Boscastle Flood Case Study 2004 Calendar

It had begun. For centuries, Boscastle had been little more than a picturesque gaggle of stone buildings sheltering behind an ancient harbour, immortalised – in a quiet way – as Castle Boterel in the Thomas Hardy poem. Now it was to be revealed to the world as the victim of a flood of biblical ferocity.

As the Valency burst its banks, it sent 440 million gallons of water cascading down the main street at up to 40 miles an hour, uprooting trees, washing away boulders and, ultimately, buildings.

The overflowing river picked up vehicles in the car park. The surreal procession of small cars and larger camper vans was captured on camera, and broadcast by news channels worldwide, complete with the helpful observation from one onlooker: "The whole car park’s coming down."

"It was the camper van that did for us," says Trixie Webster forlornly. "In the blink of an eye, the shop was gone." She had not been unduly worried when she evacuated her Harbour Light shop at the start of the flood. Dating from the 16th century, the building had been bought by her father, Norman Webber, in 1957 for £71 6s 6d when it was a piggery. It had survived everything that pigs, tourists and Cornish weather could throw at it.

Now the camper van clipped the corner of the shop and the slate-roofed cob structure – made of a mixture of sand, straw, water and earth – collapsed.

Hovering above the mounting carnage, Captain Pete McLelland of rescue helicopter 193 from the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose, signaled his control: "This is a major incident, repeat major incident. We are in danger of losing Boscastle and all the people in it."

The emergency services who responded to that call, it emerged later, came with 100 body bags. Boscastle had suffered a one-in-400 disaster, a flood of a magnitude expected only once every 400 years. In a village of 800 people, 58 properties were flooded, two shops, one visitor centre and 116 cars swept away. And yet no one had died. In time, it became known as the miracle of Boscastle.

Stroll through the village on a summer’s day, and it seems hard to believe such a crisis ever happened. The Valency gurgles down to the harbour at little more than ankle height; impossible now to imagine that it once grew so high and so angry that when it swept away the cars, they gouged scars in the village roofs. The Riverside Hotel is as solid as when it was built in 1584. Indeed, fewer places seem less suited to 'biblical ferocity’ than Boscastle. The stone walls look centuries old, like a backdrop for Thomas Hardy at his gentlest.

Hardy, the locals will be delighted to explain, met his first wife, Emma Gifford, in 1870, when he was still working for an architectural practice and helping to restore St Juliot’s church, about two miles outside Boscastle. His courtship of the rector’s sister-in-law helped inspire his novel A Pair of Blue Eyes.

Today, Boscastle is a place where the 'locals’ tend to reveal themselves as holidaymakers-turned-residents: people who visited for years, until the temptation got too great. They settled in, opened a b & b, perhaps a craft shop. Those who waited slightly longer before escaping to the village enjoy a retirement focused on sea views and a spot of gardening.

If there is any resentment of 'incomers’ here, you will have to work hard to find it. Boscastle presents a friendly, open face to the world. You can’t help thinking that the television researchers hugged themselves with delight when they found the place. A Seaside Parish, the docusoap first broadcast at the start of 2004, gave Boscastle its modern, pre-flood fame. The 'dramas’ were such issues as the fundraising calendar for the church bell tower. It featured tastefully naked builders.

The rather bigger drama of the flood is now marked by the odd plaque commemorating the reconstruction of a destroyed building or the water level of 16 August, 2004. There is also a video exhibition in the new visitor centre – new because the old centre was destroyed by the flood. Rebecca David, the manager, was airlifted with a handful of terrified tourists from the collapsing roof. Now, though, she smiles, and, very politely, insists: "Boscastle has a lot of history, and the flood is just one part of it. We have moved on."

Four years on, there is little eagerness anywhere to relive the crisis. What they might tell you about, though, is the hidden story of its aftermath. Because many in Boscastle believe that the village has not just risen from the flood. It has improved – in spirit, organisation and appearance. In the words of one local: "We have got our beautiful village back. And we have raised our game."

And in a way this is Boscastle’s quieter, second miracle. Because on 17 August, 2004, Boscastle seemed lost forever.

The morning after the flood, Mr Templar walked with Izzy to a hill overlooking Boscastle – a village that should have been enjoying the height of the tourist season. "The only sound," he says, "was the noise of my fire alarm."

The apparent solidity of his hotel and his own quiet, imperturbable manner make it easy to assume that he has been here for ever. In fact Mr Templar, who speaks in the accent of his native Oxfordshire, and his wife, Margaret, were among those who moved in because they had fallen in love with the place and wanted a different lifestyle. Now he was effectively homeless, his seemingly solid hotel – his livelihood – was at risk of being demolished because the flood had reduced it to a structurally unsound wreck. He listened to his hotel’s fire alarm, surveyed the devastation. "The flood," he says now, "was the easy bit."

