The ford and footbridge, looking upstream

MR BRIAN COWARD’S MEMORIES OF THE 1952 FLOOD

Part of a letter sent to Chris Tull in  Dec 2009.

In August 1952 my wife and I were on holiday at the Ring of Bells. I had taken her before in 1949 and 1950. We had one week only for our holiday that year and the weather was poor to rotten for most of the week. We had been going about a bit in my old Jalopy a 1928 Austin Tourer. We went to Heddon’s Mouth, a walk down to Watersmeet from Rockford etc.., but no picnics on the moor. I had a photograph of myself taken standing in the river at the ford in Challacombe and in the rain, in gum boots and an ex-army gas cape. I am holding an old iron tyre from a cartwheel. This was taken the afternoon of the storm. I wish I could find the photo.

There was definitely something brewing. It got dark and looking towards Barnstaple way, huge billowing clouds were forming up many with lower parts hanging down like gigantic wasp nests, and they were a blackish brown. They looked sinister and it began to rain more heavily. There was thunder and lightning, both heavy and almost continuous. Water was coming down the road from above the inn in torrents. Mrs Zealley put on dinner late at 9.0. After dinner we went out and had a look outside. Mrs Zealley said she had never seen anything like it. The road by this time had become impossible to cross. Mr Zealley had disappeared. I had a look out of the top side door and saw water pouring by and coming from behind the inn. I took another look out of the dining room window and saw the same. I went up to the bathroom and opened a window. Even with a torch I could not see more then a few feet. The rain was coming down in ‘stair rods’ as they used to say. The water was coming down the sloping field in depth and cascading down into the … behind the inn. I was worried. I thought it might be some sort of cataclysm. My idea was to get out. I thought the inn might be washed away. Dismantle a single bed and make bridge? – but that idea was soon dismissed. We went downstairs to find the water was coming in the back side door (by the ladies lavatory). Myself, a Mr Walters and somebody else were handed bowls and blankets to stop the water going through the kitchen. We were standing in water in bare feet, baling water to the outside. There was a flash, a lightning strike very near, possibly telephone wires. Mr Walters’ hair literally stood on end and I felt prickly all over. It did put us off a bit, but we were losing the battle anyway and had to let the water go through the passage to the kitchen and out through the bar.

The noise of the rain, the thunder and the crackle of lightning was terrifying. The storm moderated a little after midnight and we eventually went to bed, but not in our room. A middle-aged couple had been ‘sleeping out’, at the Webbers I think, but they could not of course get back here. We doubled up in a single bedroom and the couple had our room. By this time I thought my car was a gonner.

Charley Zealley then landlord of the Ring O' Bells, leading his cow down what is left of the road just above the pub.In the morning, breakfast was laid on! It was a pitiful sight and so were reports of those who suffered and the devastation. The couple in the cottage by the bridge – I think this was Gladys [Gabriel], not long married, with wedding presents’ She had water nearly up to the bedrooms at one time. The Antells at New House had the same. A portion of a partition inside was torn away as water came in the back and out of the front. Mr Antell lost his wood, they also had to retreat upstairs. The Webbers were a sorry sight and so on.

The Scotts were staying at the cottage by the old pack-horse bridge. I think it is called ‘Rock Cottage’. (We were informed that Mr Scott was a brother of Peter Scott). They were rescued from across the road by placing a ladder from their wall to the first floor windows as the road had become a river. (But this conflicts with the story in your book).[I think I merely said people were rescued from upstairs window] When the flood got really bad Mr Zealley went to see if his cow Daisy was all right. He was swept away losing his footing but he managed to grasp the bank and make his way down to the Antells. (This again is what we heard and conflicts with your information, but I think I am right in saying it was a wall. This wall was probably destroyed by the flood water). [I was told a fence, but it makes very little difference] Mrs Zealley was very worried as Mr Zealley was not seen again until the following morning,.

I mentioned that on top of this said wall Mrs Zealley had pockets in which plants were growing. When repairs were actually carried out by the council, she asked the workmen for the pockets again. Without asking Mrs Zealley they formed the cement boots that I believe are still in existence. Mrs Zealley was presented with a bill for £50 for this work and she had to pay.

My car was a mess and had had water and mud it in up to two or more feet deep. Being a tourer it got in easily. After getting round the village a bit and wanting to help, I could see that there were some big strong men in action including a policeman down at the bridge trying to unblock the arch. I did get down to the Webbers, the couple at the inn were worried about their luggage! The house was a mess and deserted, then I took my series of flood photographs.

We were due to leave for home on the Saturday morning, but I had to do something about my car. I wanted to get it going. First, buckets of water thrown in to wash it out. The petrol tank was high up and gravity fed so no water got in there, but the carburettor had been under water so I took this to pieces and cleaned it out. The ignition was by the magneto and low down. I took this partly apart and put it to dry in Mrs Zealley’s oven which was still warm. The water got into the sump as the filter was low down. I drained the oil and water and refilled with fresh oil from the Potter’s garage. The battery was flat from being under water for some time so the starter lights etc were out of action – but no matter. I took the plugs out and cleaned them up also, possibly something else, refitted the magneto, tickled the carburettor and cranked-up and she started. Good old primitive motoring! I hoped for the best with the generator.

We had to stay another night but the inn was full - not with people arriving but those stranded and sleeping out. We slept in the sittingroom, pulling easy chairs together to form beds.

