'Better patrol the roads between the Fenchurches,' suggested (Superintendent) Blundell. 'St Peter is greatly alarmed – they’re afraid for the bridges. We are arranging a service of ferry-boats. They lie even lower than you do and are, I fear, not so well prepared as you, sir.'
'We can offer them shelter here,' said the Rector. 'The church will hold nearly a thousand at a pinch, but they must bring what food they can. And their bedding, of course.'
Note the need for self reliance: no mobiles to call for help, no emergency services with helicopters to rescue people from their roofs. Everything was down to the local community, as it was at the time of the terrible floods of 1953. Strangely, the only novels I can think of which deal with that disaster were written for children. The best of these, I think, is The Great Gale by Hester Burton , published by OUP in 1960.
The book begins:
This is the story of what happened to a village in Norfolk one winter night, early in 1953. It is the story of everyone who lived in that village.
The main characters are Mary and Mark Vaughan, children of the local doctor. By ill chance, their parents are in Norwich on the night of the flood and the children have to cope alone in a house suddenly surrounded by rising water. As in The Nine Tailors, the church is used as a refuge. The sense of isolation is frightening: when the villagers listen to ‘a battery wireless’, the east coast gets no mention on the news.
Part of the book is based on a true life incident involving Airman Reis Leming, an American who won the George Cross. The children are not at all heroic but come bravely through their ordeal; there is never any doubt that the whole experience is terrifying and there is real tragedy. Hester Burton is best known for her historical novels but I prefer this twentieth century one, which I suppose is now historical! No one seems to read her now. My copy of this book is a first edition in perfect condition and it cost me almost nothing on eBay a while ago. Atmospheric pictures by Joan Kiddell-Monroe, too.
Malcolm Saville's Sea Witch Comes Home was also published in 1960 but is very different. It's the thirteenth Lone Pine book and the worst, in many people's opinion. The flood is used to add drama to a story which would work without it and there is none of the brilliant atmosphere of The Great Gale. Most of Saville's books have a little topographical introduction:
The scene is a stretch of the east coast of England between Southwold and Orford which for centuries has been attacked by the sea and which is slowly crumbling away. At the end of the book, he can't resist instructing his young readers on the valuable work of the WVS and the helpers 'to save life, to comfort the afflicted, to shelter the homeless, to restore the services of gas, telephone and water that we take for granted.' Rather plodding.
A much better book and one of my all time favourites is Monica Edwards' Storm Ahead (1953). This was based not on contemporary events but on a tragedy which took place during Monica Edwards' own childhood: the Rye lifeboat disaster of 1928. It's excellently written, the storm brilliantly described, the tragedy felt. Here's Tamzin riding Cascade through flood waters in the dark, to fetch a doctor.
Other wet books include: Crusoe Island by M E Atkinson, part of the Lockett series; Margaret J Baker's Castaway Christmas and Jam Tomorrow by Monica Redlich. Each of these shows realistically how frightening water, mud and fear of running out of food can be. I wonder if anyone will ever write a book about events at Cockermouth, 2009?