The 30th Anniversary of The Great Storm of 1987

Anyone who lived through The Great Storm of 1987 isn’t likely to forget it in a hurry. It was almost a generation-defining moment the night when ships ran aground, London endured its first blackout since the Blitz, 18 people died and 15 million trees were toppled.

Thirty years ago on today The Great Storm or St. Jude’s Storm hit south-east England after blowing up from the Bay of Biscay, across the corner of northern France before making landfall in south-west England and sweeping through southern England to bring the full force of its 115mph winds to bear on the south-east and London.

Slightly pertubing is the fact that as I write this another hurricane force storm is due to hit us in the next 24 hours.

Large passenger ferries and cargo vessels were washed ashore along the south coast.

Large passenger ferries and cargo vessels were washed ashore along the south coast.

Despite the death toll, things would likely have been much worse if it hadn’t have done its worse  during the early hours of the morning, leaving behind a landscape that looked as if it had been subject to the whim of a particularly malevolent giant.  3 million homes were damaged and entire woodlands of ancient oaks were flattened as if they were merely fields of wheat.

The Home Secretary of the day, Douglas Hurd, stated that The Great Storm caused “the most widespread night of devastation in the south-east since 1945”.

Ray Townsend worked at the world famous Kew Gardens and like most people living in the south-east at the time, vividly remembers the morning of the storm. “I remember waking up at 5.30 and there was no electricity. So I looked out of the window and it was completely dark. It was quite eerie.”

The Great Forests, parks and gardens of South East England were decimated.

The Great Forests, parks and gardens of South East England were decimated.

Townsend eventually arrived at Kew Gardens where he worked, and where he is now the arboretum manager. “The gardens at Kew had been obliterated,” he recalls. “The trees had gone over like dominoes. The wind had come off the river and the trees had gone down like a channel, a tunnel. Within that tunnel there was tremendous devastation. Some of the trees had been corkscrewed by the wind, like twisting the lid off a jar.”

I remember having the day off school in the aftermath of the storm, unable to make much progress due to fallen trees and with the good excuse that I lived the furthest distance of everyone in my class.  Walking through the woods that winter was akin to walking through a graveyard of giants that had died in a terrible mortal combat.
Though the storm was a complete disaster and no-one would have volunteered to endure it, surprisingly it  actually helped rejuvinate the biodiversity of South East England, the only part of the British Isles that this has occurred since the 1970’s due to the opportunities afforded to species normally almost hidden from view on the floor or woods and forests.  But the devastation wrought by the Great Storm of 1987 also left in its wake a startling woodland recovery, prompting a radical reshaping of the way we work with nature to care for the countryside.
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Even London fell into chaos after The Great Storm

 

Paul Redsell, who now as then worked at the National Trust property at Leith Hill, followed what was then standard practice after a severe storm: he started to clear up. “Man loves being in control,” he says. “It was a natural event, and at the time there was almost a sense of urgency to go out and clean up. Once we’d gone in with machines and contractors and loading bays and all the rest of it, we were causing more damage than the storm had in some places. The urge was to remove all the fallen trees and then plant new ones with little plastic tubes around them.”

The clearing operations removed trees that might have regenerated and compacted soil that could have provided fertile ground for wild flowers. Intervention and clearing was not practised everywhere, however. At another National Trust site, Toys Hill, near Sevenoaks in Kent – which lost six of its eponymous oaks – 98% of the trees fell, and while clearing work took place across much of the site, an “exclusion zone” was set aside to allow nature the opportunity to repair the damage itself.

“Scords Wood was left alone,” says Tom Hill, the National Trust’s trees and woodlands specialist. “There’s been no intervention at all, and it’s now a thriving woodland in terms of its diversity.”

In nearby Knole Park, most of the trees that fell were also left, benefiting fungi, plants and wildlife, while in the neighbouring Emmetts Garden, where 95% of its surrounding woodland was lost, tree stumps and fallen specimens remain in the formal setting as a reminder of the storm.

Hill says the storm had a profound effect on the way we care for our woodland, with an understanding that decay has a role in promoting new life, and that nature is more than capable of adapting to changed conditions, and might even need them to survive. “There’s a better appreciation of decay as a natural process,” Hill says. “Veteran trees have decay and growth happening at the same time. One of the biggest attitudes that changed was the process of decay being seen as an integrated part of life not just something dirty or rotten.

