Sixty four years ago… part 2

I wrote yesterday about the ghastly and tragic events on the night of January 31st and the morning of February 1st in 1953, when a tremendous storm surge flooded across teh east coast of Scotalnd and England, and the adjacent Dutch coastline:
1953: Violent storms claim hundreds of lives

Hundreds of people living on the east coast of Britain have died in some of the worst storms ever recorded. Gale force northerly winds lashed the coastline and broke through flood defences from Yorkshire down to Kent throughout the night.
Swelling tides and high winds mixed to form a fatal combination which claimed dozens of lives and flooded thousands of homes on low-lying land all along the east coast. Many people were forced to spend the night on their rooftops waiting to be rescued by over-stretched emergency services.

‘Exceptionally strong winds’

The storm began on the west coast of Ireland yesterday morning, passed over Orkney and then funnelled down the North Sea, driving a deadly mountain of water before it. The Princess Victoria ferry, travelling from Scotland to Ireland, was forced to abandon ship in the Irish Sea after it was caught in the heavy storms. The death toll reached 130. Warnings of “rather high tides” issued by the Dutch authorities did not reach Britain and it is known many people in both Holland and Belgium also lost their lives.

The eye of the storm hit eastern Scotland at approximately midday yesterday as Dunstable Met Office warned of “exceptionally strong winds”. The first fatalities on land were reported at approximately 1700 hrs yesterday after 20ft (6m) waves crashed through flood defences in Lincolnshire. More than 40 people are feared drowned. Throughout the night the high winds travelled down the east coast ripping through sea walls and claiming dozens of lives.

Counties worst affected were Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent. In Canvey Island, Essex, the entire 13,000-strong population was moved to safety as the bad weather took hold. Essex police said they had recovered 30 bodies during the night. Eye-witnesses up and down the country said water was gushing through streets and thousands of homes were flooded.

Sixty four years ago…

I often think that water is my element, but water is deceptively dangerous… and not just for those who swim in it or sail or take boats on it… sometimes even in a person’s own home water can devastate and have a deadly power.
Sixty-four years ago, on the night of January 31st and the morning of February 1st 1953, due to  extraordinary weather conditions – a deep Atlantic depression swept eastwards past the north of Scotland and roared southeastwards through the North Sea. There were northerly gales on the western side of this depression, and they forced the sea water southwards. There was a high spring tide and the storm surge roared towards the coast of eastern England – and across the channel to the Netherlands, and the sea defences were utterly inadequate.
These days with mass communication  it is possible to give some warning, even in the most ghastly and dramatic events, but in 1953 all people had was the radio – not many houses had telephones, and even if they had, it would have been almost impossible to get in touch with enough people in time.

So it was night-time, pitch black on a January night, a storm was raging, and along the coast of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Kent a tidal surge more than eighteen and a half foot high above normal sea level – as high as many of the cottages and bungalows along the coastline, rushed ashore blown on winds gusting at over 125mph.

People were safe and snug at home, children in bed, parents reading the newspaper or doing the chores, when out of the darkness, born on the wind, came water.

Tragically people died… 307 people in England, 19 in Scotland, and 1800 poor souls in the Netherlands. In England, 160,000 acres were flooded – the land unusable for years afterwards – think of the impact on agriculture… the whole infrastructure of the affected areas was down, gasworks, power stations, transport, every form of transport – road, rail and river, sewerage, fresh water… the cost was reckoned then to be £53,000,000 – today that would equal over £1.2 billion…

You can read more about it here, and also what has happened since to try and avoid such a disaster – as far as possible:

Visit this page to see what happened to our Dutch neighbours across the sea:

A mythical voyage

My recent writings, the challenge towrite 50,00 words, led me to some curious places… I looked at the voyages of St Brendan the navigator, and Nicholas of Lynn

St. Brendan is known far more widely, beyond Ireland, because of his voyage from Europe across the Atlantic; many believe he actually reached North America, although there’s not much actual proof other than ‘belief’. Known as St Brendan the Navigator, or Saint Brendan of Clonfert he was born in 484 near Tralee in County Kerry; he was the son of Finnlug and Cara according to tradition and legend, but who can really say after sixteen hundred years.!  He may have died in about 577 at the  age of ninety-four – fantastic for those times – in County Galway.

