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BLOWN AWAY; Cheltenham Festival hit by storms.

Byline: By Emma Cullwick and Paul Castles

STORM force winds flattened a restaurant tent ahead of tomorrow's Cheltenham Festival, leaving a trail of destruction.

The restaurant in a tented village next to the home straight at the Gloucestershire racecourse bore the brunt of the storm overnight.

It is likely to remain out of commission for the four-day festival meeting, but clerk of the course Simon Claisse said overall the course appeared to have "got away lightly". He said: "We had gusts up to 48mph or so causing a little bit of damage to temporary structures in the tented village which are being assessed."

"It looks as though one of them, a restaurant, might be out of commission. Considering the forecast we had, we think we have got away lightly."

The racecourse is due to open its gates to thousands of racegoers in the morning for the opening day of the four-day National Hunt Festival.

With even stronger winds forecast for later today, other parts of the course remained at the mercy of the weather, including a vast tented village made up of well over a hundred temporary market stalls catering for the festival followers making their annual pilgrimage to Prestbury Park.

Meanwhile flights from storm-hit Heathrow and Manchester were being diverted to Birmingham International Airport today as the severe storm gripped much of the UK.

Several flights, including two jumbo jets, landed at Birmingham, leaving around 1,000 passengrs to catch buses to their original destinations.

An airport spokeswoman said most of the flights had been British Airways services from destinations such as Johannesburg, Hong Kong and Moscow.

"It has been a very busy morning here," she said, adding that more diverted flights were expected later.

Elsewhere snow, heavy rain and gale force winds of up to 80mph battered the south west coastline and parts of south Wales and Scotland, wreaking mayhem on roads and causing trains, planes and ferries to be cancelled.

Police criticised "mindless" youths seen playing "chicken" with large waves breaking over seafront walls during the height of the storm in Plymouth.

Earlier today the West Midlands seemed to escape relatively unscathed as it was hit by winds of up to 50mph.

But local forecasters predicted gusts of up to 80mph by early afternoon.

Elsewhere, a woman was left with minor injuries after her car hit a fallen tree on a country road in Dorset.

In Lytchett Matravers, near Poole in Dorset, a tree came down on a house, but there were no reports of injuries.

Thousands of homes in the West Country and south Wales were left without power and a stricken tanker was said to be in difficulty off the Isle of Wight.

Blizzards caused treacherous conditions on the A66 between Co Durham and Cumbria, the Tamar Bridge, which links Devon and Cornwall at Plymouth, was closed to high-sided vehicles, caravans and motor cycles, and flooding caused lane closures on the UK's busiest motorway, the M25.

British Airways cancelled a number of short-haul flights at Heathrow and Gatwick after air traffic control chiefs imposed flow controls on take-offs and landings.

Winds of more than 50mph caused all ground operations at Bristol Airport to be suspended between 4am and 6am.

P&O Ferries cancelled tomorrow's sailing from Bilbao in northern Spain to Portsmouth.

Many rail services into London were severely delayed and some cancelled after trees had fallen on lines across Surrey.

Speed restrictions were imposed on many other trains due to high winds and heavy rain.

Tube travellers in London also had badly-disrupted journeys into work after King's Cross Underground station was closed at the height of the rush-hour.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Police said they had received 550 calls from the public concerning flooding, fallen trees and downed phone and electricity lines.

In East Anglia, several trees blocked roads but there were no reports of any injuries or major incidents.

Suffolk Police said at least 12 trees had been toppled between 7am and 9am as gusts swept the region.

Police in Somerset reported fallen trees blocking 20 of the county's roads.

Avon and Somerset Police said the force had received 20 calls, all concerning fallen trees, between 6am and 8am.

CAPTION(S):

DEVASTATION... Cheltenham Festival's huge hospitality area after the storms struck today.; PANIC... fire crews and workmen run to help after scaffolding collapsed in Belfast today.; ALERT... waves lash the seafront in Porthcawl, Wales. Many homes in the area also suffered power cuts in the storms.; GALES... near Brum's Town Hall.; DELAYS... snow in County Durham.; BLOWY... near the Eye in London.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 10, 2008
Words:760
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