The terrible flooding in the south and south-west of the country reminded me of my own experiences in August 1955 when I was a victim of a flash flood of the Kirk Beck and other tributaries of the White Lyne, in what was then Cumberland. It was quite an experience for a 9-yr-old on holiday – trapped in the aptly-named Island Cottage by waters rising with incredible speed, rescued on horse-back, spending the night in bed with a total stranger, and being confronted next morning by a large and ferocious bull called “King”.
For several years from about the age of seven I spent a week each summer staying with my Aunt Florrie, Uncle Harry and their dog Glen in their remote riverside cottage near Bewcastle. Harry Bell had been the village blacksmith and choirmaster at High Spen, and he was married to my grandfather’s youngest sister, Florrie, who was 20 years his junior. In the 1940s they left High Spen and became live-in caretakers at a large Methodist chapel in Gateshead, but when Harry reached 65 in 1949, they bought Island Cottage at Bewcastle and moved there.
They chose that remote spot because Florrie’s sister, my Aunt Lizzie, lived nearby in a cottage called Mirey Gate. Lizzie Pears was one of two live-in “servants” to the elderly Mrs Mary Ward. Lizzie had gone to work for Mrs Ward at a farm near Barlow when she left school just before WW1, and she stayed with her for five decades and though a number of house moves until Mrs Ward’s death in 1963. It wasn’t really a mistress-servant relationship, more like mistress-companion – and they’d both nursed the other live-in servant, Arthur Jackson, since he’d developed the dreadful Parkinson’s disease. After Mrs Ward’s death, Lizzie went to live with Florrie and Harry at Island Cottage until her own death in 1967. Reading between the lines, I think Arthur and Lizzie had been an item, to use a modern expression, before Arthur became ill, and, fittingly, they now lie side by side in Bewcastle graveyard.
Getting to Bewcastle on public transport was somewhat of a challenge. First a bus from Rowlands Gill to Newcastle, then a bus from Newcastle to Carlisle, then we caught the one-bus-a-week from Carlisle to Roadhead, and finally we walked 3 miles to Island Cottage – carrying our cases, of course.
I loved my holidays at Bewcastle. To me that place was idyllic, but life there must have been hard for Harry and Florrie. The cottage had no electricity, gas, water, sewers or telephone. Lighting and cooking were by bottled gas, and water was collected from a spring on the other side of the river or “beck” as they called it. Toilet facilities were in the form of a chemical toilet in a small wooden privy about 30 yards from the cottage. Washing facilities were equally primitive – a bowl of cold water, a bar of soap and a towel. There was no television of course, and the radio used a rechargeable acid-filled battery called an accumulator.
There were no shops for many miles – instead, a mobile shop called once a week. “Called” is really the wrong word – it stopped on the main road and tooted its horn. Florrie then had to climb 100 yards up a steep footpath to reach the road – and then return down the path carrying her week’s shopping. The mobile shop also provided fully charged accumulators and took away discharged ones.
The small beck on the south side of the cottage was called the Kirk Beck, and there were clear traces of a mill race on the north side. Precisely where the mill had been, nobody knew, but it seems that the mill race was fed from the beck some distance upstream of the cottage, and it fed back to the beck a few yards downstream. Hence the cottage had had water on all sides when the mill was in operation, and it was naturally dubbed Island Cottage.
The beck was called Kirk Beck because it passed the kirk or church which stands a mile upstream of Island Cottage in a little hamlet called Shopford. As well as the church, Shopford had Saxon cross, a pub, a “post office” which was really someone’s front room, an unexcavated Roman fort, and a medieval castle. Almost every day I’d set off from Island Cottage with the dog to walk to Shopford and explore the castle, the churchyard or visit the pub to buy crisps.
|Bewcastle Church and Saxon Cross||Lizzie and Arthur’s Headstones|
During each stay at Bewcastle I had to visit Mirey Gate at least once to see Aunt Lizzie, Mrs Ward and Arthur. I was always made very welcome and had lashings of cake and other goodies, but it was so sad to see Arthur, a giant of a man, reduced to an almost helpless cripple by his illness. Lizzie and Mrs Ward knew Bewcastle very well, so I always saved up my questions on the area for these visits. They were always so helpful, but I hope I didn’t make too much of a nuisance of myself.
As well as being a “servant”, Lizzie was the local postwoman, and most mornings I’d be out of bed early and up on the main road in time to meet her so I could accompany her on her post round. She had very few premises to visit – probably about 10 – but she had a 6 mile round trip to reach them all. I learnt a lot about the flora and fauna of the countryside on those walks with Lizzie and enjoyed her company, but I must admit that my main motive for accompanying her was that she called at Bush Farm where Elizabeth Robson lived. Elizabeth was my age and very, very pretty – it was worth a 6 mile walk just to get a smile from her and say hello.
So, after those lengthy digressions, let’s get to the events of August 1955. That year my gran was at Bewcastle with me, and we’d had an uneventful two or three days after our arrival. Then, on the Tuesday I think it was, everything changed.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and in the early evening I was plodging in the beck when I felt the water pushing hard on my wellies. Looking down I saw the water visibly rising and I made straight for the bank. Looking around, it was a surreal sight. The tranquil beck was already a roaring torrent and the water was still rising. I ran to the five bar gate, climbed over and ran to the cottage shouting “Harry, come and see the beck”. Harry met me at the door just as the water reached it. Then it was panic stations. After some futile efforts to raise furniture above the water, we suddenly realised that we should be thinking of ourselves rather than the furniture. The water was already two foot deep in the cottage, and outside there were fast-flowing torrents to the north and south – we couldn’t even reach the footpath up to the road.
