The Thames Valley Catastrophe (1897)
by Grant Allen

It can scarcely be necessary for me to mention, I suppose, that I was one of the earliest observers of the sad series of events which brought about the transference of the seat of Government in the British Isles from London to Manchester. My narrative naturally occupies a conspicuous position in the official report ordered by Parliament. But I think it incumbent upon me, for the benefit of posterity, to supplement that dry and formal statement by a more circumstantial account of my personal adventures, describing the great event as it appeared to myself, a Government servant of the second grade, and in its relations to my own wife, my home, and my children.

On the morning of the 21st of August, in the memorable year of the calamity, I happened to be at Cookham, a pleasant village which then occupied the western bank of the Thames just below the spot where the Look-Out Tower of the Earthquake & Eruption Department now dominates the whole wide plain of the Glassy Rock Desert.

In place of the black lake of basalt which young people see nowadays winding its solid bays in and out among the grassy downs, most men still living can well remember a gracious and smiling valley, threaded in the midst by a beautiful river.

I had cycled down from London the evening before and had spent the night at a tolerable inn in the village. Next morning I rose early, inflated my tyres, and set off towards Oxford by a leisurely route along the windings of the river. I began by crossing Cookham Bridge, which spanned the Thames close by the village: the curious will find its exact position marked in the maps of the period. In the middle of the bridge I paused and surveyed that charming prospect, which I was the last of living men to see as it then existed. I might have gazed at it too long-- and one minute more would have sufficed for my destruction-- had not a cry from the tow-path a little farther up attracted my attention. It was a wild, despairing cry, like that of a man being overpowered and murdered.

I am confident this was my first intimation of danger. Two minutes before, it is true, I had heard a faint sound like distant thunder: but nothing else. I turned my eye upstream. For half a second I was utterly bewildered. Strange to say, I did not first perceive the great flood of fire that was advancing towards me. I saw only the man who had shouted a miserable, cowering, terror-stricken wretch, rushing wildly forward, with panic in his face as if pursued by some wild beast. 'A mad dog,' I said to myself, 'or else a bull in the meadow!'

I glanced back to see what his pursuer might be; and then, in a second, the whole horror of the catastrophe burst upon me. Its horror--but not yet its magnitude. I was aware at first just of a moving red wall, like dull red-hot molten metal. 'He must run,' I thought, 'or the moving wall will overtake him.' Next instant, a hot wave seemed to strike my face, like the blast of heat that strikes one in a glass house when you stand in front of the furnace. At about the same point in time I became aware that the dull red wall was really a wall of fire. But it was cooled by contact with the air and the water. Even as I looked, however, a second wave from behind seemed to rush on and break: it overlaid and outran the first one. This second wave was white, not red-- a white heat, I realised. Then, with a burst of recognition. I knew what it all meant-- a volcanic fissure-eruption!

The poor wretch on the tow-path was not a hundred yards off-- but as he rushed forwards and shrieked, the wall of fire overtook him. I do not think it quite caught him. It is hard at such moments to judge what really happens: but I believe I saw him shrivel like a moth in a flame a few seconds before the advancing wall of fire swept over him. He seemed to go off in gas,leaving a shower of powdery ash behind him. It is to this complete combustion before the lava-flood reached them that I attribute the circumstances that no casts of dead bodies, like those at Pompeii, have been found in the Thames Valley Desert. My own belief is that every human body was reduced to a gaseous condition by the terrific heat several seconds before the molten basalt reached it.

How high was the wall at that time? This has been much debated. I should guess thirty feet (though it rose afterwards to more than two hundred), and it advanced rather faster than a man could run down the centre of the valley. (Later on, its pace accelerated greatly with subsequent outbursts.)

