they had never seen it this bad. Since this is the worst flooding since 1887, it is unlikely they would have, and if it is 107 years until the next time they see a lifeboat moored to the Singleton craft shop and tearooms, most will not be too upset.

East Dean is what many people picture when they think of a Sussex downland village. Following a chalky stream in from the west, you pass a garage with two pumps that must once have been a smithy. The road narrows between the post-

office stores and a sign saying 'Slow - Ducks Crossing' and then curves around three sides of a green with a pond in the middle. A cluster of houses fans out around the green and follows the road up to the village pub, and on to the church.

Today that pond has expanded to cover the entire green, several gardens and at least one sitting room. The well behind the path has burst and water now pours through the cellar, squirting out from the base of the front wall, and running down the road to meet the main rush thundering off the flooded fields along the valley to the east.

The chalky stream that flows in from the west has now broken its banks and closed the roads, not only out of East Dean but also throughout the City of Chichester.

To hear the river Lavant mentioned on national radio in the same breath as the Avon, the Ouse and the Thames, seems impossible to anyone who grew up in Chichester.

The Lavant is not a permanent and defining feature of the landscape, as the Arun is to Arundel. The riverbed, about 6ft wide, tucks away behind houses and garages, casually bridged with a single plank wherever anyone wants a short cut from their garden to the shops.

The Lavant is normally dry between April and December, and one of the dares of living in Chichester is to crawl through the 18th-century tunnel that tidies the river away as it skirts the city walls, before emerging to meander across the fields to the sea.

No wharf ever flanked this insignificant ditch: the marinas of Chichester harbour lie several miles to the west of the city itself.

In recent years the Lavant has failed to rise at all, and many people, myself included, have bemoaned its demise and blamed the water companies for extracting too much from their bore holes. Now quite a few of us wish they'd extracted rather more, and are making mental notes to wash our cars more often and with bigger hoses.

The reason for this sudden inundation lies in the construction of the South Downs. The hills are made of chalk, but curving under them is a layer of clay. Chalk absorbs water like a sponge, until it is completely saturated. A huge mass of water is then left sitting in a bowl of non-porous clay. One final downpour, similar to the one that took place on 29 December, and the store of water begins to siphon over the edge of the clay bowl. The result is that the Downs, in effect, flushes like an old-fashioned cistern.

And the human consequence of this geological chain-pulling? I am pleased to report that the almost derided 'Dunkirk spirit' is very much alive. A television news crew asked a friend of mine how she was coping. 'No problem,' she replied. 'It's only a few puddles.'

They didn't use that quote, of course. Eventually they managed to make someone cry and tell the cameras how their life was ruined.

That, I suppose, made better television, but I wonder whether holding up this mirror of despair to the nation every time something goes wrong undermines people's confidence in their own ability to cope. It seems to tell the country that the normal response to a crisis is to throw your hands in the air and blame the council.

This is not the case around here. The flooding has brought out the die-hard spirit in people. We have built walls of sandbags, dug out obstructions from the riverbed, and built extra channels across waterlogged fields.

Some people have seen their gardens torn apart by tractors; one man had his shed demolished because it impeded the flow. But the prevailing mood is one of endurance, combined with a determination that when this mess is finally tidied up, we will not allow our little river to become so cluttered and neglected again.

In Chichester, on the Hornet (the street where the worst flooding has occurred), gallows humour prevails. A yacht chandler's has hung life- jackets from its first-floor windows and a fire brigade holding-tank has been embellished with three plastic ducks.

The owner of an antique shop with a flooded cellar offered to sell me the fishing rights. Restaurants and chip shops have stayed open all night, dispensing food and drink to the firemen who have installed hoses right through the city, piping the flood past Chichester's single most famous building, the 16th-century market cross.

Unfortunately, the sight of the cross with a few fire hoses snaking past was not dramatic enough for the BBC, which produced a montage of the cross with water right next to it.

This was necessary, I suppose, to back the contention that 'flood water was racing through the ancient city centre', although I had always assumed that the centre was the bit within the Roman walls - the Hornet is the eastern approach road, and the river always ran outside the wall, to act as a moat.

The main South Coast trunk road, the A27, looks more like a moat now that much of the water approaching Chichester has been diverted along it. This has resulted in the most extraordinary sight of all: the army erecting a Bailey bridge over an island that was once a roundabout, while people windsurf down the Brighton to Portsmouth carriageway.

The top of the bridge affords an excellent view of the remains of Sainsbury's, which burnt down just before Christmas. After fire and flood, should we brace ourselves for the locusts?

One thing is certain. The National Rivers Authority has previously refused to take responsibility for the Lavant on the grounds that it wasn't really a river. Now it will have to think again.

(Photograph omitted)

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