"The Great Storm" : the 1987 calamity in southern England
A devastated Leicester Square in London, the morning after the storm
There is an amusing scene in an episode of the television program The Vicar of Dibley where Owen Newitt arrives at the Parish Council meeting, brushing the rain off his coat, and starts a conversation with Jim Trott:
Owen: Filthy weather.
Jim: No no no no no no no no no I've known worse.
Owen: Oh yes? When was that then?
Jim: The Great Storm when the windmill got blown over.
Owen: That wasn't the Great Storm; that was a moderately windy night. No, the really great storm was The Great Storm.
The dotty members of the Council then recall and argue about various meteorological events, the Great Wind, the Deep Snow, the Mighty Gale and so on, all with a local slant ("That was the night Dave Blatt was decapitated" etc).
Humour aside, the likelihood is that the storm Owen refers to as "filthy weather" was an actual event, the hurricane that struck southern England in October 1987. I was reminded of it recently when reading WG Sebald's fascinating book The Rings of Saturn.
I'll get to Sebald in a minute, but first the facts about the 1987 storm. It started as a depression in the Bay of Biscay and then moved north, crossing Normandy, Brittany, the Channel Islands, Cornwall, Devon, the southern counties, Greater London and East Anglia. Peak winds occurred during the night of October 15/16 and reached Force 12 on the Beaufort Scale, equivalent to a Category 5 Cyclone in Australia. Winds of 130 km/hour were sustained for three or four consecutive hours throughout the storm-hit zone, although this wind speed was probably greatly exceeded, as many anemometers collapsed or reached their maximum reading at about this point.
This struck a chord with me, because I suffered through Cyclone Alby when it hit the south-west of Western Australia in April 1978, and remember the wind exceeding 130 km/hour and blowing unremittingly at this strength for several hours.
Synoptic chart for Oct 15/16 1987, showing the deep low-pressure system centred on southern England
The damage caused by the 1987 storm in England was enormous. At least 22 people were killed, forests, parks, roads and railways were strewn with fallen trees, and the British National Power Grid suffered heavy damage, leaving thousands without power for several days. London was blacked out, and basically shut down, for the first time since 1945.
The trees of southern England were devastated. It is estimated that 15 million trees were blown over, and many thousands more suffered severe crown damage. In the historic town of Sevenoaks, six of the seven famous oak trees lining the local park were lost.
By way of an amusing aside, those six lost oaks at Sevenoaks were replaced, the new plantings being ceremoniously carried out by television personalities, not all of whom were universally admired. All of the newly planted seedlings were vandalised. A second replanting was carried out by locals, but there was a miscalculation: seven new oaks were planted so that the town of Sevenoaks now has eight oaks. The original trees were described in the media as "ancient", but in fact had been planted in 1906, so that they were only 81 years old when blown down, in other words they were relatively young by oak tree standards.
There were significant blow-downs of historic trees in Kew Gardens, Hyde Park and in many private estates. The beautiful and leafy plane trees in London were particularly hard-hit. Most of the trees making up the famous Chanctonbury Ring [See Endnote 1] were lost, and at the National Pinetum in Kent almost a quarter of the trees were brought down.
A typical scene: the National Trust property Emmett’s Gardens.
The storm blew down 95% of its woodlands.
There were claims at the time that the damage to trees and forests was exacerbated by the fact that autumn was late that year, and most of the broadleaf trees were still in leaf at the time of the storm. However, a careful analysis by the British Forestry Commission suggested that many other factors were pertinent, especially exposure and soil moisture, and that conifers suffered just as badly.
The devastation of commercial forests (mostly plantations of Scots pine and Norway spruce) resulted in a familiar forestry response. Marketable timber was salvaged, sites were cleaned up and new plantations established. There was also widespread damage to commercial orchards and horticultural crops, and a similar response was adopted – the mangled trees and debris were cleaned away and new trees planted.
The response elsewhere became controversial. One organisation severely affected was the National Trust. With its many properties in the region, both natural and landscaped, the storm was a disaster. At Sheffield Park in the Sussex Weald for example, a skyline nurtured by judicious planting over a period of two hundred years was wrecked, with 2,500 trees lost.
The National Trust's first instincts were to follow the approach being taken in commercial plantations and orchards - clean up and replant. The chainsaws began to hum. However, at that point the forester and experienced woodsman Oliver Rackham [See Endnote 2] entered the scene. He was appalled at the National Trust’s approach, pointing out that many of the trees were blown over, not blown out, still had roots in the ground, and could be coppiced. Trees with damaged crowns would repair themselves, he said, and woodlands left to their own devices would naturally regenerate.