In frantic haste, I saw that only one chance of safety lay before me: I must strike uphill by the fieldpath to Hedsor. I rode for very life, with grim death behind me. Even at this distance the heat was intolerable. Yet, strange to say, I saw few or no people flying as yet from the inundation. The fact is, the eruption came upon us so suddenly, so utterly without warning, that whole towns must have been destroyed before the inhabitants were aware that anything out of the common was happening. It is a sort of alleviation to the general horror to remember that a large proportion of the victims must have died without even knowing it; one second, they were laughing, talking, bargaining; the next, they were asphyxiated or reduced to ashes.

This, however, is what I learned afterward. At that moment I was only aware of a frantic pace uphill, over a rough stony road, and with my pedals working as I had never before worked them: while behind me I saw purgatory let loose, striving hard to overtake me. I just knew that a sea of fire was tilling the valley from end to end, and that its heat scorched my face as I urged on my bicycle in abject terror.

All this time, I will admit, my panic was purely personal. I was too much engaged in the engrossing sense of my danger to be vividly alive to the public catastrophe. I did not even think of Ethel and the children. But when I reached Hedsor Church--whose shell still stands, scorched and charred, by the edge of the desert--I was able to pause for a minute to recover breath, and to look back on the scene of the disaster.

It was a terrible and yet I felt even then a beautiful sight. The whole valley was one sea of fire. barriers of red hot lava formed themselves for a moment now and again where the outer edge of the inundation had cooled a little: over these temporary dams fresh cataracts of white-hot material poured themselves afresh into the valley beyond. After a while, as the deeper portion of basalt was rushed out, all was white alike. So glorious it looked in the morning sunshine that one could hardly realise the appalling reality of that sea of molten gold.

I tried vaguely to discover the source of the disaster. Looking straight upstream past Marlow I described with dazzled eyes a whiter mass than any, glowing fiercely in the daylight like an electric light, and filling up the narrow gorge of the river towards Hurley and Henley. Though it was like looking at the sun, I could make out that the glowing white dome-shaped mass was the molten lava as it gurgled from the mouth of the vast fissure. I say vast, because so it seemed to me, though, as everybody now knows, the actual gap where the earth opened measures no more than eight miles across, from a point near what was once Shiplake Ferry to the site of the old lime-kilns at Marlow. Yet when one saw the eruption actually taking place, the colossal scale of it was what most appalled one.

I could see dimly, too, that the flood spread in every direction from its central point, both up and down the river. To right and left it was hemmed in by hills: but downward it had filled the entire valley as far as Cookham and beyond, while upward it spread in one vast glowing sheet towards Reading and beyond. I did not then know that this gigantic natural dam was later to fill up the whole low lying level and form the twin expanses of Lake Newbury and Lake Oxford. Tourists who now look down on still summer evenings where the ruins of Magdalen and Merton Colleges may be dimly descried through the pale green depths, their broken masonry picturesquely overgrown with tangled water-weeds, can form but little idea of the terrible scene which that peaceful bank presented while the incandescent lava was pouring forth in a scorching white flood towards the doomed district. It was with difficulty that I grasped my bicycle, my hands trembled so fiercely. I realised that I was a spectator of the greatest calamity which had befallen a civilised land within the ken of history.

As yet it did not occur to me that the catastrophe was anything more than a local flood. My imagination could hardly conceive that London itself was threatened. I thought at first 'It will go on towards Maidenhead!' But even as I thought it I saw a fresh and fiercer gush of fire well out from the central gash, and flow still faster down the valley. I realised with a throb that it was advancing towards Windsor. Then a wild fear thrilled through me. If Windsor, why not Staines and Chertsey and Hounslow? If Hounslow, why not London? In a second I remembered Ethel and the children. Hitherto, the immediate danger of my own position alone had struck me. The fire was so near; the heat of it rose up in my face and daunted me. But now I felt I must make a wild dash to warn not London no, frankly, I forgot those millions; but Ethel and my little ones. In that thought, for the first moment, the real vastness of the catastrophe came home to me. The Thames Valley was doomed! I must ride for dear life if I wished to save my wife and children!

I mounted again, but found my shaking feet could hardly work the pedals. My legs were one jelly. With a frantic effort, I struck off inland in the direction of Burnham: I hardly knew the district well enough to know what route I must take in order to avoid the flood-- the flood of fire. By pure instinct, I set my face Londonwards along the ridge of the chalk downs. In three minutes I had lost sight of the burning flood,and was deep among green lanes and under shadowy beeches. The very contrast frightened me. I wondered if I was going mad. It was all so quiet. One could not believe that scarce five miles from that devastating sheet of fire, birds were singing in the sky and men toiling in the fields as if nothing had happened.

Near Lambourne Wood I met a brother cyclist, just about to descend the hill. A curve in the road hid the valley from him. I shouted aloud: 'For heaven's sake, don't go down! There is danger, danger!'

'I can take any hill in England!' he answered.

'It's not the hill. There's been a volcanic eruption-- great floods of fire-- all the valley is filled with burning lava!'

'Go home to your lunatic asylum!' he cried derisively, pedalling faster down the hill. I have no doubt he must have ridden into the very midst of the flood and been scorched by its advance before he could check his machine on so sudden a slope.

I rode on at full speed among green fields and meadows. Here and there I passed a labouring man on the road. More than one looked up at me and commented on the oppressive heat, but none of them seemed to be aware of the fate that was overtaking their own homes close by in the valley. I told one or two, but they laughed as if I were a madman. I grew sick of warning them.

On the edge of the down, near Burnham, I caught sight of the valley again. Here, people were just waking to what was taking place. Half the population was gathered on the slope, looking down with wonder on the flood of fire. Silent terror was the prevailing expression. But when I told them I had seen the lava bursting forth from the earth in a white dome, they laughed me to scorn: and when I assured them I was pushing forward in hot haste to London, they answered, 'It won't ever get as far as London!' That was the only place, as is now well known, where the flood was observed long enough before hand to telegraph and warn the inhabitants of the great city; but nobody thought of doing it; and I must say, even if they had done so,there is not the slightest probability that the warning would have attracted the least attention. Men on the Stock Exchange would have made jests about it--and proceeded to buy and sell as usual.

Looking down from the hill toward the main road which runs along the Thames Valley towards London, I became aware that it was already crowded with carriages, carts and cycles, all dashing at a mad pace unanimously towards London. Suddenly a fresh wave turned the corner by Maidenhead Bridge, and began to gain on them visibly. It was an awful sight. I cannot pretend to describe it. The poor creatures on the road rushed wildly, despairingly on: the fire took them from behind and, one by one, before the actual sea reached them, I saw them shrivel and melt away in the fierce white heat. I could not look at it any longer. I certainly could not descend and court instant death. I felt that my one chance was to strike across the downs and try the line of northern heights to London.

Oh, how fiercely I pedalled! At Farnham Royal (where again nobody seemed to be aware what was happening) a policeman tried to stop me for frantic riding. I tripped him up and rode on. Experience had taught me that it, was no use telling those who had not seen it of the disaster. A little beyond, at the entrance to a fine park, a gatekeeper tried to shut a gate in my face, exclaiming that the road was private. I saw it was my only practicable route, and this was no time for trifling. I am a man of peace, but I lifted my fist and planted it between his eyes. Before he could recover from his astonishment, I had mounted again and ridden on.

At Galley Hill I realised that my only hope lay in crossing the Valley at Uxbridge in order to gain the higher ground beyond. But could I cross before the lava-flood reached this point? Not far behind me, over the valley, hung a great white cloud--the steam of the river, where the lava sucked it up and made it seethe and boil. The flood was fast advancing. But in a second I realised I had no choice: I made up my mind to descend and cut across the low-lying ground. If I failed, after all, I was but one unit more in the prodigious calamity.

I was just coasting down the hill, when a slight and unimportant accident almost rendered impossible my further progress. I was pulled up suddenly by finding my front tyre deflated-- I had received a bad puncture from a thorn on the road. I tried inflating again, but it was quite useless: I must submit to stop and doctor up the puncture. Fortunately, I had the necessary apparatus in my wallet.

I think it was the weirdest episode of all that weird ride-- stopping impatiently while the fiery flood surged on, going through all the fiddling details of mending a pneumatic tyre. A countryman in a cart came past, saw me struggling frantically and said 'The more haste the less speed!'

Should I warn him of his doom? 'Keep up on the hills!' I told him. 'Flames of fire are flowing down the valley.'

He burst into a laugh. 'Why, you're one of those Salvation Army fellows, trying to preach to me! I'm going to Uxbridge.' And he continued down the hill towards certain destruction.

It was hours, I feel sure, before I had patched up that puncture, though I did it by the watch in four and a half minutes. As soon as it was done I mounted once more and rode at a breakneck pace to Uxbridge and swept through the straggling main street. Nobody took the slightest heed; they stood still in the street for a moment watching me pass, then returned to their customary occupations. A quarter of an hour later there was no such place in the world as Uxbridge.

I rode on through Harrow without one word to anybody partly because I did not desire to be treated as an escaped lunatic, partly because I rightly judged that they were safe from the inundation: for, as the flood never quite covered the dome of St. Paul's, part of which still protrudes from the sea of basalt, it did not reach the level of Harrow and the other northern heights of London. At Willesden I found great crowds of people in the profoundest excitement watching a dense cloud of smoke and steam that spread rapidly from the west. They were speculating as to its meaning, but laughed incredulously when I told them what it portended. A few minutes later the smoke spread ominously towards Kensington and Paddington. That settled my fate. It was clearly impossible to descend into London: and indeed, the heat now began to be unendurable. It drove us all back, almost physically. I thought I must abandon all hope. I should never even know what had become of Ethel and the children.

My first impulse was to lie down and await the fire-flood. Yet the sense of the greatness of the catastrophe seemed somehow to blunt one's own private grief. I was beside myself with fear for my darlings; yet I realised I was but one among hundreds of thousands of fathers in the same position. What was happening at that moment in the great city of five million souls we did not know, we never shall know; but we may conjecture that the end was mercifully too swift to entail much suffering.

All at once a gleam of hope struck me. It was my father's birthday. Was it not just, possible that Ethel had taken the children to Hampstead to wish their grandpapa many happy returns of the day? With a wild determination not to give up all for lost, I turned my front wheel in the direction of Hampstead Hill. My heart was on fire within me. A restless anxiety urged me to ride my hardest, as all along the route I was still just a minute or two in front of the catastrophe. People were beginning to be aware that something was taking place--more than one asked me eagerly where the fire was. It was impossible to believe they knew nothing of an event I seemed to have been living with for months: how could I realise that all the things had happened since I started from Cookham Bridge were really compressed into the space of a single morning-- nay, more, of an hour and a half only?

I pedalled on as if automatically: for all life had gone out of me. I approached Windmill Hill: my heart stood still. At my father's door I drew up, hardly daring to go in. Though each second was precious, I still hesitated.

At last I turned the handle. I heard somebody within. It was little Bertie's voice. 'Mammy, Mammy, Daddy has come home!'

I flung myself into a chair and broke down. In that moment of relief, I felt that London was lost, but I had saved my wife and children. I did not wait for explanations. A crawling four-wheeler cab was loitering by. I hailed it, and hurried them in. I gave the driver three pounds-- all the gold I had with me, 'Drive on, towards Hatfield-- anywhere!' I cried.

He drove as he was bid. We spent the night, while Hampstead flared like a beacon, at an isolated farmhouse on the high ground in Hertfordshire. For of course, though the flood did not reach so high, it set fire to everything inflammable in its neighbourhood.

Next day, all the world knew the magnitude of the disaster. It can only be summed up in five emphatic words: there was no more London.


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