When villagers recall those early days, few seem able to remember the precise order of times and dates. The memories are surreal, almost dreamlike. "I found a beautiful trout on my lawn," says Denise Tillinghast of the Valency b & b. "I didn’t have the heart to eat it."

Adrian Prescott, 50, of Lower Meadows Bed and Breakfast, was the man who had wanted to install a water feature on the day of the flood. He found it the morning after, an inoffensive pile of slates poking out of the mud now smothering his drive.

Luckily, he had bought a spare pump for it. It wasn’t in the garden shed that had floated into the telephone box and been smashed to pieces by a camper van landing on top of it. It was in the other shed, the one that almost floated up a tree. Mr Prescott clambered in and retrieved his pump. By then, of course, he wasn’t in the mood for installing water features.

Mr Prescott is another incomer, a former BT worker, who arrived from Hampshire about 18 months before the flood. He is also a master of the wry, raised eyebrow, of meeting triumph and disaster with a certain deadpan surprise.

"The morning after," he explains, "clearing up was a bit like p---ing in the wind. So I got my bookings diary, sat in yesterday’s shorts, and phoned people up explaining no, they couldn’t come down that week, but yes, of course their deposit would be returned. At least the diary was dry. I had put it on an old table, which floated."

Trixie Webster remembers the white zip-up suits they had to wear to protect themselves against the burst sewers. In their post-apocalyptic costumes, she and fellow villagers stumbled through the wreckage, passing loss adjusters with jackets, ties and briefcases. John Prescott visited, and North Cornwall District Council eventually received £447,000 to help with clearing up. The Prince of Wales appeared.

"I went out of the village about a week after the flood," says Mrs Webster, "and had to return almost immediately. I was so used to living in a war zone, that it felt most peculiar to see life going on as normal outside Boscastle."

The flood had deposited 20 years’ worth of sediment in one day. Some villagers practically had to tunnel their way into their properties to see what could be salvaged.

Lesley Brough Walker was luckier. Only her floor was covered in mud. She spent the morning cleaning up, then went to the village community centre, now the hastily established 'relief centre’, offering food, clothing and officials with information.

"I just wandered in to see if there was anything I could do to help. I sort of stayed there for seven months."

Mrs Brough Walker ended up running the centre. Now 54 and an amateur artist, she was then a recently retired primary school headmistress. It is tempting to conclude that the right woman wandered into the community centre at the right time.

"After you have run a primary school," she says, "it is really not a problem to organise a few people. It needed doing, so I got on with it." She helped administer the donations that came from all over Britain, taking delivery of what the villagers needed, creatively disposing of what they didn’t.

"We had tins of Heinz soup coming out of our ears. It was a little too much. We raffled them to raise money for the relief fund."

For some, sending soup wasn’t enough. Dave, the sculptor from Wales, appeared after a few days. He just walked in and asked if there was anything he could do. He was tremendous.

"He stayed for months, camping just outside the village. Then, when he thought everything was basically under control, he left. I don’t think he even said goodbye."

There were others like him. Alan appeared after walking six miles from Camelford – hardly any buses were running on the flooded roads. An electrician – his name not immediately remembered – arrived hoping for work. When he realised that Boscastle had little need of rewiring jobs, he "stayed and grafted, sh-t shoveling mainly, and whatever else we asked him to do."

The ex-headmistress makes it sound like a rather amusing chapter in her life, but, as she explains why she kept the relief centre open until Easter 2005, she does reveal a darker side. "A lot of people were quite traumatised by the flood, but almost didn’t realise it. I suppose there are as many reactions as there are folk. Some people battened down the hatches and got on with dealing with their own problems. Some people wanted to talk – and we always had the kettle on."

All over Boscastle, the homeless survivors were turning to their friends, being put up for months, very often for nominal rent, in holiday cottages that were meant to be let to tourists for profit.

Official organisation, though, was beginning to assert itself. Environment Agency officials began to examine the causes of the flood, to see what could be done to stop it happening again. On 24 September, 2004, the first meeting of the Boscastle Regeneration Steering Group was held in the Camelot Castle Hotel, Tintagel. The group brought together representatives of the parish, district and county councils, the power and water companies, the Environment Agency and the National Trust. As the villagers installed dehumidifiers and – with varying degrees of success – spoke to their insurance companies, the steering group set about finding money for rebuilding.

