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The Great Cley Floods: Chapter 3

The village of Cley is devastated by an epic flood. Thirty-year-old Mary Gardner, who is pregnant, is missing. Search parties go out - and two fifteen-year-old schoolboys come to the rescue.

Jean Day continues her time-shift story of two floods which devastated England's east coast. For earlier chapters please click on The Great Cley Flood in the menu on this page.

January 31st, 1953
7 p.m.

Martin was worried. Mary had gone out for a walk and she hadn’t come back. She might have stopped to chat with a friend, she was given to that, but knowing that he would worry, she wouldn’t intentionally stay out so long. He knew there was nothing for it but for him to go out and look for her, even though it meant leaving the children alone.

He went up and peeked at them, and finding them still soundly asleep, he went to the front door. It was an enormous effort to open it, but as soon as it was open a crack, the force of the water behind it, opened it all the way, and he was knocked off his feet as the cold and dirty water rushed into his house.

Martin found his feet, and tried to close the door again, but there was no way he could make any progress at all. The water kept pouring in, getting higher and higher. He knew that he needed to be upstairs away from the water, but he must rescue as much of their furniture and goods while there was still time. Now the water was well above his knees as he waded into the kitchen to gather up any food which was easily available on the counter tops and cupboards above, and carried it to the top of the steps.

He was pleased that he had chained his bicycle to the iron post in the back garden. At least that wouldn’t be floating away, or so he hoped.

He made trip after trip, rescuing some of Mary’s valuable china ornaments as they floated in the water before crashing against the stone walls. He went to the larder in the kitchen. Luckily Mary had left the door open, so he was able to collect the food from the top areas in the larder which were still dry, along with some bottles of milk, floating around in the mucky water but without the tops having come off.

The fireplace was of course completely swamped, but he managed to rescue some of the logs that were drifting about because although they didn’t often use them, they did have fireplaces in the larger bedrooms, and if they were going to have to live up there for some time and they would need a source of cooking and heat.

Because he was so busy rescuing food and furniture, the thought of Mary had for a moment left his mind, but when he finally took a break and sat on the steps, he was suddenly hit with the thought that she might have been swept away by the flood – that she might have drowned.

He put his hands over his face, and wept.

What could he do? He couldn’t go out to find her. He couldn’t even get out a message that she was missing. He cried until he could hardly breathe, and then knowing that he had two other lives as well as his own to take care of he realised he had better get on and set up what he had rescued in their bedroom and the spare room beyond, and see if he could find some way of making the a fire light. But the wood was wet, and the chimney sooted up, and he had to give up after several attempts.

He fell back on the bed, fully dressed, exhausted, and frustrated by his inability to do anything about the situation. As he closed his eyes, a thought came into his head. He could see Mary, quite clearly in his mind, and she was sleeping in a magnificent four poster bed with drapes all around. She was wearing a fancy lacy nightdress, certainly not her own, but it was his Mary.

Martin had twice in his life had visions and heard voices. What he had seen in these visions had come true. During the war, when he was piloting a plane which had been shot up, a voice had told him to adjust the trim, raising the plane's nose. He had done so, and that had ensured that the wrecked plane, which came down in he sea, did not sink before rescuers arrived.

On the second occasion he was on Stockport station, having been given leave from his war duties. It was the middle of the night and there was no transport to take him to his home in Macclesfield. He pictured his home, his parents, sending them a message that he needed a lift.

Within half an hour they had arrived to collect him. His mother had been so insistent that they should drive to Stockport station. She had persuaded her husband to get the car out.

Martin did not understand his telepathic gift, but now he was glad of it. He managed to drift off to sleep, knowing that somehow, somewhere, in the midst of this storm Mary was safe and warm.

As dawn broke on Sunday, February 1, the villagers of Cley were shocked by the sight which greeted them when they looked out of their windows. The main street was like a river, though the water no longer seemed to be rising, and the wind had slackened. There were men in boats, rowing up the High Street, shouting out, asking if anyone needed help.

Martin raised his window and shouted "My wife Mary is missing. Has anyone found her? Do you know where she is?''

“Give us her full name and description,'' one of the men replied. "We've set up an emergency centre at the church. We have rescuers coming in from Holt and other villages nearby. Blakeney wasn’t hit as badly as us, but they have had some problems on the sea front. Up as far as the Red Lion is flooded.”