On Sunday morning we loaded up, said Goodbye, got the Jalopy going, and headed for home. The road for a narrow wheel-based car up to Breakneck Corner was impossible so I decided to go home via Friendship Corner and South Molton. We managed to get the car over the bridge with assistance and eventually got home although it was a long day. On the way we saw some of the flood damage to the south of Exmoor and Bish Mill etc.. I forgot to mention that Mr Scott’s car from Challacombe was washed out of the garage and was found much later two miles down the Bray.

My brakes were not much good at the best of times, but were much worse because of the flooding and almost useless by the time I got home. Something I should have done was to remove the wheels and brake drums and clean them out. When I looked at them later, the linings were worn away and the aluminium shoes polished up by the water and silt.

I spent Monday sorting things out and arrived at the office on Tuesday (by bus as usual) a day late. I was ordered to take an extra day out of my leave allowance! One of my bosses was on holiday at Lynmouth and staying at the Lyndale Hotel. In the morning they got out of the first floor windows and scrambled down the rubble that had piled up against the hotel. He certainly had a tale to tell.

At Challacombe the rubble coming down the road washed into the car park and piled up against the barn doors. This formed a dam and saved the doors, but caused the water and more rubble to fill the car park as the outlet soon became blocked. This caused my car to be in the water. There was another car on the ‘up’ side of the car park and nearer the road, but this one was protected by the bank and rubble and was only in about a foot of water. The bank by the barn eventually gave way and the car park …. If I had put my car in the barn it would, have been OK, although needing some digging out. Mr Zealley charged two shillings and six pence (12.5p) a week for use of the barn, and in those days I saved every penny. Also in the barn were chicken and in the morning a car could be covered in feathers especially if it was wet.

An amazing thing happened the following morning after the storm at about 9.0. Some visitors at the inn were about to do something when a big modern coach full of people came working its way down the lane. It stopped outside the inn in the mess and the driver said they had been stranded all night up on the moor. He meant just beyond Breakneck Corner. Being a big vehicle with a long and wide wheel-base, the driver was able to manoeuvre the coach from side to side and get round or bridge the huge holes and piles of rubble. He also said by shifting the passengers to pack up at the back or front of the coach he was able to balance the coach on three wheels! I think this is questionable to say the least.

The coach and passengers were on tour and on their way to a hotel and evening meal somewhere. One or two of the male tourists alighted and started demanding food, facilities etc. They had spent the night in a warm and dry coach, not surrounded by rushing water and not thirsty. They may not have had food with them, but they had stopped for a ‘Devon’ (although Somerset) tea. Mrs Zealley and Joan and Rosemary were trying to clean up, and the dirty water got into the pantry and the cupboards in the passage. The dining room was being cleared up, but I think Mrs Zealley under pressure would have provided something. I do not actually remember this and the coach and its contents were not there long. One or two visitors at the inn took exception to their strident demands and told them to look around and move on. It was the attitude that upset them. Somehow, and I think with timbers, they got over the bridge and away.

There was a couple actually camping in a tent in a field on the right hand side of the road beyond the bridge and up the hill. I think this is where a modern bungalow is now. They were having dinner when the storm started and had to remain at the inn all night. In the morning they managed to get back to their tent and surprisingly found it still standing. He had a vintage Bentley or similar car, a huge open tourer of the early 1920s type. Somehow he got hold of news about Lynmouth and went sightseeing. They were stopped by the police at Barbrook (quite rightly) and retuned to Challacombe to relate the horrors of Barbrook and below.

In 1953 we again had a holiday at the Ring of Bells and got around in our old Jalopy. We were not deliberately seeking views of flood damage but did pass through Lynmouth and Barbrook where we saw the pre-war system-built houses overhanging the West Lyn. We saw thousands of tons of rubble at Lynmouth and in the Heddon Valley (I enclosed a photo of a …, of rubble there and my old Austin, taken above the inn.) The amount of rubble everywhere was amazing and with the water under pressure and speed must have had a battering ram action. When we looked out of the door at the Ring of Bells during the storm, apart from the terrifying noise, I could not at first make out what the big objects were that came down the road and shot past the inn. They turned out to be sections of the road surface, the water getting in under the tarmac and the consolidated upper sub-base, had lifted great chunks of this stuff four or five feet across, upended them and forced them down the road where they became more rounded. Those objects were ‘cart-wheels’ of road.

On returning home and hearing on the wireless about the Lynmouth flood in general and a fund being started and a call for buckets, brooms, clothing, blankets, all sorts although we had little money and few possessions, we did gather up one or two items of little used clothing and sent it off. But hearing stories about distribution afterwards in 1953 and Mrs Zealley’s son Bill, we were sorry about our … I think the collection … was a Newton Abbot, but there was a distribution centre at Lynton and the people of Lynmouth and area had first choice, fair enough. But at Challacombe we had a different story. They seem to have been invited to the centre at a late date and most of the items had gone. Nancy at the cottage … the inn used her blankets to try and stop the water from entering her parlour and they were ruined. The water was coming up through the joints in the stone floor like fountains. Nancy never received anything, I don’t think others with losses received much either. There were also stories of people from Lynton who suffered not at all collecting items. After some time the fund was closed and so was the distribution centre. There was a considerable amount of goods and money never distributed which still is a scandal. This money and stuff was later ‘diverted’ to the Canvey Island Flood Fund.