I was thinking seriously about climbing onto the roof, when suddenly we were joined by three men on Clydesdales. They were from Bogside Farm on the other side of the beck, so I’ve no idea how they’d reached us, but they were certainly a welcome sight. They took the four of us across the water. I rode in front of one of the men, and the adults clung on to the harnesses. Once clear of the water, we walked up to the road and safety. Seconds after we reached the road, Robert Story, the elderly farmer from Noblestown, came roaring along in his tractor which was towing a heavy trailer. He’d intended to try to reach Island Cottage to rescue us, but he was doubtless relieved that he didn’t have to brave the torrent. From our elevated viewpoint the sight over the valley was incredible: the little beck was wider than the Tyne, in fact there was water almost as far as we could see. Around Island Cottage itself the speed of the water was terrifying, and already it reached half-way up the door-frame. We really had been in great danger down there.
Mr Story took us on the trailer along to Noblestown, his farm about a mile west of Island Cottage and, thankfully, on higher ground. During that journey uncle Harry remarked that there must have been a cloud-burst on the fells – some cloud burst! The ironic thing is that the sun was still shining over Bewcastle.
Once at Noblestown our clothes were hung in front of the roaring fire and dry clothes were produced for the adults. There was nothing small enough for me, so I just wore a shirt which almost reached the floor. Old Mr and Mrs Story – Robert and Beatrice – saw to our immediate needs, but it was Mary, the eldest daughter, who was the chief organiser. She issued orders in her wonderful broad Cumbrian accent and her several siblings carried them out. Soon some cups of tea appeared, followed almost immediately by large quantities of hot food. It was very welcome.
Everyone was in shock and terribly worried – Florrie and Harry about the damage to their cottage and its contents, and the Story family about their livestock still out there on the flooded fields with no way to reach them. Tomorrow was going to be another traumatic day – an early night was called for. Again Mary took the lead and decided that they could accommodate the three adults at Noblestown, but I would have to go with Christopher. Christopher Story was another of the Storys’ offspring, aged about 27, and he lived alone at Greenholme, a tiny cottage in a 6-acre small-holding about 300 yards from Noblestown. So I spent the night sharing Christopher’s bed. Today this might raise a few eyebrows, but back then it didn’t seem particularly strange, and, needless to say, I was treated well.
Next morning I was up very early and I made my way back to Noblestown to meet up with my family members. The sun was shining and I was pleased to see that there was a lot less water around. I reached the farmyard, and as I entered from one side, a large black bull entered from the other and it looked for all the world like the cartoon portrayal of an angry bull – snorting, ‘steam’ from the nostrils, stamping hooves … the lot. It didn’t really seem to notice me, but nonetheless I dashed behind a half-door and watched as Robert Story, the elderly farmer, followed it into the farmyard, walked up to the bull and said “King ye daft bugger, settle yassel”. It immediately calmed down and the farmer hooked his walking-stick into its nose-ring and led the creature away. I later learnt that King had spent the night on a little hillock surrounded by water, and once the water receded he’d made his way to the farmyard, probably to demand an explanation for the indignity he’d suffered.
It was the end of our holiday, of course. Gran and I couldn’t even get into Island Cottage to retrieve our things, so we had to travel back home in the clothes we were wearing – in my case in my wellies too – using money borrowed from the Storys. And, because there was no bus until the weekend, we had to get a taxi to take us the 11 miles to Gilsland where we could catch a bus to Newcastle. That taxi ride was my second ever – the first, I’m told, was when my mum took me home from Princess Mary’s Maternity Hospital – and I wouldn’t be in a taxi again until I was well into my twenties.
We’d escaped the turmoil, but for the residents of Bewcastle the work was just beginning. Dozens of sheep and several cattle had died and there was an awful lot of flood damage to several farms, cottages and other buildings. Uncle Harry and Aunt Florrie had to replace almost everything in the house, and Harry lost no time in erecting a flood barrier in the form of a concrete wall with an access gap into which a heavy water-tight gate could be dropped if the water rose again. This barrier wouldn’t have helped in that dreadful flood of 1955, because the water came at the house from all directions, but it would probably have been effective in floods of more modest proportions.
What had caused the flood? It was indeed a terrific cloud-burst on the fells, as Harry surmised at the time, but the clincher had been a fallen tree which had jammed under the arch of a bridge a few miles downstream of Bewcastle. Other debris then filled in the gaps making a near-water-tight seal which proved a very effective dam. The council cleared the blockage overnight and the water drained away slowly over the next few hours. A major incident locally, but nothing in the grand scheme of things – and the whole affair only warranted a few paragraphs in the regional press.
Looking back, my main memory is of the wonderful way the locals came to our rescue, with the three men from Bogside Farm and Robert Story from Noblestown prepared to risk their lives to help their neighbours in need, and the way the Story family really went that extra mile to help in the many ways they did. They were all amazing.
I went back to Bewcastle in 2008 and visited Island Cottage. What a change! It was twice the size it had been when Harry and Florrie lived there, and it had electricity, telephone, piped water, a septic tank for toilet facilities, and even a satellite dish! One thing hadn’t changed – Harry’s flood barrier is still there protecting the property.
I also called in to Noblestown and was delighted to find that Mary was still alive. In fact she didn’t seem to have aged at all, though she was in her 30s in 1955 and she was well into her 80s in 2008. Her brother William lived with her and he too seemed remarkably spritely for a man of his age. They both remembered me, and we had a great time reminiscing on times past – especially on those memorable events of 1955.
Even more recently I learnt that Greenholme, the cottage where I spent the night of the flood, has become a sort of Christian commune called Bewcastle House of Prayer, and, ironically in view of the weather that night, it’s also a Met Office Weather Station which features the only Sunshine Recorder north of Morcambe Bay.