“Storms mix things up, they allow light to get in, which is a vital factor. Toys Hill is like a mosaic of different habitats and light and shade, and it has a very diverse structure. That’s exactly what you want if you’re seeking to maintain healthy woodland. Destruction is very important, and nature is self-destructive and self-healing at the same time.”

Ed Ikin, head of landscapes and horticulture at Kew Gardens’s Wakehurst estate in West Sussex, where 20,000 trees were lost, says the storm marked a turning point. “It was the end of a chapter that dated back 200 years, the curation of trees knitted into ancient medieval woodland. People were disorientated, they couldn’t navigate, facing three years of tidying up. But in the midst of all of that trauma, what emerged was a grand vision, a desire to do something different with the wild landscape.”

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October 1987 and October 2017

That something was to promote diversity and to understand that we can learn from nature how to protect woodland and to adapt to extreme natural events.

“It’s hardwired into the ecology of some areas to have this moment of violence,” says Ikin. “Pre-1987 we had allowed too much of our tree stock to get to a similar age. The storm generated horizontal tornadoes, and we had created vertical planes of trees. Now we promote ‘shelter belts’ of trees to buffer and filter high winds.”

The lessons learned are starting to bear fruit, says Ikin. “Thirty years gives us the first real opportunity to look at the woodland and see if it’s doing what it was supposed to do. I think we’re starting to achieve something extraordinary.”

Indeed, it took many years if not decades for the immediate signs of the ravages of the storm to fade from the landscape, forgetting the obvious lack trees that in many cases had been in situ at the time of Queen Victoria or even King Henry VIII.  These days if you’re not familiar with the landscape then you might not ever tell the disaster had ever occurred but if explore the forests on foot or visit some of the great parks and gardens of South East England then you might still be familiar with the long dead oaks rotting on the ground or the occassional stump, all having a similar aged look from 1987.
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The Kent town of Sevenoaks lost six of the oaks that gave it its name.  Photograph courtesy Bob Ogley

 

Sevenoaks are back with the sole surviving original looking by far the most majestic behind the Cricket field.

Sevenoaks are back with the sole surviving original looking by far the most majestic behind the Cricket field.

Facts and Figures of The Great Storm of 1987.

The insurance bill was £1.8bn, the most expensive UK weather event in the history of the insurance industry.

The London Fire Brigade answered 6,000 calls in 24 hours.

Three million houses were damaged.

It was the most significant storm in England since the Great Storm of 1703, which killed more than 8,000 people. Daniel Defoe described that event as “the greatest, the longest in duration, the widest in extent, of all the tempests and storms that history gives any account of since the beginning of time”.

The highest wind gust over the UK was 100 knots (115mph), recorded at 3am on 16 October in Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex.

The Great Storm was not officially designated as a hurricane as it did not originate in the tropics.

As the storm arrived in England the Met Office warned the Ministry of Defence that military assistance might be needed to deal with the after-effects.

Met Office TV weatherman Michael Fish became notorious for saying the night before the Great Storm that a hurricane was not coming.

Shanklin pier on the Isle of Wight was washed away.

Cross-channel ferry the MV Hengist was driven ashore at Folkestone.

The London stock market closed unexpectedly on the day of the storm. The next trading day was Monday 19 October, Black Monday, when stock markets around the world crashed.

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Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight 

 

 

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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4 Responses to The 30th Anniversary of The Great Storm of 1987

  1. Marilyn Liddell Hall (maiden name) Allan says:

    Wow! I never heard about this! I had wondered why we in the United States seem to be the only ones getting these horrible hurricanes (the Caribbean islands as well)! We have had our share this year!! Fortunately, they didn’t do as much damage to Louisiana this year as when Katrina hit! Stay safe over there! Had heard it was heading to Ireland…..

    Johnny, my husband, my son and his wife fly into Ireland on Nov. 2 and arrive in Scotland on the 7th in Edinburgh and leave the 11th. If they should want a tour, how do they contact you so your friend there can show them around? Wish there was a way they could meet you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If they send me an email to yeoldeenglandtours@gmail.com and let me know what they’d like to see. I’m sure they wouldn’t want guided tours every day but maybe they’d like a guided walk round Edinburgh and perhaps a day out to Stirling where is lots of great things to see including plenty of William Wallace Braveheart places.

      Like

  2. I remember it well, and I wasn’t living anywhere near there. I was in College Station, Texas. But natural disasters and wars also have fascinated me. It’s hard to believe that there is an omniscient omnipotent being who lets natural disasters and wars happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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