Eamonn Fagan was sharing after-dinner drinks at the end of a leisurely Christmas Day meal when river water started bubbling up around his feet.
“We were just finishing our dinner at 5pm and water started to come up through the floorboards,” said the 60-year-old from Weybridge. “We cleared the dining-room table, put the sofas on top and took everything else we could upstairs. We had the port and brandy out, saluted the house and left.”
Fagan was one of many in the Surrey town forced to bed down on friends’ sofas or in hotels and guesthouses on Christmas night, returning on Boxing Day to survey the damage caused by the worst flood there since 2000. He found his home under half a metre of water, just one of 80 properties by the broken banks of the river Wey where residents were washed out or trapped. Static homes, riverside houses on stilts and wooden cabins were all flooded in this small community wedged between the flooded river and the swollen Wey navigation canal. Some residents, swathed in layers of jumpers against the 3C chill, were distraught at the devastation of their properties and loss of cherished pets, while others dealt with the disaster with mordant humour.
“One of the benefits of living by the water,” joked one home-owner as he waded across his submerged drive to report flooding throughout his house.
Wearing borrowed waders and with a wheelbarrow full of possessions in black binliners, Hannah Kingerley, 34, was one of those whose health was put at risk by the flood. She is suffering from cancer and had to venture back to her static home to retrieve drugs needed for her chemotherapy. The fish in her tank had died because of a power cut and her cat, Bubbly, was missing.
“A lot of stuff is floating,” she said. “All my grandma’s books. I’m a bit gutted about that. But we got the important stuff out: like our lives and mince pies.”
Her friends ran rescue missions in their dinghy, Miss Buckett, bringing out neighbours clutching 21st-century essentials: tablet computers, mobile phones and chargers. Parked cars were semi-submerged. The Environment Agency has warned that further flooding of properties is expected, with heavy showers predicted into Friday.
Surrey firefighters spent all morning rescuing residents from the wider 80-home riverside community using an inflatable boat and a four-wheel vehicle equipped with an exhaust snorkel. Vera Chakhrabarti, 75, was in tears as she held her cat, Puss, and tried to keep warm in the fire engine’s cabin after being rescued by boat at around 9am. Thirteen years ago, when the flood last came, she and her husband, Santanu, didn’t get back in for 18 months and their home was underwater again. They had recently sold their house and were due to move out next month.
“My son was coming with his family for a couple of days,” she said. “There’s turkey, presents. I know it’s only food and such, but it’s upsetting.” Red Cross staff threw a blanket around her and gave her a cup of hot tea.
Douglas Smith, 73, and his wife, Mavis, had been away for Christmas, but came back, urgently needing to get back into their cut-off home because Smith, a lung cancer survivor, needed inhalers and drugs. “I have got no medicine now,” he said. “I’m all right today, but tomorrow I’ll need it.” His wife negotiated a berth on the boat, strapped on a life vest and floated off to try to get the supplies.
A local flood warden, David Seager, had been away in Southampton spending Christmas with his children, and returned to find his route home blocked by waist-deep water. He said the Wey was around a metre higher than usual.
Upstream at Byfleet, police closed flooded roads, causing heavy traffic as drivers trying to enter via the A245 were forced to turn back. Children on bikes gingerly forded the water at the town’s bridge foot while a Lycra-clad cyclist tried it with gusto, only to get tipped off into the freezing water by a submerged obstacle. His fall drew cheers from bystanders.
“Beats jumping in the Serpentine,” he joked as he heaved his sodden frame back into the saddle.