Violent storms had been building up in France during Wednesday July 10th 1968 and during that night they suddenly burst upon our region 24 hours before expected. These storms brought unparalleled devastation to Bristol and the South West. Severe flooding swept through the whole region. It was the worst rainstorm to hit the region in more than 55 years with more than 5 inches of rain falling in 24 hours. There was thunder and lightning and incessant rain for a day and a half causing much loss of life and damage to property. Pensford village reeled under the rage of the storm and became a disaster area. A wall of water surging down the River Chew took everything before it just before midnight. Some people swam for their lives for safety. The swollen river swept away Pensford’s main road bridge, leaving a 50 foot chasm in the main A37, it also demolished 50 yards of stone wall and a house in the village. Some people were marooned for hours before being rescued by boats. In low lying areas of the village the flood water was ten feet deep.
The Floods of 1968
I was ten years old in 1968. We used to live in the village of Farmborough near Bath. My sister and I were both pupils at the Sacred Heart Preparatory School at Chew Magna near Bristol. On the morning of the 10th July 1968 my sister Sally and I had gone to school as normal from Farmborough to Chelwood and down to Pensford crossing the stone bridge and so to the Sacred Heart School at Chew Magna. It was a wet miserable day and as the day progressed the rain did not ease.
We returned home and around 6pm a tremendous thunderstorm commenced. As the evening went on the light grew dim and we had a power cut. There was a strange silence inside the house except for the noise of rain and the rumbles of thunder. The storm did not pass and the rain did not cease. Around midnight my father shone a torch outside to see that the normally quiet little village stream had risen about 6 ft and turned the road into a raging torrent of flood water. He went and tried to get down the street to Miss Hall’s shop fearing Ivy Hall the elderly owner to be stranded there. He could not get further than the Manor House as the flow of water was so strong. Returning home we eventually went to bed.
The next morning the rain had ceased and the flood waters had diminished slightly. Dad was waiting for a colleague to arrive from Bristol but he failed to arrive. We still had no telephone service or power. News began to arrive that the bridge at Pensford and the bridge at Keynsham had been swept away. As the day went on the full extent of the disastrous floods began to emerge. Later in the afternoon we went down to Keynsham and saw the flood water along the Avon and Chew valley.
The following day we went back to school via Chelwood. Some hedge banks had slipped into the road. We arrived at the convent to hear how Sally’s class mate at Pensford had a lucky escape. One friend Jane Snook lived at the top of the hill in Pensford. Another friend and class mate lived down by the bridge but had been visiting Jane. One of the Flower family I recall. Unable to get home she had stayed the night. On the morning of the 11th nothing could have prepared her for the shock she was to experience finding the side of her parent’s house had been swept away. There were two bridges at Pensford. The main road passed over a large stone arched 19th century bridge and this had disappeared overnight. The small old packhorse bridge below had survived the flood. Only the parapet walls had gone.
At the school construction work had been in progress building a new range of modern class rooms below a range of old wooden huts. The flood waters had reached the base of the new buildings. The nuns kept hens down by the river and these had all been drowned.
Tragically Alexandra Giles who lived at Marksbury had I believe been returning from a function at Bristol University with her fiancé and his parents. They had stopped on Keynsham Bridge to look at the flood waters. Three of them drowned. I understand her fiancé survived by clinging to a tree. Upstream landslips and trees had probably blocked the river which had built up behind until there was enough pressure to release the material causing a wall of water to rush downstream. This had destroyed the bridge and taken them.
Time passed by and the big clean up began. For a while the old pack horse bridge at Pensford became the main crossing point. We watched the army construct a bailey bridge on the site of the main bridge.
Today if you turn down the lanes to Publow from Pensford a marker on a cottage wall shows the height of the flood water that night. Seven people lost their lives that night. The damage to buildings was repaired and bridges were replaced as life returned to normal. 40 years later the floods are a distant memory.
Robert Jubb, St Germans Cornwall 30/7/2008
Published with kind permission of Robert Jubb