He was born in tribal Ireland, untouched by the Romans except maybe for the very easternmost sea-boards, and probably belonged to the Altraige tribe. Saint Patrick had arrive in Ireland some fifty years before, taken as a slave from the hills of Somerset, possible even our village of Uphill, and he and his followers had converted many Irish people by then.

Brendan is most famously  known for his travels; even if none of the legends and stories is true, what is certain is that he did make a voyage, a remarkable voyage and may well have been one of the first Europeans to set foot on land on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It has been difficult enough to find evidence of the Vikings who we now know did get to mainland North America, but to find the slight traces and provable evidence for some Irish monks making landfall fifteen hundred years ago is impossible.

The reason for his voyage, his mission, was to find the Garden of Eden, or the Isle of the Blessed, (Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum) and  the Promised Land of the Saints. His story was written three hundred years later in the ninth century, but there are many different versions; over one hundred manuscripts across Europe exist plus many translations and interpretations. His story may have  been sensationalised to make it more interesting or exciting.

The explorers – because really that is what they were, driven by the same interests, desires and ambitions as any other explorer, Columbus, Drake, Cook, Ranulph Fiennes…  – must have seen many amazing things, whatever the fabrication, fantasy and fiction of the accounts. They would have navigated by the stars, and as experienced seamen  they may have been able to ‘read’ the sea and the wind, and know their position roughly from where the sun was. They wouldn’t necessarily have known where they were, but they would be able to back track home – even if they were blown off course.

We are so ignorant in comparison, so easily lost in so many ways!

Last word on NaNo… (for now!)

This is the fourth year I have attempted the challenge of writing 50,000 words in the month of November. I didn’t decide till the last minute, for several reasons – I was three-quarters way through another book I’m writing, I seemed to have hit a bit of a slough with writing anyway, I had an empty head – empty of any ideas.

I was undecided up until the last moment, the actual day the challenge started, November 1st and then I plunged in. The challenge is supposed to be a new novel, but I only had half-started ones, so I went for an idea I’ve been playing about with, of writing a sort of memoir, sort of family history, but using my imagination to make it more interesting and detailed than if I just tried to remember particular things from my childhood.

The connecting thread running through my stories is the River… the River in actual fact is many rivers, the Cam from my early years in Cambridge, the Mersey, the Irwell and the Medlock from living in Manchester, the Axe from living in Somerset, the Bann and the Bush from visiting Ireland so many times. I wrote quite a few stories about the Cam and my experiences, by it, on it, in it, and also its own story, where it comes from, what it’s like, where it goes and which other rivers join it on its way. I returned to the Cam with memories of it freezing over in years gone by, and from there I explored skating on the Cam and other fenland rivers and waterways, and became intrigued and involved with the story of a party of skaters in 1903 who had a tragic accident.

I started to write about the Irwell in the same way, but I got side-tracked by the actual river, and there is not much about me and my time in Manchester… something to go back to… ditto the Medlock and the Mersey.

I felt sure that since I am now living by the River Axe, a few hundred yards from it in fact, that I would write a lot of my own story; in fact I got involved in someone else’s life story, a man who died nearly sixty years ago, drowned in the Axe while trying to save someone else. While researching him, I came across a distant cousin of his, who also drowned at a similar age but in a river round he other side of the world, the  Campaspe in Victoria state,  an inland intermittent river… however in my writing the river played a very small part, I was  more interested in the life of the man before he sadly died. In turn I became interested in the pub his father owned for a few years, and then the man who built and started the pub thirty years previously – a long way from rivers, and from my own life story!

