Westcountry storms – the hidden damage.

DSC_0013Today we have blue sky, warm sunshine and very little wind. The daffodils and snowdrops have been out for weeks; my fruit trees are in blossom and hyacinths are filling the air with their scent. Spring is well underway and it is tempting to try to forget the battering we have had this winter, but there are reminders everywhere. A few yards from the blossom-covered Victoria plum stands what’s left of my greenhouse. I’ve been lucky. I’ll repair the greenhouse in a day, but many people in the Southwest will never recover from the damage they’ve suffered.

Our local news reports have given the storm damage intensive coverage, but I’m not sure how much reporting there has been at a national level. Eventually, after homes had been under water for weeks, the Prime Minister noticed the Somerset Levels and put in a belated appearance, although as soon as the Thames valley showed signs of flooding attention switched to that much more important area, the Thames flowing through the PM’s own constituency.

I’m sure the destruction of the railway through Dawlish made the national news, simply because of the dramatic images of the rails swinging in mid-air, but did the landslip that closed the line at Crewkerne, the floods that closed the line between Exeter and Tiverton, or the lightning strikes that destroyed signalling, get the same coverage?

Storms created a damaging tidal surge that hit the east coast and North Wales in early December, but for us the problems began over the Christmas/New Year period. On 5th January The Western Morning News carried this coverage. The storms didn’t stop, rolling in across the Atlantic in a succession that began to feel never-ending. Record rainfall combined with storm-force winds (that coincided with high tides) brought chaos to inland and coastal areas alike. On Valentine’s Day the local news site, ‘This is the Westcountry’, carried this diary of the day’s events, including dramatic video clips – and that was just one day among many. On that day we were supposed to be heading into Cornwall for a family get-together, but every road from here to the A38 was blocked by fallen trees, floods or, in one case, by a fatal accident. We were cut off, and it felt rather strange.

Harbour walls have been breached and historic buildings destroyed. The battle to save the clocktower in picturesque Kingsand continues.

Some of the physical damage isn’t obvious. A visitor to Brixham could easily think that we’d escaped damage, and to an extent they’d be correct. The town is tucked into the south-west corner of Torbay in the shelter of the high cliffs of Berry Head and is further protected by the Breakwater, a kilometre long stone-built pier.

IMG_1818As a result there is little obvious damage, but damage there is. Breakwater beach, which lies to the east of the Breakwater, was a shingle beach of small stones. Those stones have disappeared revealing much larger stones, the bedrock and old concrete pillars that have been covered for many years. This photo of one of the pillars shows the depth of stones that have gone.

IMG_1817The Breakwater looks undamaged from on top and from the harbour side, but from the beach it is clear that the stone-filled rough seas have scoured out a large hole that goes under much of the width of the Breakwater leaving it unsupported.

What is now the town centre car park was once a fresh water reservoir. Sailing ships of the Royal Navy put into Brixham to take on food and water. Some 200 years ago that activity switched to Plymouth, the reservoir was drained and the streams that fed it were led to the harbour via underground tunnels. Those tunnels have been unable to cope with the extraordinary levels of rainfall. Water has been coming up through the floors of properties and those along The Strand have had their cellars full of water.

All of which is very trivial compared to what other towns such as Porthleven, Penzance and Newquay have suffered. The real damage to Brixham has been financial. Our economy is largely based on two industries – fishing and tourism. For six weeks the fishing fleet coudn’t put to sea. The value of the catches lost was in the order of one million pounds. That’s one million pounds that would have passed through Brixham fishmarket into the hands of the boat owners, the crews and the fishmarket staff, and much of it then spent around the town. That’s a lot of money for a small town. The spell between Christmas and Easter is always a grim time for the tourist trade. The school half-term holiday in February usually provides a little bright spot, but this year it was a complete washout. The rail line was closed and driving difficult. The tourists didn’t come – and who can blame them. The problem now is that Easter is very late this year. The hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions have another month to survive before the traditional start of the season.

Well, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, the sea is blue and the spring flowers are breathtaking. Jump in your cars, drive down to Brixham and spend some money. You’ll love it!

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