Through its efforts, North Cornwall District Council was able to secure a £707,000 EU grant from the European Regional Development Fund to go towards £1.4 million of rebuilding. The grant – awarded in January 2006 – meant that in time, the village’s destroyed streetscape could be restored, complete with lampposts, chairs and benches. A new children’s play area could be built on the edge of Boscastle, replacing the undulating playing field that had been next to the ill-fated car park.

In some ways, though, the unofficial organisation may have had the greater long-term impact. By May Day 2005, many shops and guesthouses were repaired to the point where the village could hold a 'Boscastle’s back in business’ parade. Children proceeded through the town in fancy dress and then cut a ribbon to symbolise the village’s reopening.

The parade was organised by a body that didn’t exist before the flood: the Boscastle Chamber of Commerce. Mr Prescott is its chairman. When he remembers it now, Mr Prescott refers not to a 'reopening’, but to a 'rebirth’. "Effectively, it was like starting new businesses from scratch. The village wasn’t going to magically reassert itself. We had to be proactive and promote the place."

If the parade showed Boscastle was 'back in business’, it also demonstrated an emerging new spirit. Disaster was being turned into opportunity, into a determination not just to return to normal, but also to improve on what had gone before.

The parade was repeated that year 'because it was fun’. Boscastle now has a food festival, too, due to take place next weekend. Mr Prescott wastes little time in mentioning the relevant website, or the 'walking week’ of guided trips around the village and surrounding countryside that follows from 6-10 October. Soon he is talking of involving tourists in a photography competition, with one eye on a Boscastle 2009 calendar. He concludes with a grin: "Yes, I would say there is more going on to promote Boscastle since the flood. I suppose it has rejuvenated the village."

It has certainly created a new environmental awareness. Boscastle now has five gold awards from the Green Tourism Business Scheme, the highest such concentration in the UK.

"The flood was a bit of a trigger," Mr Prescott admits. "You think 'hang on, we have almost lost all of this. What can we do to safeguard it for future generations?'"

In the short term, of course, there were repairs to be done. The villagers discovered a new pastime: communal beachcombing. Washed up in the harbour mouth and nearby beaches were materials that could be salvaged for rebuilding and repair.

Four months after the flood, Boscastle staged three 'Help the Harbour’ days. Villagers armed with diggers descended on the harbour and removed 600 tons of rubble. Much of it is now in the walls of Boscastle. Look at any seemingly unchanged stone wall near the river today, and it is likely that most of it is built from material that was washed away and recovered from the harbour. Only the occasional lack of weathering on some slabs suggests that parts of the original Boscastle are still lost at sea.

Hedley Venning, 45, a local builder and Trixie Webster’s son-in-law, proved one of the most enthusiastic beachcombers. He had watched the Harbour Light collapse. "I had helped maintain that place. I couldn’t believe that somewhere I had looked after and loved for years could disappear in seconds. I was going to rebuild it."

So he set about finding the original building material. Every storm or spring tide meant a churned up sea bed – and hope. The last granite window frame – the missing one of a set of four – appeared almost miraculously in December.

"It was just sitting there in the harbour, with the sun shining on it, as if it wanted to be found. I was so pleased I started photographing it."

Mrs Webster, meanwhile, was contacted by an artist who had been beach- combing at Woolacombe in Devon, about 60 miles up the coast. She had discovered a coffee jar washed up by the waves. It was the Harbour Light’s 'time capsule’, which Mrs Webster’s father had wedged between a beam and a wall. She has it now, and allows herself a wry smile at the innocent wonder in her father’s note: 'Shop flooded to a depth of 4ft on June 3, 1958, with great loss [of stock].’

Only one of the shop’s treasures was lost forever: the beam that had been nearest the harbour, on which all staff since the 1950s had carved their names.

The eternal optimist might still hope. About a year after the flood, the 'National Trust Boscastle Harbour’ sign washed up on Lundy Island, 35 miles north. The 'Please Keep Dogs on a Lead’ notice made it to a few miles off Wales before it was picked up in a trawler’s net.

The other beneficiary of the Help the Harbour days was Boscastle’s small crab and lobster fishing fleet. The accumulated rubble had raised the harbour bottom by more than six feet, meaning that they had only enough water to sail out on the highest tides. Once the rubble was removed, the only problem was how to avoid the submerged cars. Of the 116 washed away in the flood, 84 were found, wrecked, in the harbour or nearby. That left 32 under water, about a dozen near the harbour mouth.

Once a month, local diving enthusiasts would go out near the harbour mouth and place marker buoys over the cars they found. Tides, currents and corrosion eventually removed them. Other obstacles proved less fun to remove: many villagers now display a grim familiarity with insurance company small print or planning bureaucracy.

