SHOCKED residents of Helmsley told today how flash floods transformed their streets into a raging torrent in minutes.

Up to 20 properties were inundated and the town's main bridge was completely submerged after the River Rye burst its banks, initially sparking fears it had collapsed.

Engineers were today inspecting it before deciding whether it is safe to be re-opened to traffic, amid concerns that it may have suffered serious structural damage.

Stricken householders told how the floodwaters struck their properties with devastating speed.

Butcher and farmer Brian Thompson said he was eating his tea when his home, shop and back yard in Bridge Street were inundated up to a depth of six feet.

He also feared that 350 livestock at his nearby farm had been swept away.

"My family have lived here for more than a hundred years and we have never seen anything like this," he said.

"It was just a complete shock, and happened so quickly. I took my sheepdogs upstairs and saved what I could."

Patrick Robinson, who works at the shop with Brian, said he received an urgent phone call telling him what had happened.

"I have tried to help in any way I can," he said.

"The water just came so suddenly."

Elizabeth Robson, 60, of Ryegate, said she was in her garden with her daughter Belinda and husband Henry when water began pouring down the street.

"We went straight to the back yard to get the car out," she said. "The street was just like a river. We couldn't even get out of the house at the front. Our neighbour has lost her car."

Belinda said her brother had lost a car and 4x4 vehicle to the floods.

Douglas Curson, 74, and Margery Franklin, 83, who were staying in a cottage in Ryegate for their annual holiday, returned to discover floodwater lapping the front doorstep.

"It's a miracle our place wasn't flooded," said Douglas.

Miraculous escape for bikers

BIKERS had a miraculous escape from a raging torrent when freak thunderstorms brought flooding chaos to North Yorkshire.

Motorbikes, cars, portable toilets and beer tents were swept away when the River Rye at Helmsley burst its banks.

At least four bikers - attending a massive rally at Duncombe Park - were winched to safety by an RAF Sea King helicopter after becoming stranded by the rising flood waters.

Eyewitnesses said one man was left clinging to a tree for his life after being knocked over in the river by a portable toilet, while trying to retrieve his machine.

At one stage, search teams scoured the area with heat-seeking equipment as nine people were unaccounted for. They later turned up unharmed.

Rally marshal Larry Hartland said today that the consequences could have been "catastrophic" had the flooding struck 15 hours earlier when thousands of bikers were asleep in their tents.

"Several thousand people would have been dead," said Larry, whose £6,500 Triumph bike was swept away.

Biker Jean-Paul Roberts, 44, from Doncaster, said he was one of a handful to be winched to safety by a rescue helicopter.

"I ended up in the middle of the water after trying to rescue some of the bikes," he said.

"Some of the spotlights above me smashed on my head, but I managed to hang on to a loose wire and get myself on to a bridge. The power of the water was awesome."

Debbie and Ronnie Glendinning, from a party of five riders who had travelled to the event from Belfast, said they had gone for a walk through the grounds when they saw the river starting to rise.

"We phoned the other three who were in their tent and screamed 'get out of the tent'. I got to higher ground and my husband waded through to help the others out. We managed to get the bikes to higher ground, but lost everything else - tents, helmets and clothing.

"At least eight motorbikes were swept away along with cars, traders' stalls and tents."

More than 50 bikers were evacuated to the stately home on the site where Lord and Lady Feversham provided refreshments. "We can't thank them enough," said biker Simon Freedman, from Manchester.

The group were later taken to Lady Lumley's School in Pickering to eat and sleep.

Trevor Baird, spokesman for the rally organisers, The Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) said about 8,000 bikers had attended the rally from across Britain and parts of Europe.

He said that marshals and security staff had been on duty 24 hours a day and would have alerted bikers had the floods struck in the night.

The bikers returned to the site today to see what could be salvaged.

Mr Hartland's brother, Adrian, 43, a member of the Christian Motorcycle Association, said: "I prayed all the time that nobody would be killed."

Updated: 10:27 Monday, June 20, 2005