"Could you please go at once and find out about Mary,'' Martin begged. "Her full name is Mary Gardner. She's four months pregnant.'' The thought of their unborn child made him catch his breath and fight back tears. "She's 5ft 5 inches. Short and curly brown hair. Brown eyes. She's 30. Wearing dark trousers. A green sweater and oilskin jacket.''

One of the men noted the details, then asked Martin if he had provisions. Martin said he and his children were safe and they had food, but could they please, please hurry and find his wife.

Heads were thrust from almost every upper-floor window in High Street. Everyone had managed to get upstairs, but few had taken food with them. They had never before experienced such a flood.

The men in the boats jotted down notes. Pets were missing, but Mary was the only person unaccounted for. Two people had been rescued from the floods. A young man was on the roof of a chicken shed. He had climbed a tree as the flood waters rose, then eventually got onto the chicken shed. He was taken by boat to the church where there was warmth and no further risk of life-threatening hypothermia.

An old woman was rescued from the upper floor of her High Street home and floated to safety on a door which had been removed from its hinges.

As the day broke and the extent of the devastation became clear, rescuers arrived from the surrounding area. Arrangements were made to deliver food and water to those trapped in their homes.

Two of the volunteers that Sunday morning were Philip Day and Jim Whitell, both aged 15, fifth-formers at Gresham School. Taking part in a rescue operation seemed a far better way to spend Sunday morning than going to church. They cycled five miles to Cley church, noting the flood water going inland from Salthouse and Weybourne. Cley had suffered the worst flooding.

They were welcomed at Cley church and sent to Cley Hall to collect wood. This was brought back in wheelbarrows to the church, sorted into bundles and distributed to stricken households so that the stranded people could eventually have warmth and begin to dry out rooms as the waters receded.

The boys, enjoying their work, made several trips back and forth with the wheelbarrows. On the last rip before midday Philip suddenly noticed a woman lying in the hedge close to the loke by Holly Cottage. He recognised her.

“Mrs. Gardner. What are you doing here?” he asked, astonished.

“Oh Philip, if I only knew I would tell you. What an adventure I have had. Do you know anything of my family? Are they safe?''

“I know there's men out searching for you. Mr Gardner reported you missing. They said he was almost out of his head with worry. Come with us to the church. We can take you home in a boat.''

At the church Mary was asked where she had spent the night. "I was taken in by friends,” she said, but gave no further details.

“Didn’t you know we would be searching for you?” she was asked. “Why didn’t you get in touch until now? Your husband is frantic with worry.”

“One day, I will tell you my story,” said Mary. "Now I just want to get home.'' She started to cry.

Philip and Jim, having commandeered a boat and thoughtfully loaded some firewood into it, set out with Mary to row the half-mile to her home. Everywhere there was litter - dead animals, planks of wood, doors and windows which had been wrenched off, seaweed, bricks, huge swathes of rushes from the nearby banks.

“Mr Gardner, we have a delivery here for you,” Philip shouted when they reached the house.

Martin opened the window. An enormous smile engulfed his face. "Thank God you are safe, my love.”

He pulled his wife from the boat, in through the upstairs window.

Martin and Mary shared a wonderful embrace. Their children, Alice and John, aware that whatever had gone wrong was now put right, embraced their mother's legs.

Philip pushed the bag of kindling and logs through the upper window, along with a packet of farmers’ matches.

“I can’t thank you enough,” said Martin.

“No thanks necessary,'' said Philip, "I'm pleased you are all together again. I'd like to hear Mrs Gardner's story when she's ready to tell it.''

“We'll have a flood party,'' said Martin. "When we're back to normal. Give my best wishes to your parents.”

“I think my mother will be over later with her Red Cross ladies to see how they can help,” said Philip, “and Jim and I will be doing errands for the rest of the day, so I might well see you again. Will you be coming to school tomorrow, sir?”

“Well, I shall do my best, but we both know,” he said with a wink, “that I might just find it too hard and have to deny you boys your lessons in French and English tomorrow. But you had best do your prep in any case, and I did manage to get your essays marked, so don’t think you are going to get off lightly.”

Jim and Philip returned the boat to the church, and reported that all was well with the Gardner family. They then went back to their original job of bringing wood from one end of the village to the other.


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