When the Valency burst its banks, Debbie Beszant, 48, was in Things, her gift shop, struggling to remove her last customer so that she could get sandbags in place and evacuate. "He had his credit card out and wouldn’t go until he had bought something for his kids – two fluffy cats, I seem to remember. A few days later, I was standing on my own, in the rain, on the hill above my shop, watching a TV cameraman watching it being demolished. The final blow was that all my credit card records were washed away, so I suppose that tourist got his fluffy cats for free."

This soon became the least of her worries. "We had to wait for the Environment Agency to compile its initial report into what caused the flood. Then, after about 12 months, we got planning permission. Then building control told us this was not a rebuild, because we didn’t have any of the old walls. It was a new build. So we had to comply with disabled-access regulations. Which meant we had to start again, because the shop had originally been split-level, with the back higher than the front. Then the Environment Agency said we couldn’t lower the back of the shop, because that would increase the risk of flood damage."

She can see the Catch-22 humour now. "There was," she says, "one day when I thought 'I can’t fight this any more. It’s just beyond me.' Then I woke up the next morning and thought, 'Of course I can fight it.'"

Mrs Beszant – a woman who does not appear easily intimidated – got the relevant officials to agree to what she describes, perhaps politely, as 'a round-table meeting’. A compromise was thrashed out. The shop could be on one level – helping disabled access – if the front was raised, so the whole property was higher and safer from floodwaters.

Building work started in October 2005, 14 months after the flood, and Mrs Beszant’s shop reopened in April 2006. She no longer sells fluffy cats: "You have to update your stock." Mrs Beszant adds that she has also updated her loft. "We put two Velux windows in. So we had a means of escape."

Such drastic measures will, hopefully, never be needed. Boscastle now has a £4.6 million Environment Agency flood defence scheme. Various ideas were toyed with, says Andrew Houghton, of the Environment Agency. "We did look at digging a tunnel that would take water from the car park, through the hillside, through the cliff and out to sea."

Apparently this was not as outlandish as it might seem. "It’s been done before in other places, like Polperro. But in Boscastle it wasn’t such a good idea. Considering the amount of debris washed down in the 2004 flood, there was a real risk that something would block the relief tunnel, which would render the whole thing useless."

Instead, Mr Houghton talks of more modern 'holistic’ solutions: "We made space for water." And fish. With the help of an electrical fish stunner, salmon and brown trout were first caught and then moved about a mile upstream from the village. (A handful of rainbow trout were less lucky. Their two years of liberty over, they were returned to the fish farm from which they had escaped in 2004.)

Then, in October 2006, a careful scraping and scooping operation began, to give the impression that the river had been widened and deepened by the force of water, instead of man and machine. Diggers scooped sediment out of the river bottom. Milling heads ground away the slate banks, giving them a water-worn, jagged profile. The salmon and trout got their own side pools, giving them places to rest away from the main force of the current as they migrated upstream.

Most of the river in Boscastle was widened by about 10ft and deepened by 3ft 3in, more than doubling the Valency’s water-carrying capacity through the village. Before, Boscastle was regarded as having a one-in-10 chance of flooding in any given year. Now, it should withstand a one-in-75-year event.

"We could not prevent flooding in a one-in-400-year event," says Mr Houghton, "but we could make it safer. We could reduce the risk to life and property. We could make it happen less quickly, giving people time to prepare; and we could divert the water away from buildings."

Special attention, of course, was paid to the car park. It was moved more than 30ft from the riverbank, and raised by three feet. A guard of bollards was placed around the perimeter. Those working on the project prefer to call them 'car catchers’.

It wasn’t just Boscastle that received the Environment Agency’s attention. Mr Houghton says that what happened here helped inspire a search for other communities that might be similarly threatened by a swollen river channelling tons of water, at destructive speed, towards their homes.

The Environment Agency is putting the finishing touches to a register of 'rapid-response catchments’, compiled with the help of computer modelling to detail how each river would be affected by heavy rain, and has identified 260 communities that are potentially at risk (see below). The hope is that it will allow officials to identify any towns and villages requiring Boscastle-style flood defence schemes, and to liaise with the emergency services to decide how best to protect the affected towns and villages.

Back in Boscastle, the contractors have completed the main flood defence scheme. The new riverside walkway has just opened. Workers are on to the final job: building a gauging station near the Riverside Hotel. Using ultrasonic detectors, it will measure the speed of water flowing through the Valency, so that a computer can calculate the volume in the river and warn of an impending flood. And while this modern finishing touch is applied, the Harbour Light – or 'Pixie House’ to give it its local nickname – already looks for all the world as if the floodwaters had never touched it.

