Visit the picturesque harbour village of Boscastle in Cornwall today and you wouldn’t guess that on 16 August 2004 this thriving coastal community, which we help to look after, suffered a 1-in-400 year weather event.
Flash floods caused by exceptional rainfall – over a month’s rain fell in just two hours – devastated the village, destroying homes and businesses. The force of the water washed 100 cars out to sea, wiped out around 1,000 trees and deposited 20 years’ worth of river sediment in the village in a day.
An amazing recovery
But Boscastle’s story is one of a remarkable turnaround. Within days of the catastrophic floods a standard had been set for the huge recovery task ahead; ‘visitors coming back to the village should not be able to tell what has happened’. And you can’t.
The narrow river which runs through the centre of the village has been deepened to create extra capacity but still retains its natural feel thanks to efforts to mimic the natural river system with pools and ‘riffles’ (shallower stretches) that are good for wildlife.
Trees in the valley above the village have been kept rather than felled to act as traps for sediment and debris. Stone in keeping with the character of the village was used to rebuild garden walls and the floors and walls of houses and businesses.
Sympathetic measures like these have meant Boscastle remains a scenic village full of Cornish coastal charm, popular for walking and wildlife spotting or simply for pottering around the attractive shops and cafés.
Our part in the regeneration project called on our experience in restoring historic buildings and landscape but was inspired by the way the Boscastle community pulled together in the wake of the floods. It’s a memory that has stayed with Jeff Cherrington, our head ranger at Boscastle.
‘People at the top of the village hosted those with flood damaged houses for months after the event,’ said Jeff. ‘Offers of help came from everywhere; the village hall acted as a central point to give books, toys, food and clothes to those who had lost all their personal effects.’
Taking the villagers’ lead we worked together with the Environment Agency, University of Exeter and Rivers Restoration Trust to clear, rebuild and repair the damage to the village and surrounding countryside while keeping true to the character and history of Boscastle.
Thinking long term
Adapting the village to cope in the event of future flooding was also key. This included raising floors and electric sockets in buildings we care for and making land available for a new car park so a catchment channel could be created in the site of the old one, creating space that the river can fill when high.
Making a ‘braided section’ of river valley above the village has also helped to slow the river down. Working with the natural flow of the river rather than trying to get the water out to the sea as fast as possible is another example of the innovative thinking we needed to apply to maintain the nature of this special place.
‘I’m really proud of what we have achieved,’ said Jeff. ‘By working in partnership with the Environment Agency and the community we have a scheme that nestles well in this historic setting rather than seeing hard defences as the solution.’