Engineers survey the scene after a bridge over the River Derwent collapsed suddenly after heavy rainfall and flooding in Workington, England. ((Chris Clark/Associated Press))

Raging floods engulfed northern England's picturesque Lake District on Friday following the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in Britain, forcing hundreds to evacuate.

As police officers tried to help people escape their flooded communities, Const. Bill Barker, 44, lost his life when the bridge he was standing on collapsed. His body was later found on a nearby beach.

Barker, a father of four, was due to celebrate his birthday on Saturday, the Telegraph newspaper reported.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Barker "was a very heroic, very brave man."

In a message to local officials, the Queen said she was "deeply concerned and saddened by the dreadful flooding across Britain."

Police said more than 250 people were placed in rescue centres and nearly 1,500 homes were without power.

Emergency workers used inflatable boats to rescue trapped residents, while Royal Air Force personnel broke through rooftops to hoist people to safety in helicopters. Soldiers conducted house-to-house searches.

Police in the northern region of Cumbria said about 960 homes flooded.

In Cockermouth, a town about 530 kilometres northwest of London, flood waters were reported to be about waist high.

"It's desperate," hotel owner John Carlin told the Press Association of Britain. "The town centre is completely flooded. The only people out there at the moment are the emergency services."

Some parts of Cumbria were deluged with 25 centimetres of rain.


Local childeren watch a rescue service worker navigate flood waters in the streets of Cockermouth England. ((Scott Heppell/Associated Press))

"It looks like a very historical event," said weather forecaster Julian Mayes.

The flood waters stopped rising early Friday morning, which gave rescuers the chance to get trapped people out of their homes.

Widespread flooding was also reported in Ireland, where about 100 soldiers, trucks and flat-bottom boats were deployed to aid stranded motorists and residents.

Ireland's western coast saw many major roads blocked and train services cancelled.

In County Galway, the River Suck burst its banks, flooding the town of Ballinasloe and cutting off major roads to Ireland's northwest. About 40 families had to be evacuated by boat.

Irish weather forecasters said parts of south and west Ireland endured their most intense and sustained rainfall in 30 years.

While Friday was mostly sunny, rain and gales were in the weekend forecast.

With files from The Associated Press