BOSCASTLE FLOOD DISASTER
Monday 16th August 2004 - Afternoon
From midday, torrential rain fell on an area of the North Cornwall Coast from Tintagel to Bude, with unprecedented heavy rainfall concentrated on the Boscastle hinterland. More than two inches of rain fell in under two hours to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning. The three rivers that converge on Boscastle burst their banks at around 4'o clock in the afternoon. Mid-August is the height of the tourist season, and Boscastle, as usual, was full of visitors, who were, without warning, suddenly caught up in Cornwall's worst flood disaster for years. The atmospheric conditions and topography of the land were very similar to the conditions prevailing exactly 52 years ago to the day when the Lynton and Lynmouth flood disaster took place.
Like so much matchwood, trees were ripped out of the ground, cars, vans and caravans were carried away in the terrifying waters that raged towards the harbour from the burst banks of the River Valency, which normally runs tranquilly alongside the Boscastle Visitors Car Park. The continuous raging wall of water, debris and mud, some nine foot high, carried all with it at speeds estimated to be between 30 and 40 miles per hour, vehicles were hurled over the road bridge and down the sides of the harbour towards the sea. The devastation was quick, ruthless and unbelievable as water, debris and vehicles flooded and battered the many old buildings that line the river banks out to the harbour.
The most photographed building in Boscastle, the wavy roofed three hundred year old Pixie House (Harbour Lights) was washed away completely by the force of water and debris pounding it. Many of the small businesses that line the harbour walk suffered devastating damage within minutes. Some, like the Clovelly Clothing shop, were washed away completely, many more suffered severe structural damage; at the same time, some fifty motor vehicles were literally carried out of the car park by the raging waters and into the harbour.
There followed one of the largest emergency rescue operations seen in the South West. Police, Ambulance, Coastguard, Lifeboat and Fire Services, with six RAF Sea King Rescue Helicopters and a Coastguard Helicopter, worked in dangerous conditions to save the many stranded tourists and residents. The helicopters worked continuously to pluck people off roof tops and out of trees, over 120 people were air lifted to safety. It is a miracle, and a credit to the bravery and team work of the combined rescue services, that there was no loss of life.
Time and tenacity will heal the appalling devastation wrought on local business people and the residents of properties caught in the path of the terrifying flood. But, the much photographed picturesque 'face' of Boscastle, known to countless thousands of visitors, has been savagely altered forever by the unpredictable and powerful forces of nature.
The picturesque harbour and village of Boscastle is situated in a ravine between towering cliffs revealed most spectacularly if approached by road from the direction of Tintagel. The road drops steeply down, round a tight hairpin bend, and down again to the harbour, much of which is owned by the National Trust.
A river runs out to the harbour from the Vallency Valley, on each side are attractive colour washed old buildings which offer the visitor a variety of shops (includes a small National Trust gift shop) cafes and restaurants. On the north side of the river, at the seaward end, will be found the unusual Witches Museum and the Youth Hostel. Beyond this point, one can see the spectacular dog-leg harbour entrance set between high slate cliffs. Imagine the difficulty the large trading schooners of old would have had in negotiating the entry to this port to shelter from the mighty storms of the Atlantic Ocean.
The main part of the old village with its white washed cottages runs up the hill away from the harbour entrance and behind the Wellington Hotel and Old Mill with its waterwheel. There is much of interest to be found in this attractive village and harbour, visit the excellent Visitor Information Centre situated in the main Car Park opposite the Cobweb Inn. This is also the starting point for a most attractive walk up along the Vallency Valley to the church of St Juliot, restored in 1870 by the young architect, novelist and poet Thomas Hardy.
Boscastle is an old village scattered about the sides of a deep valley running down to a picturesque National Trust Harbour at the outpouring of the Vallency and Jordan rivers. The village with it's many old cottages is often missed by visitors who tend to concentrate their activities along the reaches of the attractive harbour. At the top end of the village, there is little to see but an earth mound that is the remains of Bottreaux Castle, built in the twelfth century; subsequently a village grew up around the castle with the name becoming corrupted to the present day "Boscastle"
If conditions are right, about one hour each side of high tide the blow-hole beneath Penally Point on the north side of the harbour entrance may be seen in action, plumes of water are forced out of the hole accompanied by roaring and gurgling noises as the sea rises and falls. Grey seals can be seen off the mouth of the harbour from time to time
Before the arrival of the railway at Camelford in the 1890's Boscastle was still a working port and the harbourside buildings were warehouses, workshops and shipyards and containing all the ancillary activities associated, with a small, but busy, working port. The Captains of large 200 - 300 ton sailing ships, that plied their trade here, had to have courage and a great mastery of seamanship to negotiate the difficult entry and exit to this port. The first pier was built in 1547 but did not survive intact for long under the incessant battering of the Atlantic Ocean. Sir Richard Grenville financed a second pier in 1585, which was restored again in 1740.
The outer defences of the harbour were destroyed by a floating mine in 1941 and were rebuilt in 1962 with huge granite blocks taken from the demolished old Laira Bridge in Plymouth. The harbour mainly traded with Bristol, Gloucester and South Wales,shipping out agricultural produce, tanning bark slate and china clay. Into the port came cargoes of coal, limestone and hardware and general merchandise. Many horses were needed to haul the ships cargoes up the steep hills out of Boscastle, the old stable on the edge of the harbour is, today, the Youth Hostel. The building that was the harbour blacksmith's now houses a small National Trust Shop, nearby may be seen the remains of a lime kiln.
The promontory to the south of the harbour entrance has a distinctive building at its summit which can be seen for some miles around. It is said that, in the days of Boscastle being a thriving sea port, sailors were served by no less than fifteen alehouses and a substantial red light district. As the entrance to the harbour is not easily identifiable from out to sea, the residents of the old red light area are said to have financed the building from which a beacon was lit to advertise the harbour entrance and 'a good time' to all who called at the port!
Thomas Hardy, a young architect, came to Boscastle in 1870 to restore the church of St Juliot. His work brought him into contact with the rector and his second wife whose sister Emma lived at the rectory. A romance blossomed between the young Hardy and Emma Gifford, they were married in London in September 1874.
Hardy's third novel "A Pair of Blue Eyes" has the people and place names disguised but is clearly steeped in the atmosphere of Boscastle and his love for Emma. Unfortunately, the marriage was not one of eternal bliss and, after Emma's death in 1912, Hardy became consumed by remorse which led to him writing poems in her memory and having a memorial stone commissioned and placed on the north wall of St Juliot Church.