Awed by the power of Nature
Julie Harding hears the vivid memories of nine people who lived through the Great Storm that devastated southern Britain 30 years ago
Nine people share their stories of the dramatic night of the Great Storm of 1987 with Julie Harding
‘It was humbling to realise such a brief storm could cause such devastation ’
During the early hours of October 16, 1987, a cyclone struck the southern British isles. it arrived without warning and scythed its way from Cornwall to the Wash. Most people went to bed warned of heavy rain rather than strong winds; although technically correct (he predicted that a different storm system wouldn’t hit Britain, and it didn’t), weatherman Michael Fish’s denial earlier in the day of an approaching hurricane is still regarded as a defining faux pas in history.
The storm, caused by a fast-deepening depression from the Bay of Biscay, reserved its most vicious gusts for Hampshire, Sussex, Kent and Essex. roofs and chimneypots became airborne, scaffolding crashed earthwards, boats broke their moorings and smashed into harbour walls, trees were uprooted and those that resisted had giant branches ripped out like splinters. A ship was blown over at Dover and a ferry was swept ashore at Folkestone. However, the human cost would have been much worse if it had occurred during the day when people were out and about.
The great Storm wasn’t defined as a hurricane because it didn’t originate in the Tropics, but it is deemed ‘exceptional’ by the Met Office and the localised wind speeds of 64 knots or more are equable to Hurricane Force (Force 12 on the Beaufort Scale). its frenzy and ferocity have been matched only by the 1703 cyclone, which affected a similar area and of which Daniel Defoe wrote: ‘Such a Tempest never was in this world.’ A subsequent Met Office enquiry has resulted in significant upgrading of forecasting equipment.
By the time the 100mph winds of the great Storm had subsided, 18 people were dead, more
than 15 million trees had been lost—many of them having withstood the battering of centuries—hundreds of thousands of homes were without electricity, transport networks were paralysed and the insurance industry faced a £2 billion bill. It was described by politicians as a national tragedy, a phrase we have perhaps become inured to, due to the dreadful regularity of disaster wrought across the world by tsunamis, earthquakes and, most recently, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
There’s no time to make comparisons when you’re living through such a storm, however. Thirty years on, the nine people interviewed below still remember the shocking swiftness and violence. ‘I felt a lot of different emotions,’ says Mark Hayward, who was a ranger supervisor on the South Downs. ‘Mainly, however, I felt in awe of the power of Nature.’
Andre Farrar, RSPB conservation officer, Yorkshire
I lived in Yorkshire, but my parents were in Godmersham, Kent, when the storm hit. It took my father two days to cut his way out of the garden with a small chainsaw. It was awe-inspiring to see the power of Nature and how it could transform a landscape in such a short time.
In my view, there would have been limited bird fatalities because they’re sensitive to pressure changes and would have moved quickly to try to avoid the storm. In bird land, it would have been just another windy day. They do tend to be blown on the wind during a storm and will turn up in unusual places, such as gannets on London reservoirs. I recall trying to see a Sabine’s gull in Yorkshire, which definitely shouldn’t have been there.
Monica Akehurst, farmer, Herstmonceux, East Sussex
My husband, Fred, and I found that we were trapped by uprooted trees when we tried to drive from our house to our yard a couple of miles away, so we walked across the fields. On arrival, we discovered a scene of devastation: the roof of our Dutch barn had blown on top of a timber barn, flattening it. Fortunately, the cattle were out or they
would have been killed. When we reached them later, they were unscathed.
The clear-up took weeks and we had to be wary of live electric cables. We lost trees and suffered broken fences, but other people’s herds escaped that night, a local chicken farmer’s poultry blew away and isolated dairy farmers had to throw their milk down the drain. We came off fairly lightly.
Paul Redsell, National Trust warden at Leith Hill, Surrey
I walked to Leith Hill Tower, the highest point in south-east England, the day after. Trees were strewn everywhere and, as I climbed the tower, I expected to see large swathes felled like matchsticks. However, there were gaps where the wind had dipped into the valleys and taken out a few here and there. The tower itself, built in 1765, was completely unscathed. The same couldn’t be said of Leith Hill Place’s formal gardens, the life’s work of gardener Peter Collins. They were devastated on a grand scale— ripped apart—and, sadly, Peter died the following year.
