The worst summer rainfall in living memory

Paddling in a dinghy across his potato field to inspect a tractor largely hidden below water, Rob Keene struggled to recall the extraordinary events of the last week. “There’s just so much that has happened,” he told me, with a smile that barely concealed his exhaustion and anxiety.

Keene was working in that field 10 days ago, but the ground was wet after weeks of rain and the tractor kept getting stuck. He decided to leave it there and collect it after the earth dried a little. But on Friday 20th the heavens opened and the tractor stuck fast.

That day, at around 5pm, traffic passing before Over Farm, on the A40 dual carriageway, suddenly snarled up. Choking with water, many engines simply stopped working. So for four hours, Keene and his three sons used farm machinery to drag cars off the road.

The Keenes supplied drinks to these passing strangers, and then food, and finally found themselves putting up several individuals for the night.

Keene’s own problems started later, when rainfall coming off higher ground caused the river to swell. He went out to rescue cattle from the fields nearest the water. He’d no sooner done that than the water was up to his knees.

Then a breach in the side of the potato field started to let through a wall of water a foot deep. In seconds, the breach lengthened from five feet to 250 yards, allowing floodwaters to consume the whole field and others beyond it. The tractor had little chance: in no time, only the roof remained visible.

Keene, who flies microlights, has subsequently been up to inspect the land from the air. His photos show clearly a blister of land in the middle of the flood plain: a rubbish tip serving nearby Gloucester. He accepts that tips need to be built somewhere, but believes that this particular choice of location has pushed the rainfall elsewhere – onto his fields.

Altogether, he’s lost 400 acres, including winter feed and Christmas trees. But his most significant crop was potatoes, and they’ve nearly all gone. It’s been hard to sleep at night, he concedes.

But the family didn’t stop helping others. While the roads remained closed, Keene’s son Tim ran an improvised bus service getting people into Gloucester for supplies. Fitting as many as 28 in the trailer, he ran to and from the city ever half-hour.

The Keenes’ story was not unique, but it was one of the most remarkable I heard last week, as I traveled through Tewkesbury, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Stroud and Oxford – following the biggest summer flood anybody could remember.

It was like stepping into another world, described by at least one emergency services chief as, essentially, a war zone. Police cars seemed to be parked on every roundabout, blocking access to roads that had flooded. Firefighters clustered around great pipes, pumping water from homes and streets back into rivers. Other, unspecified individuals in fluorescent yellow jackets wandered about looking officious.

The crisis had started after the heavy rains of Friday 20th swelled two rivers, the Avon and the Severn, which come together at Tewkesbury. The effect of their swollen convergence was worsened by extensive building on the local flood plain – fields that would previously have soaked up much excess water.

Within hours, Tewkesbury was entirely surrounded, so that a visiting BBC reporter was able to describe himself to residents, drolly, as a visitor “from the mainland”. When I visited, the waters had fallen a little but I enjoyed the unlikely experience – in the Midlands – of passing Land Rovers marked “Coast Guard”. They drove slowly, negotiating a passage round abandoned vehicles still steamed up inside after days under water.

Trucks, vans and lorries shuttled water in “bowsers” – a word most people had never used before but now used a very great deal indeed, as they queued to fill buckets and bottles with the precious liquid they normally take so much for granted. By Wednesday, there were 900 bowsers across Gloucestershire alone.

Even then, people were grumbling about the water supply that, they knew, could not possibly be restored for two weeks after contamination of the Mythe treatment plant. They were soon whispering about other people taking more than their fair share of water, and even that some bowsers had been vandalised – young citizens of Cheltenham reportedly contaminating water supplies by the admixture of urine, or bleach.

In urban centres, the distribution of bottled water in supermarket car parks had to be overseen by police. Andy Higgins, of Tesco in Stroud, explained the high security thus: “It got a bit punchy in Gloucester.”

That’s not altogether surprising: some 340,000 people had no water, and not a few of these thirsty, unwashed individuals had queued for hours at bowsers only to watch them run dry before they could fill a single bottle.

Some people had found alternative water supplies. Greg and Sue Dance, also in Stroud, took me to a local spring in the hillside. The water needs boiling before you drink it, they said – but then, so does the water from bowsers.

