Uneconomic Cycling in Devon and Cornwall (Part Two)
Part Two of my Exmoor to Truro cycle ride by Roads Less Travelled
One marked feature of the Southwest is that, certainly on the north coast, the rivers slice very deeply into the earth before they reach the sea. I'm no geologist, but having high ground close to the coast I imagine will encourage rainfall, and hard rock will allow hills to remain standing while millenia of rainstorms carve their way to the sea. Valleys elsewhere in England smooth out and 'age' as the landscape softens and the gradients settle as the river approaches the low-lying coast; not in the West Country. Countless valleys I encountered were very steep-sided, and roads have to make the best they can to cling on where possible. The arduous journeys to reach these parts (certainly before tarmac, pneumatic tyres, or the petrol engine) left the area less well-developed than the south coast, resulting in turn in less money being spent on improving and straightening out the gradients and curves – a vicious circle of sorts, but one that has allowed North Devon, and most of the Cornish coasts, to retain their character to such a degree. The twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth, the former 500ft up the cliff of the West Lyn river, and connected by a funicular railway of 1890, still manage to keep much of this character alive today.
The Lynton and Lynmouth Cliff Railway
This character was hard fought for in the years following a rainstorm in August 1952. After two weeks of rain had already soaked Exmoor, on 15 August a thunderstorm of tropical intensity reached the hills above Lynton and Lynmouth, and stopped. It proceeded to empty itself over Exmoor, depositing 9in of rain in 22 hours, which the saturated ground could not absorb and the sandstone bedrock sent swiftly into the fast-flowing East and West Lyn rivers. Lynmouth had seen floods before, but lessons had been ignored while developing the village for the increasing tourist trade of the late 18th Century, and more and more buildings were built on the tiny flood plain at the foot of the narrow valley, even culverting and narrowing the course of the West Lyn to allow more land for building. This, and the number of tiny, picturesque stone bridges across the upper river courses, led to the worst flooding in living memory, as trees and boulders trapped by these bridges dammed the floodwaters hurtling down the gorge, finally giving way and loosing yet more severe surges. The river levels rose over the course of the evening while growing alarm spread; Lynmouth power station flooded at 8pm, plunging Lynmouth and Lynton on the hills above into darkness; hotels evacuated or removed residents to their upper floors; finally the West Lyn, having dammed its culvert with debris, reverted to its former course through the roads and houses of the village centre and burst through the banks into the East Lyn. Despite inspiring tales of selflessness and heroicism, 34 people died in the flood, and ninety properties were destroyed, damaged or swept away entirely. Flood marks on the Lyndale Hotel show the waters had reached sixty feet above normal levels. Estimates of the total amount of water that passed through Lynmouth that night equalled three months' normal discharge of the Thames, and the cleanup that followed required the removal of 100,000 tonnes of boulders carried into the village by the floods.
After the waters had subsided, the cleanup started, and the rebuilding of the village began, aided by a national appeal for the people of Lynmouth which raised, by the time the fund was closed in August 1954, a total of £1,336,425. To their credit, the villagers, while wanting to recapture the character of the old village, recognised that changes would have to be made to the layout of Lynmouth so that any future floods would not have such an impact. Though the torrential rainfall may have been a freak, once-in-a-lifetime event, the feeling was that they owed it to future generations to spare them the same suffering. The final result, a village that looks like it belongs, is testament to the sympathy and forethought with which the reconstruction was carried out. The village's charm has been retained – maybe even enhanced – but the courses of the East and West Lyn rivers have been cleared and channelled, allowing for far greater discharges in any future floods. Bridges upstream have been reconstructed in traditional style, but on a far larger scale to allow more water to pass safely, or even to be swept away in safety in the case of smaller footbridges. One caveat: the money did not extend to making the gradient of Lynmouth Hill any less severe. God bless you, Lynmouth.
Lynmouth, from my window. The Bath Hotel.
Read on for the last couple of days of my trip..(page two)..