THE worst floods in a decade hit Henley with a vengeance this week as people were evacuated from their homes and streets were turned into rivers.
Roads in and around the town were closed and homes cut off after water levels reached near-record levels.
With more rain forecast over the next few days, the Environment Agency says the floods could still exceed those of 2003.
Henley Standard TV took to the skies in a helicopter to see the extent of the damage so far.
Click here to watch our special video report.
Drivers were badly affected after Wargrave Road, New Street, Thames Side and Riverside were closed and Bell Street was shut to traffic coming into Henley.
There were delays of up to two hours during the rush hours as tailbacks built up on the town’s approach roads and diversions were in place.
Sonning Bridge remained closed, which added to the congestion and led to gridlock in Caversham and Reading.
Other road closures included Remenham Lane between Whitehill and Remenham Church Lane, Spring Lane in Playhatch, Icknield Road in South Stoke and Knightsbridge Lane in Pyrton.
There was also major disruption to rail services between Reading and Paddington because of flooding at Maidenhead. Oxfordshire County Council delivered sandbags to homes on at-risk streets in Henley, including New Street and Thames Side.
Children and pensioners in Mill Lane had to be rescued from their homes on Monday as the floodwaters rose to a metre high.
Hugo Loudon, who runs Heritage Tree Services in Stoke Row, reached the stranded residents in his Mercedes Unimog truck, which has metre-high wheels.
He picked up three young children, who had to be carried from their house on their father’s shoulders, and an elderly couple who firefighters had said they would not be able to reach because they were so busy elsewhere. Mr Loudon said: “I’ve rescued people down here before and this is the only vehicle that can go through a metre of water comfortably. When driving you have to deal with the power of the river and there’s a strong side current, so it’s not easy.”
A pregnant woman and a teenage girl had to be rescued from Loddon Drive, Wargrave, on Saturday after their car got stuck in waist-deep floodwater.
A police helicopter took almost an hour to find the pair, who did not know where they were when they called 999. Firefighters used a dinghy to rescue the women, one of whom was sitting on top of the car. Staff at Hobbs of Henley had to use a pump after its reception and boathouse and the neighbouring restaurant were submerged in a foot of water. This came only weeks after the boathouse was flooded for the first time this year.
Managing director Jonathan Hobbs said: “It seems to be worse because of the double whammy of having a huge flood in January, starting the clear-up and then it coming back a month later.”
He hoped the Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse restaurant, which was also flooded last month, would be open in time for Valentine’s Day celebrations tonight (Friday).
Mr Hobbs said: “Through hard work and ingenuity, we have managed to salvage the wooden floor. We had pumps in there all day and all night pumping the water out. It has involved a lot of hard work from our staff, which is very much appreciated.”
Mr Hobbs echoed calls made nationally for rivers to be dredged, saying if this still happened the flooding would not have been so severe.
He said: “The Environment Agency had a policy of dredging the rivers in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties but it was stopped due to a lack of available funding. There needs to be a serious review of the agency’s responsibilities towards flooding and building on floodplains.”
At the weekend, staff from Hobbs went to Marsh Lock to help the lock-keeper move his furniture, fridge, freezer and cooker out of the floodwater that surrounded the house so that it was only accessible by boat.The River and Rowing Museum in Mill Meadows was forced to close on Saturday for the second time this year after the water levels rose overnight, making the building and car park inaccessible to visitors and the 20 staff. It is not known when it will be able to re-open.
Marketing manager Catherine Yoxall said: “We are really hoping that it will not be shut all week but it looks like it will be. We have a special exhibition due to open on Saturday which involves two classic cars being driven into the building. We had rearranged that once already due to the previous floods.
“The water is three inches over the plaque on the building which marks the 2003 floods. I understand the advice from the Environment Agency is that the water levels are at a record high and not likely to drop quickly.”
On the Berkshire bank, Lion Meadow, home of the royal regatta tents, was submerged and the Leander Club car park was underwater. Members and staff were using the athletes’ entrance while the rowers have been forced to train indoors and at Dorney Lake because the flow of the river is too dangerous.
