‘Night of horrors’ – Remembering 50 years since ‘catastrophic’ Somerset floods
PUBLISHED: 09:00 12 July 2018 | UPDATED: 13:49 13 July 2018
Roads ripped apart and people evacuated from their houses during the most devastating floods on record, reporter Eleanor Young looks back after 50 years.
Thunder, lightning and torrential rain battered Somerset 50 years ago this week, leaving ‘chaotic’ and ‘destructive’ flooding in its wake.
On July 12, 1968, the worst floods reported in Somerset struck after several days of non-stop rain, thunder and lightning, resulting in up to 13ft of water in parts of the county.
Thousands of people were cut off in Weston, Hutton, Locking, Congresbury, Cheddar and Blackford with no access to trains, main roads and no electricity.
The Weston Mercury and Somerset Herald led with the headline ‘great floods cause death and disaster’ and ‘dramas of cut-off villages and impassable roads’ after torrential rain and continuous thunderstorms went on late into the Wednesday night and Thursday.
The Mercury reported: “It was a night of horror for innumerable people whose homes stood in the path of the floods.”
People were forced to abandon their homes and belongings to escape, for fear of drowning.
They reported several feet of water outside their homes with the Mercury photographer capturing the destruction left during and after the floods.
Weston was one of the few places to avoid the worst of the floods thanks to its drainage systems, but much of Hutton and Locking were left underwater.
Cheddar Gorge became ‘like a torrent’ according to villagers, as more than 1,000 tons of debris fell from the cliffs and cascaded through the streets.
The gorge and caves were closed for two weeks during the height of the tourist season after the road was ripped apart and pipes exposed – making it ‘impassable’.
Stephanie Sweeting, now aged 70, was living in Cheddar with her nine-month-old son when the floods hit.
Her parents, who owned the Woodlands tearooms in Cliff Street, were stranded in the upstairs flat after water came rushing through the café door and out the adjoining shop door.
She said: “I remember it was an awful night with torrential rain and I left my home to see how my mum and dad were doing.
“People were saying I would not be able to get up the gorge. I got as far as Tweentown before I saw why. It was carnage and chaotic. It was a horrendous time for Cheddar but everyone tried to help everyone.”
Cheddar’s Deborah Wing, who was eight at the time, recalled what she could remember about the floods.
She said: “It rained for three or four days non-stop and I was at home and it slowly rose up before it stopped about an inch from our backdoor.
“We decided to go and have a look around and I remember looking up the gorge and seeing all these boulders, stranded cars and torrents of water passing me by. It was devastating. I remember the watermarks being halfway up the buildings.
“It is scary and it makes you think how vulnerable you are to mother nature.”
Blackford was the worst hit area with the only known death as a result of the floods occurring in the village.
‘Heroic’ trio Jeremy Maud, his son Godfrey and Michael Collins rushed to the aid of Mr and Mrs Duckett after a barrage of water crashed down a country road.
The trio rushed to Ivy Cottage, owned by the Ducketts, and made every effort to save the couple.
They swam through the ‘murky water’ after they spotted them in the house and were able to rescue Mrs Duckett, however her husband Ernest was in a room downstairs which, with the pressure of the water on the door, could not be accessed.
Mr Maud got into the room by breaking a window and dove into the water to find Mr Duckett but was unsuccessful.
He was later found dead from drowning. He was 75 years old and a retired farm labourer who had lived in the village his entire life.
While the death toll was low, people lost their livelihoods with one Congresbury homeowner saying: “My husband and I have spent 16 years getting this house up together and now we have lost almost everything.
“What was our living room now looks like a mud hole. It will be months before we can get the place straight again.”
A fund was launched by Somerset County Council called the County Relief scheme in a bid to put money back into the communities which had been destroyed.
Villagers pitched in to help during and after the disaster, with youngsters tugging inflatable boats to get people around, and housing their neighbours as well as removing and clearing away the waste left behind.
The Mercury reported at the time: “Although it was a night of horror, it was also one of great gallantry and of good neighbourliness which will be remembered with pride in the Mendip county as long as the story of the great floods is told.”