We were lucky. After what seemed like weeks of miserable weather, it was a beautiful day on Thursday 17 May 2007 when we visited Lynmouth and Lynton on the north Devon coast, a short trip from where we live. Lynmouth has not been so fortunate in the past.
In August 1952 the town was ravaged by a terrible flash flood, brought about by a fortnight of unprecedented heavy rain that fell on nearby Exmoor and swelled the East and West Lyn rivers — which meet in the centre of the town — to such an extent that they burst their banks during the evening of the 15th, bringing disaster upon the inhabitants.
Huge boulders crashed through buildings and the rushing water carried away everything in its path. By morning, 35 people had lost their lives. It was a tragedy that made headlines across the world. Click the picture on the right to read the BBC’s “On This Day” archive.
In the years that followed, the town was substantially rebuilt and the East Lyn’s new course — during the disastrous night the river had cut itself a new escape to the sea — was fortified against further flooding.
Today the town is a busy little place, well worth a day trip. Be warned, though: car parking’s limited, especially on busy days! We went by coach — with Axe Vale Travel’s excellent driver Chris, along with about 40 other travellers on a specially arranged trip.
Our journey took us from Weston-super-Mare to Bridgwater, then through Williton, Dunster, Minehead and Porlock — where the coach took twelve minutes to climb Porlock Hill in first gear! We had fantastic views across the north of Exmoor National Park to the stunning coastline. Soon we were dropping into Lynmouth.
Today, it’s hard to imagine the scale of the disaster that struck Lynmouth. The main shopping street is now bustling with activity, but these sepia images from the Everything Exmoor site give us an idea of the scene that greeted the survivors on the morning of 16th August 1952.
Tim Prosser, author of The Lynmouth Flood Disaster writes: The first two weeks of August 1952 had been exceptionally wet. Six and a half inches of rain had fallen on Exmoor during this period. By midday on 15th August it was dark enough for lights to be switched on throughout Lynmouth … An unnatural large black cloud tinged with red and purple hung ominously low and still over the village, making the people feel threatened and ill at ease. This strange cloud has been described as ‘a huge pile of cumulus shaped like the beginning of an atom bomb explosion. Above the black base from which rain was falling heavily, cloud was swirling viscously. Yet above it the sky was clear and blue with only wisps of cirrus cloud.’
At the Lyndale Hotel, owner Tom Bevan noted that by 8pm there was a rushing flow of water in the street 12 inches deep. Soon after, the hotel was awash with water up to the top of its 4-feet counter. Raging water swept down the narrow valley, gaining speed. It was joined by a multitude of overflowing streams that were pouring from the steep valley sides.
Large trees wrenched from the hillside joined massive boulders that were tumbling towards the village. To make matters worse, this debris jammed against the many bridges that crossed the river creating dams. As these blockages collapsed under pressure an overwhelming surge of water was released to vent even more of its fury on the little village. It was not long before disaster struck. A hundred yards in front of the Lyndale Hotel the West Lyn river suddenly swept the front of the Lyn Valley Hotel away. At the same time a wing of the West Lyn Cafe on the opposite bank crumbled into the river …
The enormous boulders and trees being swept down the Glen Lyn Gorge soon blocked the narrow Prospect Bridge at the bottom of Lynmouth Hill. There was nowhere for the 30-foot high cascade of thundering water to go other than to flood over its banks and straight to the heart of the village …
By some miracle, the Lyndale Hotel protected its occupants until dawn, by which time the waters had subsided. Firemen helped the survivors evacuate from a first floor window onto the boulders that had amassed against the hotel during the night. The only casualty [at the hotel] was a budgerigar that had been swept away from the lounge with its cage. Later that day, a dirty watermark could be seen along the side of the hotel wall. It measured 55 feet above the normal river level.
Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway is one of the few water powered railways in the world. It opened in 1888 to link the twin towns of Lynton and Lynmouth. It’s 862 feet long with a vertical drop of 500 feet and an incline of approximately 1 in 1 3/4. In the 19th century, the high cliffs separating Lynton from Lynmouth were a major obstacle to economic development. The villages mainly relied on sea transport because land travel was extremely difficult over Exmoor. Coal, lime, foodstuffs and other essentials arrived at Lynmouth in sailing vessels, but this freight had to be carried by packhorses or in horse drawn carts up the steep hill to Lynton.
The cliffs also posed problems for the growing tourist industry. From the mid 1820s holiday makers began to arrive at Lynmouth on paddle steamers from Bristol, Swansea and other Bristol Channel ports … but a daunting hill faced those who decided to walk up to Lynton. Ponies and donkeys could be hired at 6d a time, but the steep gradients severely tested the unfortunate animals. Other tourists traveled up Lynmouth hill in carriages, but the horses that pulled them had a very short working life. It was in December 1881 that a novel solution to the problem was first given a public airing. The Lynton & Lynmouth Recorder received a letter, signed only with the non-de-plume Pro Bono Publico, proposing: “A tramway between the two towns to be worked by a stationary engine at Lynton, the motive power being taken from the River Lyn, put in tanks on rolling carriages and these let down the tramway under proper control. The weight of the water going down would, with the application of simple machinery, bring up anything that might be desired from Lynmouth … Lynmouth would become more important as a port for the surrounding districts, as goods could then be more easily carted inland; and visitors would find it a great benefit, for instead of climbing the hill, they could be drawn up in a comfortable carriage.” (Information from Everything Exmoor.)
Here’s the trip from Lynmouth to Lynton as seen from the rear of the carriage, standing on the motorman’s platform. Marcy wasn’t altogether comfortable doing the trip inside the carriage as she’s a little claustrophobic — and it turned out she wasn’t too happy standing on the little ledge, either!
The magnificent view from the top
In contrast to Lynmouth, Lynton seems an other-worldly place, with hardly any traffic (not that Lynmouth seemed to have a lot, either) — much more of a residential village than a seaside resort. I took this sweep to give an idea of what it’s like up there:
Meanwhile, back in Lynmouth, here’s where Marcy and I think is one of the best places to grab a bite to eat — Fish On The Harbour, where we enjoyed what I can safely say is the best fish ‘n’ chips I’ve ever tasted. I complimented the owner on his fish, thinking he would say it was locally caught just that morning, but actually it was Icelandic cod!
On the right is the West Lyn river, entering the village from the Glen Lyn Gorge, and pictured below is the East Lyn river, which rises about three miles from the coast to the west of Porlock in Somerset. Initially flowing northwest toward the sea as Weir Water, the high coastland hills guide the stream in a westerly direction where it runs unusually parallel to the coast for most of its twelve-mile length. Flowing through the fertile Oare Valley, at Malmsmead it’s joined by Badgworthy Water, the river’s largest tributary. The stream flows through the Doone Valley — the area of Exmoor made famous by R.D. Blackmore’s historic novel Lorna Doone.
Along the Oare Valley, the riverbed is at its gentlest with a gradient of 1:63, but once past the village of Brendon the East Lyn begins to get steeper. At Watersmeet, where Hoaroak Water joins the East Lyn, the river starts to drop dramatically. From this point the gradient increases to 1:27 until it reaches its journey’s end at the Bristol Channel two miles away. The gradient of the East Lyn averages out at 1:50. (Information from Tim Prosser’s The Lynmouth Flood Disaster.)
Related article: Eye Witness: The Lynmouth Disaster 1952 — J Gordon Killin’s account of what he experienced on that dreadful night of the 15th/16th of August as he and his Army colleagues worked tirelessly to assist the residents of Lynmouth in their time of dire need.