Thanks to Rackham's advocacy many woodlands on parks and reserves were left to regenerate, and did so effortlessly, resulting in more diverse and beautiful stands that those that were artificially replanted. Not surprisingly, the native forests and woodlands of England have a natural capacity to regenerate in the wake of storm; this is no different to the response of eucalypt forests in Australia to bushfires. Forests are long-lived entities and are well-adapted through evolution to surviving periodic natural events like storm, flood and fire.
Indeed, one woodland area in Kent, regenerated itself so well it led to a change in the terminology for describing how English woods react to storms. "At the time, we would have said the wood was ‘destroyed’. But we now know that woods are not destroyed, they just change" remarked a senior officer with the National Trust.
To return to WG Sebald and his first-person account of the storm.
WG Sebald – historian, poet and novelist
Sebald was a German academic, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia, an historian, poet and novelist. In October 1987 he was on a walking tour in Norfolk and Suffolk (the subject of his book The Rings of Saturn which I have so much enjoyed) and on the night in question was staying at the famous old estate of Ditchingham Hall. He wrote:
I awoke about three in the morning, less as a result of the thunder than because of the curious warmth and the increasing air pressure in my bedroom. In contrast with other equinoctial gales I have experienced here, this one came not in driving gusts but with an unrelenting and, it seemed, ever more powerful force. I stood at the window and looked through the glass, which was strained almost to breaking point, down towards the end of the garden, where the crowns of the large trees in the neighbouring bishop’s park were bent and streaming like aquatic plants in a deep current. White clouds raced across in the darkness, and again and again the sky was lit up by a terrible flickering which, I discovered later, was caused by power lines touching each other. At some point I must have turned away for a while. At all events I still remember that I did not believe my eyes when I looked and saw that where the currents of air had shortly before been pouring through the black mass of trees, there was now just the paleness of the empty horizon. It seemed as if someone had pulled a curtain to one side to reveal a formless scene that bordered upon the underworld. And at the very moment that I registered the unaccustomed brightness of the night over the park, I knew that everything down there had been destroyed. And yet I hoped that the ghastly emptiness could be explained by some other means, for in the mounting din of the storm I had heard none of the crashing sounds that go with the felling of timber. It was not until later that I realized that the trees, held to the last by their roots, toppled only gradually, and because they were forced down so slowly their crowns, which were entangled with each-other, did not shatter but remained virtually undamaged. In this way, entire tracts of woodland were pressed down flat as if they had been cornfields.
In the first light of dawn, when the storm had begun to abate, I ventured out into the garden. For a long time I stood choked with emotion amidst the devastation. It was like being in a kind of wind tunnel, so strong was the suction created by the onrushing air, which was far too warm for the time of year. The ancient trees on either side of the path leading along the edge of the park were all lying on the ground as if in a swoon, and beneath the huge oaks, ash and plane trees, beeches and limes lay the torn and mangled shrubs that had grown in their shade, thujas and yews, hazel and laurel bushes, holly and rhododendrons.
With pulsating radiance the sun rose over the horizon. The gusts continued for a while, and then it was suddenly quiet. Nothing moved, apart from the birds which had lived in the bushes and trees and which were now flitting about amongst the branches that had remained green well into the autumn that year. I do not know how I got through the first day after the storm, but do recall that during the night, doubting what I had seen with my own eyes, I walked once more through the park. As there were power cuts throughout the whole region, everything was in deep darkness. There was no glare from streetlights or houses to dull the sky. But the stars had come out, in a display so resplendent as I had seen only over the Alps when I was a child, or over the desert in my dreams. From the extreme north right down to the south where the view had before been blocked by trees, the sparkling constellations were spread out, the Plough, the tail of Draco, the triangle of Taurus, the Pleiades, Pegasus, the Swan and the Dolphin. Unchanged and, it seemed to me, more magnificent than ever before, they revolved above me.
Sebald's poignant emotions must have been echoed by many people that day, as dawn revealed the demolition of a once-familiar and well-loved landscape, or the shattered remains of a favourite tree or grove.
Sketch by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn of the scene that greeted him on the morning after the storm.
But as in all tragic events there were some unexpected positive outcomes. For example, in some places, once-splendid vistas were rediscovered, views to distant landscapes appeared that had been long-forgotten by older people and never-before seen by a younger generation. Fallen trees at Arundel Castle, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Norfolk, opened up a superb view of the lovely little village beyond. At the renowned rhododendron garden at Leonardslee in Sussex, the gale revealed magnificent vistas by removing about a thousand trees which the owner said he would never have had the courage to thin out himself.
