23 July 2007

Before the flood

On Friday morning, my train had passed through the heaviest rain I can remember experiencing on a train journey. What made it memorable was the fact that the rain was drmming loudly on the windows and roof of the train even at 120 miles per hour, and looking through the rain-lashed windows there seemed to be thick fog lying over the surrounding countryside.
London, though, seemed reasonably bright and I even regretted not running to the office from Paddington. During the morning the skies darkened and shortly before midday (when I was due to leave for a meeting) the heavens opened, causing alarming gurgling noises from the voids above the ceilings in some rooms (rainwater squeezing through pipes designed for merely wet weather). Shortly thereafter the fire alarm shorted out, so instead of leaving for my meeting I was grabbing the promotional umbrella from my room to go and promote a firm of Canadian IP lawyers in do my bit as fire marshal in the Park.

Of course, near trees is the last place to be in an electrical storm, and outside in a torrectial downpour is not a good place to be at any time. Michael, the charming Ghanaian security guard from our building, soon appeared with a loudhailer which squawked and screeched but did not completely mask his message, which was to go back to the office. No confirmation at that point that it was a false alarm: it could just as well have been that a cost-benefit analysis had shown that we might as well fry indoors as drown outside. Later, the alarm kept going off so that eventually an email instruction was issued to ignore it (but, expressly, for one day only).

During the afternoon, for much of which I was ensconced in my annual appraisal meeting, alerts arrived by email and SMS from the railway company with increasing quantities of block capitals, containing the sort of useful guidance for which the British railways are rightly famous: PASSENGERS ARE ADVISED NOT TO TRAVEL is far and away my favourite. Nothing was going past Didcot, not to the West Country, not to south Wales, not to Oxford and not to the Cotswolds, but Didcot would do me.

I'd already discovered that the tube network was in tatters, but managed to make Paddington by an only slightly unusual route. It seemed that the deeper lines were least affected. The departure boards at Paddington were a litany of cancellations, leavened by a few "Delayed" promises and one or two platform numbers for departures. A stopping train for Reading was announced and I took a seat on it before the human deluge arrived, and slept most of the time it took to reach its terminus, waking briefly to check the Thames as we crossed it at Maidenhead, reportedly one of the worst affected places in the country. The river looked high, but there was a four out on it, demonstrating what a level of commitment is required of rowers.

At Reading, I was able immediately to board a westbound train, absolutely packed and made worse by the youth who took up enough space for three or four people with his luggage laid out on the floor against which he propped himself, comatose, with music plugged into his ears. The sardine-packed passengers in the lobby also had to contend with one obese first-class passenger who saw no reason to delay his visit to the buffet just because it would inconvenience a score of others: and of course he came back too, though with some satisfaction I noted that he was empty-handed. The train manager, crammed into the same lobby space, and whose turban gave him authority in such matters, lectured those within earshot about the monsoons.

At Didcot the train disgorged its passengers, or many of them, while crowds waiting on the platform tried to board (result, inevitably, impasse). It seemed that this would be the first train for hours to attempt the journey to Bristol. By now it was 8.30 and getting dark: I had my bike at the station, but no lights and no front-door key: Sarah was out working and Hilary had gone to assist Anthony and Rebekah, threatened by the brooks to the front and the rear of their house, and had predictably become stranded in Steventon, managing to park the car (containing the weekly shopping) on the causeway.

Anthony volunteered to collect me from the station, and after half an hour or so (during which I saw a taxi arrive from Chippenham to collect someone) he appeared in his Toyota RAV. It had not been easy to get out of the village, and getting back required us to take a circuitous route through Harwell, out to Rowstock where all the traffic from the A34 (aka the Cadiz to Tromso Euroroute) northbound was trying to negotiate a modest single carriageway, on towards Wantage but turning off north down Featherbed Lane (which necessitated cutting through the stationary traffic heading towards Rowstock and blocked by all the trucks heading from Cadiz to Tromso), then turning off onto a farm track which eventually brought us to the site of that weekend's Truck festival (a music festival, not a gathering of commercial vehicles; it derives its name from the stage, which at the outset presumably from necessity and in more recent years from tradition was formed from two curtain-sider trailers) just a couple of hundred yards from their house.

Truck was a complete washout, with rivers running down the farm roads and the camping field under several inches of water. Festival-goers might revel in mud, but this went far beyond that. It's postponed until September.

Past the church the road was completely flooded, and the fence alongside it gave a good indication of by how much: one rail after another disappeared beneath the surface as it sloped towards the lowest point between us and our destination. We could walk some of the way on the high grass verge, where Anthony derived some grim satisfaction from seeing abandoned a BT van that had sped past him earlier in the day and which now stood up to its wheel arches in the middle of the flood - no doubt with the inside of its diesel engine a mangled assortment of bent conrods and other components, the inevitable result of water inhalation. From there I took off my shoes and socks - Anthony, wearing knee-length boots, got further but still not all the way before having to go barefoot - and plodged through the surprisingly cold (why was I surprised? Only because I had not thought about it) water in which local teenagers were swimming.

After supper - the party totalled sixteen - we took the RAV and drove it out the way we had come. Traffic was still backed up from the Rowstock roundabout, though we joined it only after some clear road, but it cleared miraculously as we approached the junction. Back in Steventon the water level continued to drop overnight, but even now there's still some way to go, and other parts of Oxfordshire are in dire straits.

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