How the people of Wraysbury united to fight the floods
PUBLISHED: 12:09 23 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:09 23 May 2014
It's impossible to record all the selfless acts and kindess, but here Jan Raycroft tells the extraordinary story of Wraysbury
It’s a beautiful spring day for a stroll around Wraysbury. The sun is out, the catkins and abundant daffodils are gently waving in the breeze. It’s quite an idyllic scene, as long as you ignore the background sounds of hammers and drills, the piles of sandbags and the rubbish skips.
There are skips outside houses across much of the village, stacked up beside just about every home as you near the backwaters of the Thames passing through the village. Inside are the remains of the occupants’ lives. Furniture, rugs, appliances, cushions, and shattered children’s toys. Beside the skips stand those trapping of modern living we take for granted; now unusable fridge freezers and cookers which once had pride of place in pristine kitchens.
Colin Rayner, a farmer whose family have been living off the local land since the times of Elizabeth I, has accompanied us on our walk with his inquisitive Westie, Stubbings, and in between stopping to greet fellow dog walkers, he pauses, looks to the ground and admits: “I cried, you know.”
It’s an awkward moment with this usually jolly farmer, a man “of a certain age”, a former mayor of the Royal Borough, a solid, no-nonsense chap who’s met the Queen on many occasions.
“It was sheer desperation, fear and exasperation,” he explains, recalling the worst moments of the floods, six weeks on. “At the time, we had no help from outside and there were villagers out in the pitched dark, in water up to their waists, trying to find everyone.
“And as it went on I kept thinking ‘What if we have missed someone?’ It would have been impossible to bear if we had missed some poor person trapped and then faced tragedy days later when they were discovered, too late.
“You feel the responsibility, people turn to you, and in the end I was exhausted and just swelled up and cried. You are asking volunteers to put themselves in danger and at the same time saying to yourself ‘I’m not going to lose a single person on my watch’.”
The iron lady
This emotion is shared by fellow Wraysbury resident Su Burrows, who is with us on the walk, and pats Colin’s arm as he talks about the most emotional moments. If you don’t instantly recognise the name, the odds are you will know who she is.
Mum-of-four Su, an IT project manager, is the woman dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by the national press after she berated Defence Secretary Philip Hammond live on TV, explaining how for 48 hours villagers had been the only rescue force. As she took him to task, this five foot or so volunteer flood warden swamped in a hi-vis jacket told how the only sandbags heading to the village had been hi-jacked on the way.
At the time she was part of a four-man team with Colin Rayner, Dave Francis and Graham Sinclair trying to co-ordinate some 100 local volunteers.
Mr Hammond told her his understanding was that there was no task for the military in Wraysbury other than delivering sandbags, and that sandbags were on their way. But Su wanted men in the village, right then, preferably the Army (from just down the road in Windsor) to operate road blocks in flooded areas, check for stranded folk and keep out looters.
In the way of rolling news, this gem was played again and again. Then she was back on our screens appealing directly to the Prime Minister: “Mr Cameron, get your waders on, get down here now, because we need you. We need the Army, we need people, we need bodies. We are doing this as a community. Wraysbury will not go under, but you need to do something about it now.”
This time it was Twitter that was flooded as Su’s unwanted fame grew, and saw Lord Prescott suggesting: “Can we get Su Burrows to chair the next Cobra (the Cabinet’s emergency committee) meeting please?”
The Prime Minister didn’t immediately arrive (although Ed Milliband did visit and also survived the flak aimed at those from Westminster when visiting flooded Purley, near Reading). Suddenly Wraysbury found itself at the centre of another deluge – this time a convoy of military muscle, sandbags, the Environment Agency, police and every conceivable rescue service. Then on 20 February Mr Cameron visited both Wraysbury and Datchet.
Weeks on, Su giggles and tries to wave all this away, suggesting she ended up on TV “because I’m mouthy”. But the day before our Wraysbury walk she had been in 10 Downing Street with Dave Francis at a reception for Flood Heroes, including those from other areas such as the Somerset Levels.
If the Prime Minister considers Su a bit of a nuisance, he seemed happy enough to have her on the premises, although they apparently shared little small talk. “Let’s just say he loves Dave Francis,” chips in Colin. Intriguingly, Su’s nomination to attend the reception appears to have been made by Windsor’s MP Adam Afriyie, who lives just down the road at Old Windsor, which also had its share of the disaster.
Months of misery
The TV cameras did not turn their attention to Wraysbury and adjoining Horton until mid-February, but for villagers the crisis began early in January with the first flooding of the year. As we walk beside the village green, still marked by sandbags and murky drainage ditches, Colin Rayner decides to describe contact with the Environment Agency at that time as “a very interesting experience”.
Many local residents are convinced that decisions not to clear drains and dredge the river were directly responsible for the scale of the disaster. Colin says: “Some hadn’t been cleared for 30 odd years, supposedly for ecological reasons, but when you consider how much wildlife was probably lost in the floods, it is senseless.”
