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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
■ 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.