My friend, English forester David Crossley, remembers another outcome:
Much of the deciduous and mixed woodland in southern England was unmanaged in a forestry sense. They had never been thinned, so the tree cover was dense and the forests very dark. For much of the year little sunlight reached the forest floor. The storm opened-up these woodlands and the natural ecosystems responded. Ground flora, birdlife and butterflies thrived.
However, these impacts were mostly temporary as the woodland regenerated and recovered, and over succeeding decades they have again become dense and dark. Judicious and well-planned thinning would not only enhance the beauty and diversity of these forests but would render them more wind-firm.
Another unexpected result was the creation, for the first time in 400 years, of populations of wild boar in England. Extinct in the wild for centuries, a handful of boar had survived in captivity. Many escaped during the storm, were never recaptured and have now established wild colonies in forests and woodlands, one of the most successful instances of endangered species recovery in Europe. It is estimated that there are nearly 3000 wild boar in Britain now, and the populations are breeding happily and continue to expand.
Wild boar in the Forest of Dean – beneficiaries of the Great Storm,
The Great Storm also featured in literature, in particular it provides a dramatic finale to one of my favourite novels, AS Byatt’s Possession – a romance. The storm rounds-out both the literary mystery and the inter-connected romance between the two young scholars Maud and Roland. The drama climaxes when the grave-robber Cropper is in the churchyard. But:
… a wind was getting up. It flapped a little: one or two of the churchyard trees creaked and groaned. A sudden gust lifted Cropper’s discarded jacket briefly from the stone where it hung and dropped it to the earth … Cropper snuffed the air. Something seemed to move and swing and sway in it, as if ready to slap at him. He felt for a moment, very purely, a presence, not of someone, but of some mobile thing, and for a moment rested dully on his spade, forbidden. In that moment, the great storm hit Sussex.
A long tongue of wind howled past, a wall of air … a kind of dull howling whistling began, and then a chorus of groans, and creaking, the trees, protesting. A tile spun off the church roof … The wind moved in the graveyard like a creature from another dimension, trapped and screaming. The branches of the yew and cedar gesticulated desperately ….
… he set out across the churchyard. The air was full of a whining, ripping noise which he saw was the sound of the trees along the track and in the hedgerow whipping to and fro, tossing their crowns of trailing twigs from earth to sky to earth. More tiles cut the air with a sound of their own, and hit the ground, or gravestones, with keen crashing explosions …
A re-occurrence of the 1987 storm in southern England today would be described as “unprecedented” and attributed to climate change. You could probably anticipate the same response if there was a replication of “The Great Flood” that inundated London in 1928, drowning fourteen people and leaving 4,000 homeless.
But in fact, such storms are far from unprecedented in the British Isles (and elsewhere all around the world, for that matter). Storms of equal ferocity come out of the north Atlantic every 30-40 years or so, impacting mostly on northern Scotland and the Orkneys, but sometimes striking further south. There was a ‘Great Storm’ in 1703 that was said by the Church of England to have been a punishment for the sins of mankind, delivered upon them by God; there was a ‘Great Gale’ in January 1976, and ‘The Burn's Day Storm’ in 1990 (so named because it occurred on the anniversary of Robbie Burns' birth). What made the 1987 storm "special" was that it affected the most highly populated part of the country, especially London, and impacted so severely on the country's media, most of which operated out of London in those days.
Finally, what about the name of this event?
Although the naming of the 1990 storm as the "Burns Day Storm" is an exception, this was a popular, not an official name. At the time, there was no protocol in Europe for giving weather events a personal name ("Cyclone Joan" or “Hurricane Katrina” for example) as in Australia and the USA. Writing about the 1987 event, the British Met Bureau simply said:
... this storm had winds of hurricane force but as the term hurricane refers to tropical cyclones originating in the North Atlantic or North Pacific, the accurate descriptor for the storm is "great storm" ...
This seems rather prosaic to me. I prefer "The Great Storm", as designated by Owen Newitt in that long ago television program, replete with capital letters.
1. Chanctonbury Ring is the site of a prehistoric hill fort and later a Roman temple in the South Downs where a wonderful grove of beech trees was planted in the 1760s. These trees became a famous landmark but were devastated by the 1987 storm. They have been replanted but it will take another 200 years for the new trees to reach their pre-storm magnificence.
2. A scholar, ecologist, historian, anthropologist, archaeologist, forester and woodsman, Oliver Rackham is the author of one of the most enthralling books about trees and forests I have read. This is Trees and Woodland in the British landscape - the complete history of Britain's trees, woods and hedgerows. His advice on the regeneration of woodlands after the 1987 storm is now universally regarded as correct.