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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

A cy­clist inspects a huge hole left by an up­rooted tree on Mole Road in Maid­stone

On the morn­ing of Oc­to­ber 19, four peo­ple died after a sec­tion of the Glanrhyd rail­bridge in Car­marthen­shire was washed away

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

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