Saturday 6 September 2008

Noye's Fludde; or was your journey really necessary?

14st 2lb; 5.0 units of alcohol yesterday (and oh, how I wish I had not been driving last night and could have had more of that 1989 Medoc); 1,248; Morpeth.

In theory, we had a packed programme today: lunch in Morpeth, an afternoon walk on the beach with a friend who was renting a holiday cottage at Newton-by-the-Sea, and supper with another friend who lives on the far side of Rothbury. The last idea was knocked on the head by the time we got up, by an early morning e-mail from our would-be hostess apologetically explaining that her home was under four inches of water. In the circumstances, it seemed prudent to ring my aunt to check whether she wanted to go ahead with lunch, but it was already in the oven and how could we possibly pull out when we were bringing the guest of honour? True, it was a seventh birthday celebration and it would be a brave man who would tell a seven-year-old boy or girl that their party had just been rained off. But, on the other hand, my seven-year-old is a bleeding dog who has not the slightest clue when he was born (and if he did, would know that it was actually tomorrow, not today). Still, my aunt assured me that we would be perfectly all right in Morpeth, which had not experienced any flooding problems in the 20-odd years she had lived there. So that was all right, then.

The water on the main road heading south was only marginally worse than it had been when we drove home last night. But then, come to think of it, it had been bloody awful then. With hindsight, perhaps I should have taken more note of the fact that the worst flood we encountered was on the final approach road into Morpeth from Fairmoor; or of the way that the police had taped off the road to the right at the roundabout by the Town Hall, with signs saying “Accident” and fire engines making their way to the scene. But surely there could not really be much of a problem when the shops along the High Street were still open and there were plenty of suitably wrapped up and hooded shoppers splashing along between them in a stoically English sort of way and exchanging cheery greetings of the ever popular “Wet enough for you?” variety?

So we toasted the dog’s health in pink champagne and opened his cards (no, really); then he howled along to a rather scrappy rendition of “Happy Birthday”. I was slightly disappointed that I could find no takers to help me in giving him the traditional bumps; nor could we reach agreement on whether he should have seven of them, or 49. So the moment passed. Then we moved to the dining room for a splendid lunch of roast pork with all the trimmings, while the dog sat on the floor trying to get his mind around the fact that this was supposed to be his party, but we had not actually laid a place for him at the table. Though we did at least give him a bowl full of edited highlights when we had finished.

The rain had kept lashing onto the glass roof of my aunt’s dining room extension throughout our meal. My cousin, who had endured a rather tortuous journey from Newcastle as the normal exit to Morpeth from the northbound A1 had been closed by flooding, was understandably keen to make his way home again as soon as decently possible, and we followed him out of the house shortly afterwards. We had been in Morpeth for a little over two hours, yet in that time the police had closed the road back through the town. I tried to find a way around the obstruction through various back roads, following other cars which were heading in that direction, and making the always dangerous and foolhardy assumption that they knew what they were doing. But all I found was a succession of streets blocked by what appeared to be dangerously deep water, or guarded by residents who were understandably keen to stop cars driving through and swamping their homes. It was the worst flooding I have ever seen in person, as opposed to on the telly, with what can only be described as rivers of water pouring down people’s drives as we made our way inexorably back to the point where we had started. I then headed south on the main exit route to Clifton, on the approaches to which the water was so deep that many cars were turning back, but we made it onto the southbound A1 and turned around at Stannington, believing that our problems were over.

An hour and a half later we were still sitting in a huge traffic jam on the Morpeth by-pass, inching north towards the A697 turn-off. There were a surprisingly large number of people towing caravans amongst the throng. A holiday to remember, no doubt. I filled some of the time speculating on whether anyone else was making a more utterly pointless journey than ours, but the regular passage of little groups of motorcyclists who were evidently out for their usual Saturday burn-up convinced me that even this prize was destined to elude my grasp.

The northbound A1 was closed from the end of the by-pass, giving drivers the option of battling on up the A697 or turning around and returning down the A1 whence they had just come. Perhaps it was the slowness of the decision-making process that accounted for the jam up to that point. The final outcome seemed to be pretty much a 50/50 split. We made slow progress from then on, as the cars in front ground to a halt to have a think about it whenever there was deep water across the road, which happened pretty frequently. At times they all decided that it would be easier if they crossed to the opposite carriageway, where the water looked a bit shallower. This seemed set to cause a spectacular accident at the Bridge of Aln, where a determined looking woman in a people carrier heading south drove straight through the water at the cars in front of me which were on the wrong side of the road heading in the opposite direction. They decided, on balance, that the flood waters on their own side presented a smaller risk to life and limb than a head-on collision, but they clearly had to think about it.

I have never been more pleased to get home, light a fire and pour a large whisky. I also unwrapped the dog’s main present of an enormous marrowbone, almost as heavy as he is, which my aunt had specially procured and lovingly wrapped up for him. He sniffed it suspiciously, then looked at me with an expression that said, quite unmistakably, “What the f*** do you expect me to do with this, then?”

The chances of going anywhere for some time seemed as minimal as they were in the good old days when we used to get the roads blocked by heavy snow, and there was nothing to do but build up the fire and dig out those books I had been meaning to read for years. The evening news bulletins confirmed that we had been at the very epicentre of a natural disaster of no small proportions, when one might expect the normal rules of life to be suspended for a while. So naturally the LTCB started talking about how it was absolutely imperative for her to get back home first thing in the morning. And I naturally promised to do my very best to help, while feeling that the chances of being able to do anything of the sort were actually pretty minimal. About on a par with Gordon Brown’s chances of winning the Mr Smiley 2008 Prize in a Butlins’ talent contest.

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