As it became clear that flooding was on the way, people were told it wouldn’t be as bad as most recently experienced in 2003, but then came advice that it certainly would. Those who had lived in the village for the longest knew that the first sandbag you receive is placed in the lavatory basin, to stop sewage coming up. In Colin’s grandfather’s time they knew to have a system with ceiling hooks that lifted furniture off floors, and to take internal doors off and store them as they would swell during flooding and damage structure and frames.
“The Victorians were better at this than we are today,” Colin explains. “Steel, iron, rubble, everything possible was piled up to defend the villages. But now we can see what complacency can do. Ditches not drained; more houses built, and defences broken.”
By this time on our walk we had reached a running mound of grassed over earth separating houses from the Thames some 100 yards away, but along its length you can see gaping holes where this defence barrier has been removed.
So from January many Wraysbury residents were already surviving without flushing toilets, day by day wondering when they might be safe in their homes.
When the news came that the February flood could be ‘catastrophic’, as bad as the worst flooding back in 1947, a village meeting was held to warn homeowners of what they faced. “People were gasping and crying,” recalls Colin.
The floods pour in
Volunteers came forward to man a ‘control centre’ in the school hall. People like Su were joined by others, such as Margaret Lenton (wife of local councillor John Lenton) who used her skills as the former head of Slough Grammar School to help set up the centre. Mark Foster, Ben Woodhart, Dave Perkins and Graham Sinclair began getting the message out and organising the village’s response.
“And so we were ready and waiting for the professionals to arrive,” says Colin. “I met one of our local bobbies who told me ‘I’m going home for a while and I might not be replaced, but I promise I will be back, although I probably won’t be paid’. Perhaps it was a warning sign that we were going to have to do a lot of this on our own.”
Su Burrows adds: “There had been some fire brigade in the village but with 28 streets and hundreds of houses they couldn’t do much. We had no choice but to start going out into the floods to find people. I remember reaching a point where the water was up to the top of my waders. It was dark, you have no idea what’s under your feet and you lose your usual points of reference. I suddenly realised that if I went down a deep pothole or broken drain, no one would know what happened to me until the floods went away.”
She was also worrying about husband Stephen and other village men who were out trying to evacuate residents in the most hazardous areas. None had any training in rescue situations but were simply doing their best to find their neighbours in the cold, murky and rising water.
“This is fast water, and it’s moving,” says Colin. “Anything could have happened.”
As the clock ticked on and only minimal outside support arrived, Wraysbury’s shock was turning to anger. It probably didn’t help that the morning TV screens were showing 600 troops (joined by Princes William and Harry) putting up sandbag defences down the road in Datchet. The village didn’t begrudge this effort, they simply wanted someone to recognise the extent of their own problems and desperate situation.
As fears rose, Su dialled 999 to ensure that Wraysbury’s plight was recorded. Others began calling radio stations, getting on air to tell what was happening in the village.
It was all leading up to Su’s showdown with Philip Hammond and the appeal to David Cameron to get his waders on.
Where’s the army?
Colin takes up the story: “We actually had – and have – respect for Philip Hammond (he’s also MP for nearby Runnymede and Weybridge) and, after his chat with Su, I sat down with him in the George pub and he asked me what we needed. I said ‘The Army’, but apparently it wasn’t their job to guard streets.”
It’s an issue that people at the centre of the crisis, and those of us living close to the barracks across Berkshire and adjoining counties, find hard to rationalise. We are aware that there are ‘big, strong men down the road’ and want their presence, expertise and, frankly, muscle.
This was indeed the case in Wraysbury. Sandbags had already been stolen and cars moved to ‘safer spots’ were broken into. Worringly, groups of ‘likely lads’ in cars, claiming to be looking for somewhere else altogether when challenged, had been spotted slowly passing abandoned and darkened homes. You couldn’t expect the mix of pensioners and mums helping to man some of the road blocks to deal with them.
Colin felt that just the arrival of even a few soldiers in the village would deter potential looters. Su was sure some terrfied residents were already holed up, surrounded by floods and too fearful to open their doors to anyone, in case the callers were looters. The arrival of soldiers would reassure them and encourage elderly people living alone that it was safe to come out.
By far the majority of people in this country trust our armed forces and assume that in the event of a home-grown crisis they will be there to help.
Throughout the worst days of the flooding there was a feeling in the village that there was no ‘Big Plan’ and that perhaps not just cost was a consideration, but that other authorities didn’t want to hand over any control of the situation to the military.
We have to record that the first rescue team to actually arrive at Wraysbury was the RSPCA, who did an excellent job, but within a day of Su’s televised appeal, the village was swamped by a convoy of Zulu Company, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, police, Environment Agency and other officials… so much so that the usable roads came to a standstill!
Sandbags were unloaded and put in the best positions. Faith groups sent in teams to offer any help needed, from food and clothes to practical support.
Indeed, there was now so much support that the village was able to pass on sandbags and other donations to communities further along the Thames. It meant that many of those who had braved the cold and dangerous water could finally get some sleep.
Colin says: “Once they were here, the Environment Agency were brilliant. When I think back to the days when we just had teams of people out at night searching in the floods, I thank God that none of them was hurt. We are just mere mortals and there is only so long that you can cope with the demands of a situation like that.
“People here know they live in a flood plain and are ready for most things, but when there is threat to life you have to have a plan and I hope that no one ever goes through this again.”