Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Saturday, 22 December 2007

Caravan Christmas for thousands

By Liz Lewis
BBC News, Bristol

Until the summer of 2007, Tewkesbury was best known as a medieval town with charming timber-framed buildings - but one night in July changed that forever.

Eve Carter, 94 in her temporary home
Eve Carter, 94, has resolved to stay in her caravan over Christmas

Now it is a shanty town of caravans, punctuated with skips brimming with the wreckage of thousands of homes.

But despite the devastation surrounding them, people are getting on with life and making the best of the situation.

Eve Carter, 94, who has lived through two world wars, is not going to let a few feet of flood water force her out of her home.

"It was terrible; it was cold and dreadful," she said. remembering the day the water rushed in.

"There was nothing you could do. It was gradually creeping up my drive, so I got into the house and sat at the top of my stairs and watched the water lapping up to the third step.

"Four men came up the road and called to me saying 'Ma'am we've come to take you to a hotel' and I said thank you for coming but I'm not going anywhere, I'll stick it out," she said.

Now, five months on, Eve is managing to sleep in her home but spends the day in a caravan on her drive.

"When I get up in the morning it's icy cold in here before I can get my heater going and make a cup of tea," she said.

Velma Sutton points to the flood watermark in her living room in Apperley
Velma Sutton points to the flood watermark in her living room
She is not alone. Kat Strawford, who is also in her 90s, is sticking it out at home.

"I've lived here since 1935 and this has never happened before," she said as she walked around the ruins of her home.

The walls are missing, the furniture is gone and the temperature in the middle of the day is freezing.

"I'm going to my son's on Christmas Day but all my other plans have gone out the window," said Mrs Strawford.

Caravan living is plainly not ideal, but with so many people in the same situation there is not enough bricks and mortar accommodation in the town to cope with demand.

Tim and Jane Aston and their son Will, 12, and daughter Sarah-Jane, 14, have been forced to live cheek-by-jowl since the floods came into their home.

"Children need to relax and let off steam a bit after school, which is tricky in a caravan as the whole place rattles when they move about," said Mrs Aston.

"It's also been quite a challenge cooking for the family - there have been a few burnt offerings, but we realise we are lucky as we are still together as a family."

Mr Aston, 40, said the lack of heating and space had put a strain on his family life.

"We have been living in this caravan since August and it is just about freezing at this time of year," he said.

Will and Sarah-Jane Aston decorate a tree in their empty home: photo Tim Aston
Christmas will be a compact celebration for the Aston family

"We are going to spend Christmas in the van - unlike many people who can go into their sitting rooms in the day and only go back to sleep at night, we are here full-time.

"We'll celebrate with crackers, Christmas dinner and one or two glasses of wine. It will be a bijou and compact celebration," he added.

A community of caravan dwellers has sprung up in Tewkesbury, with most people parked up on their drives.

A few miles away, in the village of Apperley, retired couple Velma and Ken Sutton are living a half-and-half existence, sleeping in their home and spending the day in the caravan provided by their insurance company.

"A lady who's lived in the village for 88 years came to tell us our cottage had never flooded before," said Mrs Sutton.

"It has now though," said Mr Sutton.

When the water poured in, the couple, who own two donkeys, dogs, cats and a tortoise, were more concerned for the welfare of their animals than the damage to their home.

"We were away, but our house-sitter said the donkeys were fine, the dogs had been sent to other people in the village, the cats were upstairs and the tortoise was in the bath, so that was a relief," said Velma.

Their Christmas lunch plans depend on what will fit into the tiny microwave and oven in the caravan kitchenette.

"We've bought small dishes to fit the oven, but it only goes for a certain time. Then it shuts itself off and you have to wait for it to have a rest and turn itself back on again," said Velma.

"Christmas dinner may well go ping," added Ken Sutton.

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) estimates the total costs of the floods at 3bn. Around 750m has already been paid out in claims.

The total number of damage claims is about 165,000. The ABI says more than 80% of all claims have had interim or full payments made.

Insurance companies have paid for 14,500 displaced households nationwide to be put up in alternative homes. The ABI expects 40% to be back in their own homes by Christmas.

For those facing Christmas in a caravan that will be cold comfort indeed.

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