Thursday, 28 September 2006

Flood lines

I was born a long time after the great East Anglian floods of 1953. But my father remembered them, and he showed me the pictures from the local newpaper - the vast flatness of the Fens under water, just a house and a few telegraph poles left standing.

I've been fascinated by floods ever since.

So whenever I travel I keep an eye out for the flood lines. Plaques on buildings often tell the story of great floods, and not always in the most obvious places.

For instance Saint Guilhem du Desert, in the Languedoc of France, is a hill town in the middle of limestone country. It's better known by climbers than sailors. But it's in a narrow valley, with a little stream flowing down the middle and a river at the end of the gorge - and when that stream gets full, the waters back up and the whole place floods.

More obviously there are flood markers all over the Ile de la Cite, in Paris. There's one at the entrance to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, neatly added to the Gothic sculpture of the portal. There's another on a Renaissance house by the river bank. The rising Seine even flooded the metros in 1910 - and stopped all the clocks, when the compressed air network that drove them flooded.

In Florence, flood markers recall the artistic tragedy of the 1966 flood. The waters of the Arno reached 6 metres high in some of the lower lying areas. The saddest relic of the flood though is not the flood lines, though, but the Cimabue crucifix in Santa Croce - scarred almost to the point of illegibility. Half of Christ's face has been ripped away by the water, though his halo still shines, intact.

The best collection of flood markers I've ever seen, though, comes from East Anglia - on the west door of a church in King's Lynn. This Ouse port, on the edge of the Wash, has no protection from the sea - and when the wind blows from the north east down the North Sea, it funnels the water into the neck of the Wash, and down to the flat Fens. It's amazing that so much of medieval Lynn's furnishings have survived - fine monumental brasses, sculptures, and even woodwork - when you think how often the water must have risen.

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