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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Boscastle and the Brown Willy Effect

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas MAY. 22, 2021

Boscastle is just a short distance south of Bude. It is a small fishing village with a harbour in a very steep sided picturesque valley. Personally I would call it more of a gorge, and this hints at why in 2004 there was a devastating flood which wiped out most of the village.

In available film footage the flood is seen to reach the bottom edge of this roof.

The name of the village comes from Botreaux Castle, a 12th-century motte-and-bailey fortress, of which few remains survive. The castle was anciently in the possession of the de Botreaux family, which became under William de Botreaux (1337–91) the Barons Botreaux.

Boscastle harbour is a natural inlet protected by two stone harbour walls built in 1584 by Sir Richard Grenville. It is the only significant harbour for 20 miles (32 km) along the coast. Boscastle was once a small port (similar to many others on the north coast of Cornwall), importing limestone and coal, and exporting slate and other local produce.

Sir Richard Grenville (15 June 1542 – 10 September 1591), was an English sailor appointed to organize the defences of Devon and Cornwall in preparation for the expected attack by the Spanish Armada. He was also commissioned with overseeing the repair of the Fortifications of the Cinque Ports and Boscastle Harbour.

In 1588, he was made a member of the council that was created to devise means of defence against the Spanish armada. Grenville led five ships to Plymouth to join the English defences. Grenville was commissioned to keep watch at sea on the western approaches to the Bristol Channel in case of the return of the Spanish Armada.

Later, Grenville was appointed Vice-Admiral of the Fleet under Thomas Howard. He was charged with maintaining a squadron at the Azores to waylay the return to Spain of the South American treasure fleets. He took command of Revenge, a galleon considered to be a masterpiece of naval construction.

At Flores Island the English fleet was surprised by a much larger squadron sent by King Philip II of Spain. Howard retreated to safety, but Grenville faced the 53 enemy ships alone, leading his single ship in what amounted to a suicide mission, stating that he "utterly refused to turn from the enimie...he would rather chose to die than to dishonour himselfe". His crew was reduced by nearly 100 men due to sickness on shore, but he chose nonetheless to confront the far superior Spanish force. For twelve hours he and his crew fought off the Spanish, causing heavy damage to fifteen galleons. According to Raleigh's account, Grenville and his soldiers fought for hour after hour, "…until all the powder of The Revenge, to the last barrell, was now spent, all her pikes broken, fortie of her best men slain, and the most part of the rest hurt". The ship itself was "marvellous unsaverie, filled with bloud and bodies of deade and wounded men like a slaughter house". Wikipedia.

Boscastle is a tranquil place today and picture postcard perfect which belies it's recent traumatic history.

The 2004 Boscastle flood occurred on Monday, 16 August 2004 in the two villages of Boscastle and Crackington Haven in Cornwall, England, United Kingdom. The villages suffered extensive damage after flash floods caused by an exceptional amount of rain that fell over eight hours that afternoon. The flood in Boscastle was filmed and extensively reported .

The floods were the worst in local memory. A study commissioned by the Environment Agency from hydraulics consulting firm HR Wallingford concluded that it was among the most extreme ever experienced in Britain. The peak flow was about 140 m3/s, between 5:00 pm and 6:00 pm BST. (200 Olympic sized swimming pools)The annual chance of this (or a greater) flood in any one year is about 1 in 400.

The Brown Willy effect is a particular example of a meteorological phenomenon known as peninsular convergence, which sometimes occurs in the south-west of Great Britain. It leads to heavy showers developing over the high ground of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, which then often travel a considerable distance downwind of their place of origin. The effect is named after the hill, Brown Willy, the highest point on the moor and in Cornwall as a whole. It is thought that the Boscastle flood of 2004 was caused by a particularly extreme example.

75 cars, 5 caravans, 6 buildings and several boats were washed into the sea; approximately 100 homes and businesses were destroyed, and some had to be demolished; trees were uprooted and debris were scattered over a large area. In an operation lasting from mid-afternoon until 2:30 am, a fleet of 7 Westland Sea King helicopters rescued about 150 people clinging to trees and the roofs of buildings and cars. No major injuries or loss of life were reported. The estimated cost of damage was £15 million.

All of which is hard to credit when seen today.

An interesting feature of the harbour is that it does not face the open sea but is situated a distance from the sea, up an S shaped channel, which offers considerable natural protection from storms at sea. To see the open sea you have to walk over the natural rock above the harbour wall and follow the valley turns.

These cottages below were probably the only buildings not affected by the flood, being situated higher up the valley side.

Since the flood there have been several projects aimed at preventing or at least minimising any future flooding.

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