Equipment and ornaments at the club were moved to safety in case the ground floor flooded.
General manager Paul Budd said: “The water has never been in the clubhouse but as I recently got a new carpet it will be sod’s law that it will this time.
“I think that the first thing that will go will be the drainage system. We pump all our waste over the bridge into Henley and the drains are bursting over there. We are just hoping the water does not get any higher.
“Looking on the bright side, all of our bedrooms now have a river view. All the members are still coming in clutching their cameras and taking pictures. We are keeping our senses of humour and trying to help people where we can.”
Henley Rowing Club, off Wargrave Road, was forced to close due to the flooding. The club car park was inaccessible and all entrances to the building were under water.
Stephen Doble, of Shiplake Farm, said 150 acres of his land had been underwater since Boxing Day.
Mr Doble, 32, who grows arable crops and has beef cattle, said: “It is very hard to tell what the impact is. We are already short of feed this year because of the floods last winter and we had to buy more as a result.
“We accept that we are in a flood plain and we are always going to get flooding. What is not acceptable is the speed that it has come up and the length of time it has taken for the river level to go down after the last time.
“That is the result of the Environment Agency not dredging and their management of the river levels by flooding the farmland to protect the residential areas without prior consultation.
“Their decision to stop dredging was never done in consultation with farmers, they did it to save money. The floods are far worse than they would have been otherwise.
“It is impossible to say how much damage has been done until we see green grass again. The water could be here for another month.”
More than 90 per cent of Sonning Eye Farm was underwater, threatening to ruin crops including barley and oilseed rape.
The 300-acre farm is part of Coppid Farming Enterprises, which belongs to the Phillimore family.
Farm manager Simon Beddows said: “It is as bad as it was in 2003 but not worse. In 2007 we flooded three times in 12 months. The problem is the rivers and streams have not had any attention in quite a few years. The last time they came to dredge anything is more than 10 years ago. There has been no maintenance of the rivers.”
Mr Beddows said there was no point in the farmers clearing their ditches if there was nowhere for the water to flow and the waterways were not maintained by the Environment Agency.
He added: “The lack of dredging has had a significant impact on the amount of flooding that we have had. We have had significantly high rainfall this year but the lack of maintenance to the river has made it worse.
“I am afraid it is only going to get worse in the short term. From last year’s experience it was the middle of April before it had dried out completely. This year it looks like it is going to be later than that.
“It will have quite an impact on those who have been affected. My heart goes out to anyone who has had their house and buildings under water — at least we are not suffering that.”
In Wargrave, Loddon Drive was under 3ft of water for the second time this year and some residents have been practically cut off since the flooding began in December.
Kim Potter, a dog trainer, said: “Some of us on this road are running low on supplies because we have been almost housebound since Christmas.
“The water was rising all last week and has certainly gone above the level it was in 2003. The main difference this time is it is very fast and powerful — there are even waves.”
Magician Paul Daniels’ home in Willow Lane stayed dry thanks to pumps he had installed after the ú2.5 million house was flooded in 2003.
Daniels, who lives with his wife Debbie McGee, was performing in Yorkshire when the flooding hit this week.
McGee said: “The access is the problem. Most homes in our lane are okay but people can’t get in or out.
“The pumps have worked keeping water out of the house but it’s 2ft high in the garden and lapping against the windows and doors. The current is very strong, it’s enough to wash you away.
“The Environment Agency haven’t spoken to anyone on our street as far as I know or offered to help. We have all helped each other with getting elderly people out of their houses.
“I’m not very impressed with the agency. They called us while we were in Yorkshire to warn us to get out of our house but that was last Thursday and by then it was too late.
“I would like to know what they have actually done since 2003. They need to dredge the river. They just don’t listen to the people who live near the river.”
A warning has been issued to residents in Wargrave with a private water supply to boil their water before drinking it or cooking food with it as it may contain raw sewage.
