Down Memory Lane
The Night the Skies Opened
Were the famous floods really 40 years ago?
I had just got married and bought a house in Winston Drive, Stoke d'Abernon. It had been raining since dawn on that Sunday, 15th September, 1968. (I remember the date well because it was my Mother's birthday). Leaving my usual lunchtime watering hole (The Plough at Downside) I drove home along roads awash with surface water and, thankfully, settled into a comfortable armchair for the afternoon. Shortly after 3 pm there was a knock on the door. A friend.
I looked. Half of the road had disappeared. The river bank at that end of the village had given way and, half an hour later, up to our waists in water, we were alerting local residents and towing them to safety in a boat (where did we get that from?).
Two or three hours later, everyone safe, home for a bath and change of sodden clothing. Crisis averted.
After visiting my Mother in Cedar Road that evening, my wife and I retired as usual to The Plough to discuss the continual downpour with the regular bunch of acquaintances. Rather unusually, we left about ten minutes before closing time – in those days 10.30 pm – and crossed the old humpbacked bridge shown on the front of the last issue. The River Mole was in torrents and water was piling up against the arches of that high bridge and, in fact, pouring over the top to the extent that we hesitated before crossing. I believe that we must have been the last vehicle to cross that bridge because, within a few minutes, the central span had gone, as the picture so vividly shows.
Colleagues who left the pub at closing time found the bridge gone and the road under water. Forced to find their ways home via Effingham, one friend stopped short of a flooded road in Fetcham to debate the sense of trying to negotiate the rapids and watched in bemusement as an angry Mini hooted, swept past, charged into the water, stalled – and floated sideways into a field.
On the Monday the extent of the disaster became apparent. The rain had stopped but travel to Cobham village was impossible and egress from the area only achieved by the most circuitous routes. After three hours trying to find a bridge over the River Thames to get to my office in London, I gave up and finally found a working telephone in Esher (there were no working appliances anywhere in Cobham) from which I could advise my company of my predicament. Later that morning I finally reached Cobham, following a long detour, and watched the residents of Church Gate House and the adjoining cottages being rescued from their upstairs rooms standing on an elevated platform on some huge farm tractor accompanied by cheers from the massed onlookers.
St. Andrew's Church Youth Group, the '61 Fellowship, in those days met on Sunday evenings in Church Gate House. When they left as usual at 10 pm, the Verger who lived in the flat above went down to check that the building was secure and, just before turning out the lights, noticed that water was seeping under the garden door. Even as he watched he could see the flood rising and, ringing both Churchwardens for emergency assistance, started to move the furniture and carpets up the slope to the sanctuary of the Church – a vital rescue mission as the waters eventually reached the first floor (and nearly the Church itself). Had I been writing this then, my feet would have been rather wet.
The floods moved downstream creating havoc along its banks for the next two or three days. One of my work colleagues living in East Molesey needed me to collect and return him each day for the next week or so – when he finally got to his car in its garage, he opened the bonnet to inspect his ruined engine and a dead fish floated out!
As a result of the local inundation, the lock gates along the river were changed to ensure such a calamity could not reoccur. Every winter (and during a few miserable summers) I watch the River Mole immerse the garden and car park of Church Gate House secure in the knowledge that this little enclave in Cobham does not experience more than a temporary inconvenience. But, looking at the devastation in the road outside shown in one of the photographs (taken when the water level had dropped considerably – the windows and door of Church Gate House had been submerged), I recall that exciting weekend so well.
Alan Wiseman of Cobham
(Supplement to David Taylor's article in November Issue 12 of Cobham Conservation and Heritage Trust Newsletter)