A 90-YEAR-OLD woman took on the Government this week when she travelled to Whitehall to fight for flood defences in a Ryedale town.

Last summer was the fourth time retired theatre nurse Topsy Clinch has been flooded out of her Pickering cottage - this time the water caused damage totalling £55,000.

On Monday a delegation of five members of the Pickering Flood Defence Group handed a Gazette & Herald petition, containing 4,400 signatures, to the floods minister, Phil Woolas, at Defra headquarters.

Speaking after their hour-long meeting, Mr Woolas said he would personally look into the plight of the town.

Officially the Government says there were only 50 properties flooded in Pickering last June, but members of the campaign group say this figure can easily be doubled.

Mr Woolas said: "I would like to thank this campaign group from Pickering for bringing these new figures to my attention. I now have an obligation to personally look at their case and I will get back to them."

When asked if he could set aside funding for the £6.7 million flood defence scheme in the town that has already been drawn up, he added: "I do not want to make promises that I cannot keep. I want to see if that is the only scheme that is up to the job.

I'm now given to understand that flooding is getting worse in the town and exacerbated because of climate change.

"More money than ever before has been spent on preventing flooding in Yorkshire and elsewhere but unfortunately under the priority rating Pickering does not qualify. But given this new evidence I will personally have a good look at their case in Pickering."

Last June the market town was devastated by flood water from Pickering Beck which swamped homes and businesses during the height of the tourist season. It has been estimated that it will cost £3.5 million to repair the damage, but campaigners believe this figure could be an underestimate.

One of the members of the delegation, Kath Grayston, owner of a bed and breakfast business on Bridge Street, said the cost to her in damage to property and loss of earnings would top £120,000.

Speaking after the meeting, she said: "I feel that Mr Woolas gave us a fair hearing and seemed to understand the terrible effect flooding has had on our lives. We need flood defences because this will happen again and again.

Every time it gets worse. My house was stood in 4ft of water. It has never been above a couple of inches in the past. I just hope he will keep his promise and look into our case."

But it was Topsy Clinch - known as the mermaid of Pickering - who was the star of the show and despite her elderly years travelled 230 miles to meet the Government minister.

Her home, and that of neighbour Peter Croot, who also journeyed to London with the group, was flooded on the week of her 90th birthday and she is still not back in.

Speaking on the steps of the building in Whitehall, the pensioner said: "I think this is good news for Pickering and I hope this meeting will help. I would like Mr Woolas to come and see for himself what it's like to live with flooding - I have plenty of spare rooms for him to stay."

Just a few days before their meeting, Pickering was bracing itself after heavy rain brought the beck which runs through the town to critically high levels, but the danger passed.

Chairman of the flood defence scheme, Gordon Clitheroe, who is also curator of the Beck Isle Museum, which was badly damaged, added: "We were fortunate that we were not flooded again last week - we are living on a knife-edge."

In the past nine years Pickering has been flooded six times and every time residents say it gets worse.

The Environment Agency spent £750,000 drawing up plans for defences in the town but objections from the local Civic Society meant the town missed out on vital funding.

The meeting was organised by spokesman for the group and Norton councillor, who is also leader of the Ryedale Liberal Democrats, Howard Keal.

He said: "It was a tough and difficult meeting and we are pleased that the minister actually seemed to listen to what we had to say. I hope he comes back with a response which will get the flood defence scheme in Pickering off the ground. People cannot continue to put up with this misery and eventually the Government has to do something."