Belfast Telegraph

Wet weather grim for some - but fun for others

Ivan Little meets the Newcastle residents shoring up their flood defences, and brave souls determined to enjoy a dip in the sea

In the normal order of things they sing about the Mountains of Mourne sweeping down to the sea in Newcastle, but in the abnormality of recent turbulent times the sea has been making waves in the opposite direction, causing flooding in the Co Down resort.

Dramatic pictures of inundated promenades and housing estates have become all too regular snapshots of life in the town as residents and the authorities fight what is often a losing battle against whatever nature throws at them.

It's not quite Somerset Levels, and Prince Charles hasn't come calling yet, but yesterday Newcastle was bracing itself for more of the same misery from the skies and from the sea.

Against the backdrop of steely-toned slate-grey clouds, the heart of the rain and wind-battered town was largely deserted and the few people like Alwyn Trimble and Kathleen Markey who braved the elements talked of their dread at what could happen next.

"It's as bad as I've ever seen it," said Mr Trimble.

Along the otherwise empty Central Promenade workers from Down District Council were clearing away the debris left by storms which brought huge boulders and branches from trees crashing down on the walkway.

Nearby shops and cafes were still open, but in several of them bored staff looked forlornly from their windows at the ominously churning sea.

Earlier this week the South Promenade was flooded and had to be closed to traffic as the high tide and high winds combined to lash homes and a seaweed baths centre called – of all things – Soak.

Harry Gray has lived in Newcastle for 38 years. And he says he's never known anything quite like it.

"The waves have been practically hitting the top floor of my three-storey house," he said as he stood at his sandbagged front door on the South Promenade.

Mr Gray's defences have held so far but he's been one of the fortunate ones.

About a mile away in the Mourneview estate no-one was moving the sandbags from their homes.

Bus driver Joe Marron, who has lived in Mourneview for 34 years, said the flooding was worse now than ever before. His driveway was under so much water that he had to clamber over neighbours' walls and gardens to get to his work.

Sinn Fein councillor Willie Clarke, who helped to distribute sandbags, said people in Newcastle were feeling vulnerable in the face of repeated flooding.

"Three or four times a year we have these problems. In the Rock area there's been coastal flooding, while in Mourneview and Burrendale the difficulties are caused by heavy rain and a drainage system that can't cope. And then you have the run-off water from the mountain as well."

Mr Clarke admitted the Rivers Agency had taken decisive action to ease the plights of other flashpoint flooding areas like the Bryansford Road and Islands Park.

"There have been major investments but we need more to tackle the coastal flooding," he said. "Houses in several parts of the town need more protection, too."

In the Burrendale estate a number of residents claimed that the flooding had been causing health hazards after raw sewage seeped from a manhole into their back yards twice in a week.

But not even the wintry gales or the high seas were able to dampen the enthusiasm of a group of swimmers who yesterday took the plunge in the icy waters at Newcastle's harbour – as they do every morning – wind, hail, rain or snow.

Even though they have a small number of men in their ranks, the 30-strong group revel in the name 'The Swimming Women'.

Others might call them insane.

The freezing temperatures cooled the fervour of all but three of the swimmers yesterday.

But John Kennedy (56), who owns an art gallery in Newcastle, wouldn't miss his daily dip. "It's really invigorating and great fun. Because we do it every day we don't feel the cold so much. And at Christmas we got sponsorship and raised almost £4,000 for motor neurone disease," he said.

Part-time teacher Janice Hackney, who's over 60, said the hardy band didn't take risks: "It's rough today, but we know the dangers and we don't get out of our depths."

Geraldine Boden, who's in her 50s, admitted that some people thought the swimmers were crazy, especially on mornings like yesterday. As she walked from the sea she said: "It was more of a challenge than usual.

"The only day we didn't go in was a few weeks ago when there was what turned out to be hoax alert that a man and his dog got into difficulties in the sea."

After the swim, the intrepid trio headed to a cafe where the owner was waiting to warm them up with coffee ... and hot water bottles.

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