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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
'It's like Venice here'
Surveying the scene in Cambridge
Megan Lane
It has rained so hard in Cambridgeshire that rivers have burst their banks and fields have turned to lakes. Among those forced to flee are pensioners, evacuated to an asylum seekers' detention centre.

It was raining, and raining hard, when Reuben Flack, 86, awoke on Sunday morning. When he returned to his bungalow in Oakington after a day out, a month's worth of rain had fallen in just six hours.

The high-tide mark on a pensioner's bungalow
He watched the puddle in the car park turn into a wellie-deep lake. A rising tide lapped the front door, and ground water bubbled up through the carpet. It was when fire-fighters came to carry him to safety that he realised the rain wasn't going to stop.

He and nine of his elderly neighbours became guests at a controversial government centre set up to hold asylum seekers.

At their age, a mattress in a school hall is not best comfortable, so the centre managers agreed to host the temporarily homeless pensioners in a vacant block.

Click here to see more photos

"I don't want to go home - it's great here," Mr Flack says as he gives us a guided tour of the former army barracks.

"I don't mind if I come here just to sleep. That's my bed in the corner, I've got one lady next to me, another lady there... what more could I want?"

'Like kings and queens'

Centre manager Colin Hodgkins says his staff have been moved by their elderly guests' plight.

Oakington Immigration Reception Centre
Oakington Immigration Reception Centre
Off-duty wardens have accompanied them back to their water-logged homes to view the damage, and burly security guards have volunteered to lug sodden carpets and furniture.

"One lady was distraught because she had no insurance - we've collected more than 400 for her," Mr Hodgkins says.

Mr Flack, and fellow evacuees Ruth Taylor, Betty Melia and Barbara Goode, say they have been treated like royalty.

"Immigration centres have got a bad name around here. So when they told us we were coming to the Oakington assessment centre, I was pleased because I wanted to see the conditions for myself," Mr Flack says.

"I just said, 'Are those people [detainees] getting the same as we have?' and they are getting exactly the same."

Flooding in Water Lane

Much of the water in the village has since subsided, leaving a grubby high tide mark on almost every building and a murky pond at the crossroads of Water Lane and Dry Drayton Rd.

A village boy plays in the floodwaters
Dave Pegg, of the Crossway Garage, surveys his ruined MOT bay despondently.

Sludge coats much of the testing equipment and water continues to bleed through the walls of the five-foot-deep pit.

"This really could be serious. When this equipment doesn't work, I don't work - MOTs account for three-quarters of my business."

Breaching the banks

A dozen miles or so down the road, the swollen River Cam has transformed parts of Cambridge.

Boat and houses on the river
The swollen River Cam
With sandbag defences largely holding back the waters from riverside homes and businesses, there seems to be a silver lining in the rain clouds which stalled over the county on Sunday. Not only have the floods inspired a Blitz spirit among residents, the receding waters are almost picturesque.

Camera-toting pedestrians crowd the city's many bridges, and cyclists peddling the riverside paths fan plumes of water into the air. "It's like Venice here," observes one resident.

At the Big Top erected in the centre of the flooded common, the cast and crew of the Circus of the Streets are hard at work drying out plugs with hairdryers and hoisting the ring onto wooden pallets.

Big Top
Monday's shows were cancelled due to the floods
"The police knocked on the caravan door at 4am on Monday, warning us that the river had burst its banks," says bungee trapeze artist Barney Maurice.

"We had 10 people around every caravan, pushing them away from the rising waters. We've all got colds now because we got so wet."

But as the old showbiz adage goes, the show must go on.

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24 Oct 01 | England
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