FROM 1,200 feet above Henley, the full extent of this week’s floods was strikingly apparent.
Hovering over the town in a helicopter, you could see vast swathes of low-lying land completely submerged by the swollen Thames.
From here to Wargrave, Shiplake and Sonning, field after field glistened brightly as sunlight bounced off the water.
Click hereto see our picture gallery of aerial views of Henley in the aftermath of the flood.
Click here to watch our special video report.
My trip took place on Monday when 18-year-old Henley pilot Hugh Barklem offered to fly me along the river. Hugh qualified for his private pilot’s licence last year, the youngest person in Britain to do so.
We met at his home in Lambridge Lane and took off in his father Nigel’s £200,000 Robinson R44, a four-seater model capable of flying at up to 150mph.
After a smooth take-off, we gained altitude and banked sharply to the west as we passed over Badgemore Golf Club.
Although we were some two miles from the river, I could see its width had more than trebled in places.
This was particularly noticeable as we passed over Henley Bridge and saw the land on either side of Wargrave Road was underwater.
The road itself and most of the properties along it were still visible but their grounds and gardens were submerged. Lion Meadow, where the royal regatta takes place, and the grounds of Leander Club were also covered.
Further downstream, the river had broken its banks at Fawley Court, although it was still some distance from the house.
The folly on Temple Island was also untouched, although the water level was perilously close and the grass surrounding it could not be seen.
The grounds at Greenlands, home of the Henley Business School, were largely unaffected but the field north of Temple Island Meadows on the opposite bank was partly covered.
Worse sights were to come, however, as we turned around and headed south.
Mill Meadows in Henley was completely submerged and only identifiable by the hedges around its playgrounds and bowling green. The bandstand and Leichlingen pavilion stood alone amid a mass of brown water while the River and Rowing Museum was cut off from the town.
The Thames continued to widen at Marsh Meadows and Marsh Lock, where it had completely covered the car park at Henley Town Football Club’s ground in Mill Lane.
Beyond this point, it began to more closely resemble a lake as we entered the worst-hit areas.
The river had covered most of the fields east of the A4155 between Henley and Shiplake while the Hennerton Backwater, which runs alongside Wargrave Road, was similarly engorged.
Almost all land lying between the two water courses was engulfed apart from a small patch of high ground in the centre.
The Thames briefly narrowed where the railway passes over it at Shiplake but Bolney Road and a number of surrounding streets were nonetheless flooded.
Beyond this point, it widened sharply and covered most of the land between the river and the A4.
Homes in Loddon Drive and Thames Drive were cut off from the main road by the water, which reached as far as the nursery buildings and sewage treatment plant off Wargrave Road.
There were similar scenes at Sonning and Sonning Eye, where at least three-quarters of the landscape beneath us was under water. Roads including Plough Lane, which runs from the A4155 at Playhatch to the B478 at Sonning Eye, could only be made out by the trees and hedgerows sticking up.
To the west of Reading, the flooding became progressively less severe, although the river remained heavily swollen at Whitchurch.
The village’s 112-year-old toll bridge is being refurbished but the work has been suspended because of the high river levels. An abandoned pontoon carrying tools and a crane floated aimlessly beside the structure and the engineers’ paddock at Pangbourne was deserted.
We returned to Henley for one final pass over the town and were unexpectedly caught in a rain storm that blew in from the west.
As visibility dropped and raindrops loudly battered the shell of the aircraft, I gripped the sides of my seat and tried not to envisage a fiery death.
It was, ironically, an unexpected chance to get closer to the source of this week’s chaos — but one I could happily have done without.
Hugh changed course for High Wycombe airfield, where we waited it out before heading home.
While the flooding was not as drastic as that seen in other parts of the country, the flight really brought home how badly this area has been affected.
I am extremely grateful to Hugh for giving up his time.