The car park at the Flowing Spring in Playhatch has been underwater since Christmas.
Landlord Nick Willson said: “We are still trading but we have no car park. Sonning Bridge being closed is a bit of a nightmare for us because we get a lot of trade from south of the river.
“The water hasn’t got into the pub because it’s an 18th century building designed that way. It just looks horrendous out there. We have waves in the car park and the water’s about 4ft deep now.”
Nadia Hoy, manager at the Crown Inn in Playhatch, said: “It has impacted on us because of the road closures, which have meant fewer people through the doors.
“We haven’t had to close and haven’t needed to put out any sandbags.”
The Country Gardens Garden Centre at Playhatch has been forced to close again due to its car park being flooded. It has only managed a few days trading since Christmas.
Sharon Ingoldby, assistant manager at the Baskerville pub in Shiplake, said: “I think we’ve actually been busier this week because local people haven’t been able to leave the village.
“We have sandbags outside which were delivered on Tuesday and the drains are being pumped.
“People are barricading their houses because the road is flooded and every time a car drives through it creates a wash.”
Students and staff have had trouble getting to and from Shiplake College.
Headmaster Gregg Davies said: “We have had pupils getting into school as much as an hour late and we have decided to let some school buses leave early at the end of the day so they can get home before the rush.
“We are quite a big rowing school and we haven’t been able to go out on the river this term at all. We’ve been rowing on the rugby pitches instead. Our boathouse is under 8in of water which is the first time it has got into the building since I’ve been here.”
The Mill at Sonning stayed open despite its car park being underwater.
Manager David Vass said: “These are very difficult times with such high waters for so long.
“Our bar has been flooded twice already and we can’t assess the damage until the water recedes.
“We have lost the car park but we are lucky that the hotel across the bridge has let us use theirs.
“We have managed to stay open and haven’t lost a single show. We have seven pumps trying to keep the water level down and we are trying to get some sandbags ready for the weekend.
“The river is as high as I’ve seen it in my 32 years here. We have been in flood since December but we’ve always kept open and had no problem serving our customers. The show must go on.”
Michael Emmanuel, owner of the French Horn restaurant in Sonning, said: “We haven’t closed. The water is very high and lapping the doors but it has been business as usual and we have great views now.
“We have had to buy our own sandbags and fill them up. We have to be proactive because we have no services from the council or anyone. We are on our own.”
Home secretary and Maidenhead MP Theresa May said: “The current scenes of flooding in the local area are extremely concerning.
“I have been in contact with the Environment Agency and local councils on a regular basis and have raised specific individual incidents brought to my attention by constituents.
“I will continue to monitor the situation closely. Looking ahead, it is vital that we consider what further steps can be taken to improve flood resilience along the Thames.
“I will continue to press the Environment Agency and local councils to take every possible action to prevent flooding and to respond effectively where it occurs.”
Wokingham Borough Council issued 15,000 sandbags to those properties already at risk of flooding or to vulnerable or elderly residents.
A spokeswoman said: “The council has been busy supporting flood victims across the borough and has also been helping, where possible, neighbouring local authorities in need.
“While the impact of the flood waters has not been as devastating in the borough compared with other parts of the Thames Valley, its effects on those residents it has touched have been soul destroying.
“The council has now set up a special task force working with the Department of Transport and the Environment Agency to explore ways to focus on improvements to avoid future flooding and its impact on transport.
“Some 15,000 sandbags have been issued by the council to those properties already identified at risk of flooding or to vulnerable or elderly residents.”
A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency said: “We have operational staff on the ground checking our assets and water courses for blockages, ensuring that we are best prepared for the forecasted rain.
“River levels are stable at the moment but are expected to rise at the end of the week following further heavy rain.
“The Jubilee River, which divides the flow of the Thames upstream, is operating at full capacity to manage levels. We have sandbags on standby to be deployed in the area as needed.”
The floodwater is set to rise again with rain set to continue. The Met Office is forecasting more rain on Friday, a mainly dry weekend and then further rain early next week.