Mark Hayward, ranger supervisor, South Downs Conservation Project
Not all the trainee rangers could reach our base in Lewes that morning, so a small team, armed with chainsaws, headed to Seven Sisters Country Park via bridleways as the roads were blocked. I saw total devastation. Anything growing in Stanmer Park had been flattened, trees had concertinaed on top of each other on old cart tracks and the pockets of woodland dotted along the open, eastern landscape of the South Downs were all affected. It looked like the Somme in places and it was humbling to realise that such a brief storm could cause that much devastation.
Bob Ogley, editor, Sevenoaks Chronicle, Kent
The night before, the landlord of my local pub had showed me his barometer and told me not to walk home through the woods. I didn’t realise then that I was going to be the last person to see trees standing on Toys Hill. By morning, they were all gone.
I was woken during the night by a noise which sounded like an express train coming into the bedroom. It would attack and then fade. Giant flashes turned out to be trees falling on power lines. My wife and I sat in the centre of our house waiting for it to be hit, but although our car was flattened, the house survived.
In the morning, I climbed and crawled the four miles to the newspaper office in Sevenoaks, the town completely cut off by fallen trees. My reporters greeted me with ‘Welcome to One Oak’. I managed to book a plane from Biggin Hill on an emergency telephone and took pictures from the air of those six fallen oaks near the Vine cricket ground (above left). It was a symbol of what had happened and was immediately in demand from TV stations and newspapers.
The storm was the biggest story we’d ever covered—the Chronicle sold 50,000 copies, four times our usual circulation.
Keith Brewer, head gardener, Ventnor Botanic Garden, Isle of Wight
The night before, I’d been trimming branches from evergreen oaks. It was eerily calm.
‘I saw some of the 700 trees we lost that night and experienced a terrible feeling ’
Twelve hours later, it was a scene of devastation. Every tree and delicate shrub, sourced from all over the world from the 1970s onwards by Sir Harold Hillier, had been knocked over, including tulip trees and the rare ginkgo (fossil) tree. For me, the saddest thing was the loss of the Norfolk Island pine that had been planted by Earl Mountbatten when he opened the garden in 1972. It was as if the trees were skittles.
My immediate thought was that it was the end of the garden, which had been so rich. It was definitely the end of that era and, although it was regenerated, it was never the same again.
Tony Kirkham, arboretum supervisor at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
A tree was blocking the Jodrell Gate, the usual staff entrance, when I turned up. A colleague said: ‘You won’t want to come in.’ I saw some of the 700 trees we lost that night and experienced a terrible sinking feeling. One of my favourites was a big chestnut-leafed oak and the first thing I did was go and see if it was still standing—it was, although 20 others surrounding it on the same lawn had fallen. What surprised me were the huge branches that had been ripped off and dropped 50 yards away.
At the time, it was all doom and gloom at Kew, but, looking back, it was one of the best things that could have happened. We lost what we needed to lose, it taught us so much and awakened in the British people the understanding that we need to look after our trees.
Mark Hedges, bloodstock researcher at Tattersalls
I was woken in the night by a telephone call: the yearlings stabled at Tattersalls’ Newmarket base for the following day’s sale were terrified and needed calming. On my way to the stables, the sky was lit intermittently by bright flashes as power lines fell to the ground. The noise of crashing trees was incredible and the air was filled with flying objects—it felt like being in a giant tumble dryer.
I spent the rest of the night holding horses’ heads, attempting to alleviate their panic. I emerged to an incredible scene in the morning: fallen trees everywhere, including avenues planted during the Napoleonic Wars. It felt as if there had been a bomb blast and the whole world had been turned upside down.
On the morning of October 19, four people died after a section of the Glanrhyd railbridge in Carmarthenshire was washed away
A cyclist inspects a huge hole left by an uprooted tree on Mole Road in Maidstone
Dr Brinsley Burbidge on the 120-year-old ‘Tree of Heaven’ after it fell into King William IV’S temple at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew