On 15 and 16 August 1952, a storm of tropical intensity broke over south-west England, depositing 9.0 inches of rain within 24 hours on the already saturated soil of Exmoor.
A guest at the Lyndale Hotel described the night to the Sunday Express:
From seven o’clock last night the waters rose rapidly and at nine o’clock it was just like an avalanche coming through our hotel, bringing down boulders from the hills and breaking down walls, doors and windows. Within half an hour the guests had evacuated the ground floor. In another ten minutes the second floor was covered, and then we made for the top floor where we spent the night.
Overnight, more than 100 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged along with 28 of the 31 bridges and 38 cars were washed out to sea. In total, 34 people died, with a further 420 made homeless. The seawall and lighthouse survived the main flood, but were seriously undermined. The lighthouse collapsed into the river the next day.
At the same time, the River Bray at Filleigh also flooded, costing the lives of three Scouts from Manchester who had been camping long side the river. It remains the worst flood in the UK.
There are stories of those who acted with great bravery for example Derek Harper who had just completed his police training clambered over the hills towards Porlock to the only phone which worked to call for help. He was later awarded the George medal for his bravery. The generosity of others was seen in the setting up a fund for the victims of the disaster and raised more than £300,000 by the end of the first month.
Remembering and retelling the story is part of any culture, remembering occurs as parents tell and retell to their children and grandchildren what is most prized in their community.
In Hebrew Scripture or the Old Testament we see the telling and retelling of the stories which belong to a community of faith. As God’s people journeyed through the Wilderness, into slavery and exile in Egypt then on into freedom in the Promised Land they would remember. They would tell and retell their stories in exile to remember who they were in order to remember who God was for them, and his generosity and grace. Their continuation as a community was often due to this retelling.
Today I joined the community of Lynmouth to remember and retell the story of the flood 65 years ago of those who fought to save life and of those who died. Some there remember loved ones lost all those years ago and others will remember those affected but who have since died but who are still loved and missed.
We remember and retell their stories, not just out of a mark of respect, not just to give thanks for their lives and for the bravery of others but because in retelling their stories we remember God’s faithfulness and hope for a future where this could not happen again.
Bishop Robert Mortimer preaching at the memorial service said that when it was all over a cross should be erected where the water broke though he said: ‘A cross is a sign, not simply of death, but of death followed by resurrection’. The cross was made from English oak from the Watersmeet Estate felled on All Souls Day 2001.
The cross speaks of the love of God which is in Christ. The author of Romans reminds us that neither death nor life, neither angles nor demons; neither the present nor the future nor any power, neither height nor depth nor anything else can separate us from that love.
The cross speaks about what God did in the past in the death and resurrection of Christ that points to a future where there will no longer be death, tragedy or suffering but until that day is holds us in our present firm and secure – it speaks of hope and it is hope which is the anchor of the soul. To have hope doesn’t mean that we won’t face suffering or times of disaster but the cross reminds us that in the midst of the chaos Jesus is our anchor.
But hope should also motivate us to be part of that future. In retelling the story of what happened 65 years ago we should learn lessons – lessons about flood management, the construction of bridges and tree planting, the impact of new developments and climate change so that we reduce the risk of such a tragedy happening again. We need to be part of the change that we long to see and learn from the past.
The new exhibition retells the story of that night and of the resilience of those who lived through those days. It speaks of a community who has continued to flourish but I hope it also encourages those who come to that come to question what should be learnt and we can prevent floods like the one in Lynmouth 65 years ago and the mud slide of today which we have seen in Sierra Leone.