20 years on: the Lewes floods of 2000

By Nancy Jones, Volunteer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

12th October marks the twentieth anniversary of the Lewes floods. For many who were unaffected that day is probably a distant memory – twenty years is a whole generation after all.

Recently it seems there is a major flooding event every winter, television images from Boscastle, Wokington, the Somerset Levels, Laxey (Isle of Man) all blur together. Repetition has numbed me to the reality that flooded communities face. Just this year’s storms, this year’s floods.

That changed for me in February; the buckling barriers and swamped homes in Ironbridge were hard to get out of my mind. For anyone not directly affected, that flood was quickly eclipsed by world events which have had an impact on us all. But throughout the lockdown, I’ve been thinking about the people flooded out of their homes just as the rest of the country was asked to stay indoors.

What changed my perspective? By coincidence I happened to be helping to catalogue stories of the flooding of Lewes in 2000 by the River Ouse, just as the River Severn was bursting its banks in Ironbridge. The Keep holds a collection of oral history recordings, made by the Lewes U3A History Group in the immediate aftermath of the October 2000 flooding. These recordings, made on cassette tape and recently digitised for preservation and access, contain the personal stories of losses, close escapes, rescues and the long, long process of cleaning up which was just beginning in Lewes.

The interviews are full of vivid images of a town caught unaware. An elderly couple living opposite The Pells watched the water rising across the road as it had done many times before. When suddenly their carpet began to float – water having risen unseen below the floorboards – they knew, this time, the situation was going to be much more serious. They describe escaping upstairs where they were reassured to find a next door neighbor, similarly flooded, sitting on her first floor windowsill holding a mobile telephone. A Fireman returned from moving his car to higher ground to find water rising rapidly in North Street, about to swamp the fire station. He was involved in the immediate rescue response whilst worrying what was happening for his family just along the road at The Pells.

Cars submerged in the Safeways’ car park, Lewes. (R/L/37/1)

On the other side of the river, in the house closest to the water at Malling Deanery, Peter Atkins describes trying to rescue his belongings whilst the water was rising inside his home.

‘It was quite remarkable…once it got to table height it was rising so rapidly, and continued to rise, and our efforts were more or less ineffectual really. So in no time, it seemed, we were up to our shoulders in water. And I realized that we were both shivering, not surprisingly as the water was very cold, and I think we were just beginning to get hypothermic because we were getting kind of irrational… and doing hopeless things’.

He goes on to explain, ‘It didn’t feel frightening, it just felt kind of overwhelming really…it was weird’. (AMS 6416/1/7/222 | UTK002/222)

The driver of an ambulance washed into the flood describes the grim situation as he and his colleague tried to escape, clinging to the outside, awaiting rescueas the floodwater rushed around them. Mabel Pratt describes the moment her ground floor was overwhelmed by rising water:

‘You didn’t know where it was coming from. It just rose up all the time, so quickly. I was up to my knees in no time, and up to my waist before long. It was very hard to keep my feet because the water was coming underneath the carpet’. (AMS 6416/1/7/207 | UTK002/207)

She retreated upstairs before remembering the door key in her coat, now lost somewhere under the murky water. By that evening she was one of about a hundred people who had been rescued and evacuated to the Town Hall, others were taken to the Malling Centre.

Then there are stories of the clear-up. One woman talks of diaries and family photos out in the skip on the street, personal items contaminated and no longer private. The owners of the flooded Cliffe bookshop describe the daunting process of having to stocktake the pulped contents of their shop, especially devastating as it was also their home.

For me, the pictures on the telly in February 2020, the helicopter birds-eye-views and the brief soundbite interviews blended with the voices of Lewes residents from twenty years before. I was not in Lewes in October 2000, I have never been caught in the sort of devastating weather event that we see happening so often around the world these days. But this capsule of not-so-distant local history opened a dialogue for me. I was re-sensitized to things that, I am ashamed to say, I had started to shrug my shoulders at.

The Lewes residents reminded me of the individual struggles. And they reminded me that only twenty years ago I thought of this as a shocking and unexpected event.

The Lewes U3A oral history collection has been digitised and catalogued by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, developed by the British Library and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This project is preserving archive sounds to ensure they will continue to be accessible for future generations.

Audio recordings from the Lewes U3A oral history interviews are available for listening at The Keep (collection reference AMS 6416/1) and will be available on a new British Library website, to be launched in 2021. The interviews are catalogued on the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue and can be found under the reference UTK002.

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