Before leaving the Dances, I asked if I could use their loo – and immediately regretted it. I’d have been better off fertilizing their plants, because the cistern was empty. I had to use valuable water they’d previously collected in buckets. (At Tesco, each family was being given 24 litres – about a third as much as most individuals flush down the loo every day.)

But the Dances didn’t complain. In fact, most of the people affected by floods and shortages refrained from complaints. (“Who do I blame?” one man asked. “God?”) More typically, the fault-finding came from people whose lives were least disrupted.

In Stroud, flooding was caused by rain, not swelling rivers. On Slad Road, where a culvert failed, the Lloyds Pharmacy was inundated by black mud above the height of its cabinets, as was the Co-op. Rain came down so fast that staff had no way to get out, and had to break through a fence at the back. The local surgery flooded too, and a baker has gone out of business because his machinery gummed up.

Across the road, floods consumed garages belonging to individuals such as Lionel Walround, a retired museum curator. Archived documents and photographs from the 1800s were destroyed, he says, and his pristine Austin Metro was perfectly coated, inside and out, with an emulsion of muck and oil. Insurers have offered just £350 in compensation.

Walround, 79, looks remarkably calm, but when I point that out he makes a grinding motion with his hands. “I feel like somebody has done this to my insides.” Not that he’s feeling particularly sorry for himself: a neighbour, he says, lost two cars.

Alan and Deanna Berry lost two cars and watched the water creep to four feet high at their home in New Town, Tewkesbury, half a mile from the Avon and Severn rivers. “For the first few days people were kicking about in the water and having fun,” said Alan. “Now the full impact has come home. But we have survived and life will move on.”

Anne Salvia, in Botley, Oxford, sounded similarly resigned as she splashed across a new carpet laid after last year’s flood. Mercifully, she’d had sufficient warning this time to take things upstairs, and raise the sofa and piano on blocks of wood with help from her son and sons in law. Like Walround, she said neighbours had it worse.

One woman who might not have been able easily to find worse-off neighbours was Samantha Jones, a pregnant mother, who fell over in sewage that had backed up into her home in Cardiff. To make matters worse, she was carrying her toddler at the time. “They’ve told us we’ve got to disinfect the whole place and ourselves,” she said. “The water’s horrible.” (Torrential rains hit south Wales on Thursday this week.)

By the end of the week many others were starting to worry about disease. The Health Protection Agency confirmed that flood waters mixed with sewage might contain dangerous bacteria such as cholera. Professor Ian Cluckie, scientist and chairman of the government-funded Flood Risk Management Research Consortium, warned: “For God's sake, don't let children walk around in it.”

On the plus side, many observed that the floods had been great for community spirit. Adrian Rosser, whose garden in Botley filled with badgers flooded out of their set, had gone to fetch sandbags the other day and been confronted by an intimidating group of hoodies – only to be asked by one cheerful yoof if they could help him in any way.

(Rosser, whose house didn’t flood, intended to write to insurers and point out the injustice of raising premiums across an entire postcode.)

Of course, the “Blitz Spirit” cliche can be overdone. Ancient pensioners and the disabled, gathered together in evacuation centres, milled about looking confused, not cheerful. And Athene Reiss, from one of the two worst affected streets in Oxford, told me that Duke Street already had a good community spirit, thank you very much, and didn’t need flooding to bring out the best in people.

Like Keene, with his photos of the rubbish tip near Gloucester – and like Tewkesbury’s Roger Spry, a landscape gardener and former farmer who understands drainage and blames newly paved gardens, a new bypass and a superstore – Reiss wanted urgently to show how the development of flood plains has caused houses such as hers, in older streets, to flood.

She was waiting on a corner for the rumoured arrival of Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, currently on walkabout nearby. I wondered what she wanted to show him – perhaps the mighty nearby acreage of car parks at Wickes, Toys R Us and PC World?

That wasn’t what Reiss had in mind. Wading through Duke Street she gestured towards a new development of executive homes, none of them flooded. “Yvette Cooper, the housing minister, might look at these and say, ‘Great! They didn’t flood, so you can build on flood plains!’ But that’s because they've raised the level of the ground under the new houses – and created a dam at the bottom of our road that flooded us!”

“We’re not angry with the people who live there,” she stressed. “We’re angry with the developer, and we’re angry with the council for letting them build it.”

She never had the chance to show Benn what troubled her. After looking round nearby Osney, briefly, the minister was whisked away elsewhere.