In the end, though, the old beams could not return to the roof. "They would not have passed modern building regulations," says Mr Venning. "I doubt very much that they were ever stress-graded. We turned them into window lintels."

Danny Bluett, a carpenter, set to work on the new roof timbers. "It took him the best part of a month," says Mr Venning, "but he managed to cut them into exactly the right roof shape." Today the slate roof sags in the middle again, as if worn away by the centuries.

"I am really proud," says Mr Venning. "It’s going to be there for our family, for future generations."

"When you get through a miracle like that, when you lose only stuff and not lives," says Mrs Webster, "I think everybody would say the spirit of the village has changed subtly."

It’s just that on a busy summer day, though, you might not immediately notice it. The Riverside Hotel is still standing. It was spared demolition because it was built on bedrock, its foundation secure. In the bar hangs a photograph of Margaret Templar being winched into a helicopter as the floodwaters swirl around the hotel. If asked, Mr Templar will indulge the curious guest. Showing them to their first-floor rooms, he will point to the beds, and announce: "That’s how high the water rose."

Further upstream, Mr Prescott is happy to show off the water feature in his front garden. It was installed, 12 months late, on 16 August, 2005. The water trickles over the slates, soothing, sedate and safe.

Described in guidebooks as ‘absurdly picturesque’, the village of Boscastle has for at least 150 years attracted significant tourist numbers, drawn in largely by the striking physical setting of the village. The lower village and harbour sits within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a Conservation Area and the lower valley is largely in National Trust ownership. Changing patterns of use and development over the centuries have created a complex, characteristically Cornish, port settlement.

In 2004 a catastrophic flood tore through the village destroying 5 buildings and damaging 47 others. Remarkably no life was lost. Following this disaster the challenge was to reshape and enhance Lower Boscastle’s flood protection, creating a safe environment that maintained the community’s sense of place and identity.

Nicholas Pearson Associates (NPA) was appointed as landscape architects to the project team to work with Halcrow Group Ltd to deliver a flood alleviation strategy in a way that was responsive to this sensitive and heavily protected landscape. A full Environmental Impact Assessment was undertaken with NPA providing concept design inputs, consideration of high level design alternatives and preparing a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment of the preferred solution. The project team worked within a challenging brief defined jointly by the Environment Agency, North Cornwall District Council, the National Trust and the local community.

The design process consisted of three main steps:

1) Identification of the distinctive characteristics of Lower Boscastle: the village can be divided broadly into three character areas. Landscape strategies were devised for each character area. Achieving flood alleviation, landscape conservation and landscape enhancement together was the overarching priority.

2) Assessment of the flood damage on ‘micro’ scale landscape elements: the condition and value of physical elements that remained post flood were assessed in order to understand the damage caused and what items retained historical integrity. This phase drew upon earlier character studies, photographic evidence, discussions with local people and historic map studies. The assessment showed for example that the constrained river channel had been wider in places during the eighteenth century, and over time the channel had been in filled and riverside land had been built on to allow port activities to expand. The scheme allowed for the restoration of some lengths of bank to their earlier positions.

3) To review and tailor the engineering design options to the location: A significant element of the process was to define how much change could be tolerated by the protected landscape. This understanding of acceptable change influenced the development of design options. The most significant design interventions were directed towards those parts of the environment that had the greatest capacity to accommodate change or which would benefit most from enhancement whilst coping with flood flow predictions.

All proposals were evaluated in terms of their potential for beneficially influencing the overall sense of place in order to protect the historic integrity of the village.

The widening and deepening of the river channel, a key element in increasing the capacity of the river to handle flood flows was facilitated through the preparation of a river walling design guide that identified and retained surviving, authentic stone walls, defined vernacular wall styles and walling techniques to be used. It also guided the selection of appropriate materials, stone sizes and colours to avoid any possibility of losing the key sense of detail, variety and authenticity.

The main car park access was improved and the parking area was moved away from the river edge incorporating the design of over land flow routes and vehicle escape routes, reducing the risk of flooding and improving the riverside environment. This improved river habitat and increased biodiversity potential through the use of native planting, meadow restoration and hedge replacement has been established on reinforced embankments beside new riverside footpaths.

The final element of the project was to reconnect the east and west banks by the harbour with a new foot and vehicle bridge to replace the one washed away by the flood. Considering the potential future flood flows, the picturesque protected setting and significant stakeholder influence, a number of options were developed and tested through the preparation of photomontages. The favoured bridge design, now complete, appears on post cards of Boscastle and has been recognised for the quality of its design.

Approximate Map Location


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