Soon after we returned from holiday we spent the evening with the couple next door who lived in the flat over the delicatessen. They were charming, retired and had lived abroad working in the Colonial Service. He was a cricket enthusiast and took us to a local match to teach us the rudiments of the game. I started to get the hang of it and when someone hit the ball for six I applauded enthusiastically.
‘No, no, no!’ I was told,’ if you must clap you must do it slowly – languidly in a desultory fashion.’ He demonstrated and I got the idea. I suppose one didn’t want to give anyone a big head or wake up all the nodding colonels. What would he think of today’s crowds? I dread to think.
We had a pleasant evening and they showed us an old desk and arm chair which they wanted to off load and wondered if they would be useful to us. They wouldn’t take any money and we gratefully accepted. It was August 15th 1952 and in the South West of England, not far from where I now live, a disaster was unfolding.
Lynmouth was a harbour side village and it was connected to its sister village Lynton by a Victorian Cliff Railway. Thomas Gainsborough said it was ‘the most delightful place for a landscape painter this country can boast.’ In the twenty four hours before the flash flood, nine inches of rain had fallen on Exmoor – four miles away. The water flowed off the moors into the confluence of the East Lyn and the West Lyn rivers at Watersmeet and formed a raging torrent between the steep gorges. The force of the water carried 40,000 tons of boulders and tree trunks on the unsuspecting inhabitants.
It was about 9pm; villagers would probably be listening to the radio before bedtime and the residents of the Lyndale Hotel were probably relaxing over their after dinner coffee. Water surged into the hotel and everybody fled to the first floor and then to the second floor. Houses, cars and people were swept out to sea, as well as all the boats in the harbour. Four main road bridges were swept away.
A fisherman, Ken Oxenholme was in Lynmouth and desperately wanted to reach his wife and child who were in a caravan in the upper part of Lynton. The road was impassable so he made his way up the steep gorge through the woods. By now it was dark and through flashes of lightning he saw whole houses being swept away. ‘They folded up like a pack of cards.’ He said. He could hear the agonising screams of some of the inhabitants, most of whom he knew.
The devastation was total. Thirty four people lost their lives and there were many injured. One woman’s body was never claimed. Four hundred and twenty people were rendered homeless. There was no gas or electricity and troops and council workers were brought in to start to clear the devastation.
There was some speculation the flash flooding could have been caused by Ministry of Defence experiments in rain making. By dropping dry ice onto clouds, the idea was to start a heavy storm which would hamper enemy movements. The M.O.D. has always denied this.
We didn’t hear of this until the following day and couldn’t imagine the horror of such an experience. A friend met one of the survivors returning from a disastrous holiday by train. She was still in shock, had lost all her possessions but, as she said she still had a home, unlike the people of Lynmouth.