Of all the rivers I have loved the one which has featured most and in most of my novels has been the River Bush; I wrote about it, but again it was more the factual side of it… and so to with the bann, and then somehow St Brenadn was brought into my mind, St Brendan who is supposed to have gone on an amazing voyage of adventure… and suddenly I was writing about him and his companions and their experiences on the sea in boats, retelling his story. This in turn made me think of Nicholas of Lynn, a priest and monk who also went on great voyages – or so he wrote! Lynn is King’s Lynn, not far from where the skating accident happened…

Nicholas of Lynn

Somehow I moved away from English rivers to the Mighty Amazon,and my grandfather who went up it to Manaós in the early part of the twentieth century…

What a muddle it all seems looking back… a muddle but if I unpick it and reknit it in a more ordered pattern, maybe I might make something out of it all!

  1. the Cam, in it, on it, by it
  2. the Cam its composition and history and geography
  3. skating on the frozen Cam
  4. tragic skating accident in the Fens in 1903
  5. the story of the young people before and after the accident
  6. the Mersey, the Irwell and the Medlock
  7. the Axe
  8. Edwin Clogg of Looe, Cornwall
  9. Edwin Clogg of the Camberwell Hotel, Victoria
  10. the Camberwell Hotel and George Eastaway
  11. George Eastaway of Bristol
  12. Edwin John Clogg
  13. Arthur Parker the billiard marker
  14. Arthur Barker the farmer
  15. David Hoy the ship builder
  16. The  Bush and the Bann
  17. St Brendan and his voyage
  18. Nicholas of Lynn and his voyage
  19. Reginald Matthews and his journey to Manaós
  20. The Bush and my novels
  21. coracles and curaghs
  22. my writng



A sad story

When I started the 50,000 word novel-writing challenge, I was very hazy as to which way it would go, how it would go and whether it would go at all! I really don’t think I am going to complete, but it has been an interesting journey.

I started with the idea of an imaginative memoir, being creative about things I couldn’t remember or didn’t know, but creative in a realistic and not anachronistic way. I used rivers I have known and loved as a way of travelling though my memories and reminiscences, and like with all rivers they wander and flow, sometimes disappearing to reappear unexpectedly… and trying to find the source is always tricky and mysterious.

I started doing a little research about the actual rivers, as well as about my family, and I’ve already mentioned the tragic skating accident of 1903 when a young woman drowned. Now in researching a different river, the Axe which comes out into the sea in our village, I found another tragedy, but which led me to explore an interesting life. The Axe winds its way through the Somerset countryside, and the nearest village to us that it passes through is Bleadon; an elderly man drowned in 1957 trying to save a young lad who had got into difficulties. This man came originally from Cornwall and it seems that he was a conscientious objector during the first war – which must have been hard and a courageous stand to take. I am now looking into his family history, and seeing what more I can find out about him. There is a gravestone for him in  Bleadon churchyard which I will have a look at – if it ever stops raining!

Here is a link to my other books, some of which were started in previous novel writing challenges:

Forgotten tragedy

The tragedy of a group  of friends skating across a frozen fen,  no doubt laughing and calling out to each other as they sped across the deep ice, speeding along until what was hard and solid beneath their blades cracks and becomes flooded with water – the tragedy of their plunge, the lads desperate attempts to save themselves and save the girl, must have been heartbreaking.

I mentioned this story, a true story I had come across yesterday when I was struggling to really engage with the National Novel Writing Month challenge of writing 50,000 in November. I was writing about my experiences as a child of such hard winters that the rivers froze… but this terrible story goes back to 1903.

I have been doing a little research about the people involved; it hasn’t been that easy, and I’ve had to be persistent, but I have found details of those involved, the brother and sister, Dorothy and Harry, and her fiancé Russell – was he called Russ by his friends? Skating with them was another friend, Florence, and her mother, Lizzie; these two women, thankfully were behind with Harry and were safe. Harry must have seen the ice splinter and crack and he must have dashed ahead to try and save and rescue his friend and sister. It seems that the three ended up in the water,and sadly, perhaps weighed down by her heavy winter clothes, her long skirts and petticoats, sadly Dorothy drowned.

