Cumbria: eyewitness report from flooded parish

cars edge their way along one of the last open roads

cars edge their way along one of the last open roads

A week ago today, unprecedented rainfall began,  prompted some of the country's worst-ever flooding in Cumbria, leaving  more than 1,300 homes,  many businesses, shops and schools under water.

Warnings remain in force at Keswick, Seathwaite and Crosby-on-Eden.  Twenty-one  road bridges are closed. Three of them collapsed during the downpour.

St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Cockermouth is a lively parish with around 300 Sunday Mass-goers. Many parishioners were at the centre of the flood zone. The Chair of St Joseph’s Parish Council, Neil  Forker,  told ICN last night how they have been coping.

“Things happened very quickly,” he said.  “On the Thursday afternoon I was driving back from London. It was raining heavily and a massive amount of water  had started coming down the roads as the River Cocker burst its banks. Most roads into Cockermouth were blocked but we managed to do a detour and got home to Great Broughton about 4pm. The village is a couple of hundred metres above Cockermouth. We turned on the news and learnt that Cockermouth was out of bounds. The main street was eight feet under water. The electricity and  phones went down.  Mobiles worked intermittently.” 
That night, 50 people were picked up by Sea King helicopters.  Others  were rescued by inflateables.

“The emergency services were brilliant,” Neil said. "It is a tribute to them that apart from PC  Bill Barker, who died when a bridge collapsed at Workington, there were no casualties"
Neil added: “The expertise came from many sources. The RSPCA rescued people as well as pets.”

Parishioners rallied round immediately, he said, and the crisis has brought all the churches in Cumbria closer to each other.  Within a short time Churches Together  volunteers were organising food, soup, tea, sympathy and advice at several locations. 

“St Mary’s Catholic Church in Fleetwood immediately offered to send 50 volunteers.”  Neil said.

“The visit of Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a great morale booster. irrespective  of people’s politics.”

At the height of the deluge there was three foot of water in St Joseph’s church and water got in the presbytery. Parish priest Fr Jim McElroy had closed all doors and managed to stay put.

Built in 1850, the church has a beautiful hammerbeam ceiling.  Contractors are now working  there treating the floor with a dehumidifier and special disinfectant. For the time being, Sunday Masses are being celebrated in St Mary’s Anglican church, while the hall is big enough for daily Mass.

Neil said  Fr McElroy is retiring next April. “He did so much work on the church through the years, we are hoping that it will be restored to normal in time before he leaves.”

The collaboration between the churches in Cumbria looks set to continue.  Neil said: “Churches Together has already raised one third of a million pounds to help support flood victims.  There’s going to be a massive effort to make this Christmas  very special for the children.”

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