The day the rains came
ON Wednesday, July 10, 1968 – 40 years ago this month – the skies opened up, bringing heavy rains and, in their wake, devastation to parts of Bristol and the villages of the Chew Valley.
In what has been described as the worst storm in more than 50 years, more than five inches of rain fell on the region in less than 24 hours.
Constant thunder and lightning, combined with a dark, eerie sky completed the frightening picture.
The countryside, already sodden as a result of a wet spring, experienced a sheet run-off of water.
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Fields, covered by up to six inches of water, washed trees, earth and stones into the river Chew, causing a build-up of debris at bridges and weirs.
Then, at Chew Magna, the reservoir overflowed. Why it did, and what happened to the flood controls, is still debated today.
Sometime during the evening, the inevitable happened – one of the ancient bridges on the Chew gave way under pressure sending a torrent of water and debris down to the next bridge, and so on.
This wall of water – just like the one that had so devastated Lynmouth in 1952 – crashed down the valley destroying everything in its wake, bridges, houses, even parked cars.
The ancient road bridges at Pensford and Woollard as well as the County Bridge at Keynsham were destroyed beyond repair, causing major traffic problems.
Damage to property ran into millions of pounds.
By the time the wave of water and debris reached the major town of Keynsham shortly before midnight, it was some 10ft high. Dapps Hill, by the river, was devastated.
Eight people lost their lives, including three in a car that was washed from the bridge at Keynsham's Bath Hill.
The devastation meant hundreds of people, rescued from flooded houses, rooftops and cars, spent the night with luckier friends or neighbours or in village halls.
When the flood waters had receded, the army arrived to install temporary Bailey bridges and to help clean up the devastation.
Even Prince Philip turned up, touring Pensford and Keynsham, to see the damage for himself.
It was a July night never to be forgotten in the Chew Valley.
But there was trouble in Bristol too, with flooding along the Malago stream, Hartcliffe Way and Bedminster.
The City Engineers Department here were receiving calls for help at the rate of one every 15 seconds.
Production at W D & H O Wills factory in East Street was brought to a standstill by the 3ft-high waters and dozens of nearby shops were flooded out.
Several families, evacuated from their homes, were sent to emergency centres offering food in Luckwell Road and Parson Street schools.
Mattresses, bedding, clothing and food were also distributed.
Also flooded was the City Ground, Greville Smythe Park, Ashton Trading Estate and numerous houses.
The Malago stream, which rises on Dundry, burst its banks flooding shops and houses.
In Hartcliffe Way, 33-year-old George Bowden of Ashton Drive was helping two trapped women when he was washed away by the fierce current.
The women were eventually rescued, but George Bowden's body was later recovered from water almost 10 feet deep.
In Brislington, the main road, the square and Hollywood Road became flooded.
The late bus from Bristol to Bath, with 18 people on board, became stuck in waters so deep that the occupants stepped easily from the top deck emergency door into the waiting rescue boats.
A few yards away in the Kings Arms, customers and staff had to rush upstairs to escape 5ft of swirling, muddy water in the bar.
As in Bedminster, the floods left streets littered with mud, wood and stones plus ruined furniture, sodden clothing, newspapers and magazines, shop fittings and groceries.
At Westbury-on-Trym two people in a car had a lucky escape when the parapet of a bridge over the river Trym was washed away.
The wildlife park along the Trym was soon under 3ft of water.
Bristol Rovers' old ground, Eastville Stadium, was flooded, as were several shops and homes. A week later, some five million gallons of water was pumped out of the ground.
In the centre of Bristol, the Hippodrome's basement was flooded out – but the show went on.