The inquest was held a couple of days later; the coroner, a local solicitor would have known these young people, he lived near them in an elegant and rather exclusive area of Spalding. How it must have wrung his heart to reach the sad verdict of ‘accidentally drowned’; how angry he must have felt when he and the jury and those present in the courtroom heard that there were two men standing nearby who refused to make any effort to help the drowning girl and desperate young men. She was not even twenty, her brother twenty-four, her fiance twenty-two…

I am just researching the story at the movement, and writing the facts of the matter… but it is someone else’s story; these people were a similar age to my grandparents, and the ones who survived, probably have grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  if I ever ‘use’ this story in my novel writing, it will be the idea of it, not the actual tale of real people who had such a horrific experience on a January day in 1903.

Swimming through

Here’s something I have written about before, but I’ve written it differently this time… it’s about my relationship with the River Cam:

The older of the two girls was taken to the outdoor swimming pool by her mother, certainly in the summer when she was eighteen months old, maybe the previous year too. Even so little, she had no fear of the water and would float around like a little starfish, her mother close by. The feeling of floating between the water and the sky never left her, water was her natural element.

Much later she would swim in the river; there was an annual race through the town along what is known as the Middle River, and for several years from being about twelve or thirteen, she would compete. She would dive with the others from the punt moored against Darwin College Bridge, then swim fast towards and beneath Silver Street Bridge, trying to break free of rest.

The swimmers raced beneath the Mathematical Bridge, properly called the Wooden Bridge; they all knew, and all their parents and probably most of the town knew, that Sir Isaac Newton built or at least designed the bridge… That would have been a real achievement of the great thinker, as he had been dead for twenty-two years before the bridge was built. The swimmers, and their parents and most of the town knew that the bridge was built without nuts, bolts or any metal parts… Sadly, for this wonderful myth and its believers, the joints ware held by iron pins or coach screws, and today’s bridge is held fast by nuts and coach-bolts.

By this time the girl had turned onto her back and was swimming between the walls of the colleges and their grounds gazing up at the sky, usually grey even in summer, and looking at all around her, including her opponents.

The swimmers began to spread out and by the time they had reached King’s College Bridge, there were clear front swimmers and a straggle of those further back. Looking back from many years later, it was apparent that there must have been boats accompanying them, or at least people acting as lifeguards – no doubt people from the two main swimming clubs in town. There would have been punts and canoes, but looking back, she couldn’t recall them. Where there were banks beside the river, they would be crowded with people, cheering and shouting; swimming on her back she could see and hear the spectators. Occasionally she would turn onto her front, especially when approaching bridges.

The beautiful Clare College Bridge was constructed in 1640, but the girl didn’t know that, nor that it’s the oldest of the college bridges; ; she knew that the decorative balls on the walls of the bridge numbered 13¾. She, like most people in Cambridge, probably the same most people who knew that Newton designed and built the Mathematical Bridge which contained no metal parts, knew that the missing quarter of the stone ball had been excised by the original builder who had not been properly paid for his work. There is no evidence for this… far more likely the ball was made in segments and one fell out, maybe into the river, maybe elsewhere.

When the girl and her friends were doing ‘The Swim Through’ they would have passed beneath a recently constructed bridge, the Garret Hostel Bridge, and then the much older by nearly two hundred years, Trinity College Bridge. For some reason she would swim on her back after going under the Kitchen Bridge, swimming between the college walls of St Johns, as if she was in a moat going round a castle, looking up at the Bridge of Sighs. Then she would know the end was in sight, and maybe she would turn and swim fast on her front, trying to get ahead of the others. Under Magdalene Bridge, and to the finishing line…

She came fifth, she came third, she came second, but she never ever won this river race, she never ever won the Swim Through.