Back home in Derry: An epic 10-hour journey through the night from Belfast

Freya McClements had to take refuge in a hotel as roads turned into rivers

People in Donegal have been warned to avoid all non-essential travel this morning after roads were washed away and a number of bridges collapsed during torrential rain yesterday. Video: Brian Hutton/ Barry Whyt/ Sinead Quigley

 

The first warning was a text message. “Floods in Derry,” it read. “Be careful getting home.”

I put my phone into my pocket as I got into the car at 7pm, and forgot all about it.

Leaving Belfast on Tuesday evening the weather was cloudy but calm and, most importantly, dry. But as I headed west, the sky darkened and it began to rain.

By the Glenshane Pass the water was right across the road. I drove slowly, struggling to maintain control of the car, careful not to brake in case the car skidded. Mini waterfalls were hurtling down the side of the mountain, right on to the road surface.

At Foreglen, just beyond Dungiven, the lights of the cars ahead slowed, then stopped completely. I realised I was stopped in at least a foot of water; to my right, a car lay stranded in the flood. Beside me a bus shelter had almost disappeared down the hill.

The emergency services arrived. “You need to get off this road,” a fireman said. “It might subside.”

I told myself it was a slight detour. I could drive back to Dungiven, cut over the Sperrins to Limavady and make it home that way. In Greysteel, no more than 10 miles from Derry, it was even worse. The water was right across the road, so deep that it was already nearing the front steps of homes and businesses along the road. 

I could see the people inside standing at their windows watching, no doubt afraid of just how high the water might rise.

A nearby garage was about to close. I stopped, filled up on petrol and took out some cash. At least we now had fuel and money – but little else; I was wearing sandals and a summer jacket.

“Should we be buying bottled water?” my friend asked, only half in jest.

Information pool

I swapped information with other drivers. Houses were being evacuated in the nearby village of Eglinton; a bridge had collapsed in Claudy and the Strabane road was closed.

My options were running out. I tried one back road, but had to turn back after a mile. Another road, from Limavady right over the mountains, was just about passable.

It seemed to go on for ever, and the further we travelled the more treacherous it became. Laneways had turned into rivers, sending stones and debris down on to the road.

In the dark the water looked like the black surface of the road, and often it was impossible to see the flooding – or what might be underneath it – until the car wheels hit it.

By now it was after midnight. The plan was to make it back to the main Belfast to Derry road, beyond the previous flood at Foreglen. About a mile from the main road, we had to stop. The road was completely blocked, and another, much larger car than mine was already almost floating in the water.

A night on the mountain was becoming a real possibility.

Road becomes river

We were lucky; after about half an hour the water subsided enough to allow me to drive through on top of stones that had washed on to the road.

I was within touching distance of Derry when I saw yet more flashing lights.

The river Faughan had burst its banks at Drumahoe and turned the road into a river. As I stood out of the car to examine the damage, a gas canister floated past.

The only shortcut I knew, over an old stone bridge, was blocked by the police. Like many other bridges, it had been damaged, and they were afraid it would collapse.

It felt too dangerous to try another back road – I had no idea what I would face on these smaller and smaller roads, and even if I made it near the city all the roads in were closed.

Derry was cut off – and we were stranded.

There was a hotel a mile back up the road. My friend and I sought refuge in the restaurant with other stranded drivers, grateful for the tea that the one member of staff on duty continued to serve.

At about 3am we pushed some dining chairs together and tried to get some sleep. People were asleep everywhere – on the floor, or slumped on tables with their heads in their hands.

The hotel was already fully booked, and the more comfortable sofas in the lobby had been taken long ago.

At about 4.30am we woke and decided to try again.

Thankfully, the water levels seemed to have subsided, and when the car ahead of me drove, I followed, half-expecting to be told to turn back. Instead I kept going and eventually felt the wheels of the car hit solid ground. Ten hours after leaving Belfast, at 5am, I was finally home.