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Eye of the great storm
Don’t worry,” BBC weatherman Michael Fish told the nation 25 years ago. “Apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. There isn’t ...”
It was scant comfort that technically he was right. It wasn’t a hurricane that hit Britain on the night of October 16, 1987, but a storm, with 120mph gusts of wind and accompanying whirlwinds tearing through South East England, the worst to hit the mainland and its islands in living memory.
The South of England took the brunt of the storm and was unprepared for the disaster, as the eye of the storm had been predicted to rage over the Channel and avoid the south coast. But the experts were wrong and Sussex, Kent and Essex were the three worst hit counties.
When Britain woke up the following morning in a collective state of shock, up to 23 lives had been lost, hundreds had been injured, hundreds of thousands left without power. Around 15 million trees had been felled, including, famously, six of the seven oak trees at Sevenoaks in Kent.
Hundreds of roads and railways lines were blocked, homes shattered, boats battered and the century-old Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight reduced to driftwood.
Famous landmarks were not spared.
At the Royal Pavilion in Brighton the top of a minaret plunged through the ceiling of the Music Room, newly restored after it had been gutted in a fire in 1975.
The two-ton globe crashed on to a new £86,000 carpet and it took 15 men to lift the globe and pull it out of the room with a crane. Outside, trees had come crashing down in the grounds, with two old-fashioned red telephone boxes taking the weight of fallen trees and saving the Pavilion from further damage.
The famous ring of trees planted in the 1760s by Charles Goring to mark the site of an Iron Age hill fort high on Chanctonbury Hill was an open target for the ferocious winds. The thickly wooded ring of 40ft beech trees on the South Downs was decimated by two-thirds.
“It’s tragic,” said Charles Goring’s great great grandson Harry as he surveyed the site in the immediate aftermath. “No amount of money will make the ring the same again.”
Many of the trees were subsequently replaced and now, 25 years later, they are tall enough to begin to resemble their fallen predecessors.
The scene at Wakehurst Place, the country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was even more devastating. More than 25,000 trees lay uprooted, many historic and many huge.
“I managed to sleep through the hurricane,” recalls gardens manager Chris Clennett, who was living at Wakehurst at the time.
“But when I looked out in the morning, it looked like the whole place had been flattened. When I was walking around the gardens with colleagues the next day, we got lost because all our bearings and landmarks were gone.”
David Marchant, the estate’s logistics manager, said “Never in our lifetime did we expect to deal with anything like that.
"There was glass flying around from the greenhouses, trees coming down and we lost power and water. People were dumbstruck when it got light and we could see the extent of the damage.”
But amidst the chaos there was hope. A 600-year-old yew tree survived and staff immediately began to cut holes in the debris of the fallen trees to make planting spaces.
“The impact of the storm was devastating,” says Andrew Jackson, the Head of Wakehurst Place. “But the ability of nature to restore and recover has been amazing.”
Replacement trees on the estate near Ardingly are now standing 50ft tall, including eucalyptus trees planted in Coates’ Wood. New features have been developed in the devastated areas, including the Asian Heath Garden and the Iris Dell, and this year alone around 200 new trees have been planted.
Wakehurst Place was not the only great garden of Sussex to suffer. At Nymans, near Handcross, 486 mature trees were lost, including a giant monkey puzzle. Only two giant redwoods survived from its pinetum.
The restoration work still continues today, 25 years later.
A centuries-old landscape at Sheffield Park Gardens near Haywards Heath was razed to the ground in a matter of hours. More than 2,000 trees and shrubs were destroyed, the damage centring on the lakeside plantations.
“Chainsaws hummed for weeks running into months,” its head gardener Andy Jesson later remarked. However, important mature trees did survive, including ancient chestnuts and oaks, already fully grown in the 17th century, and 19th century conifers planted by the 3rd Lord Sheffield.
At Bignor Park, felled cedar trees were used to build a new summer house, some of the oldest trees at Buxted Park, near Uckfield, were lost, and many others came down at High Beeches Garden at Handcross, which has the National Collection of Stewartia trees.
Woodland laid out in the 18th century by Capability Brown at the Petworth estate was flattened, the great plates of their upended roots as tall as houses.
From the air, the damage to the countryside was shocking for Alan Betts, of the Forestry Commission.
“I remember being fascinated by the extent to which some areas were devastated, then alongside them there were wooded areas that had escaped unscathed,” he later recalled.
“The most memorable sight was seeing all the white chalk brought to the surface over the Downs, as great roots had pulled up mountains of fresh soil.”
Over the past 25 years, studies have shown that woodland naturally regenerates itself and that the huge amount of deadwood that was left where it fell has had “a dramatic effect on the flora and fauna of local forests”.
The Forestry Commission has observed increases in insects that thrive on deadwood, such as the jewel beetle, the bark beetle and the stag beetle, as well as woodlice that live on it. In turn, these insects have fed birds and bats, such as the tree creeper, the redstart and the noctule bat, while the light and space created by removed trees has allowed woodland ground flora to flourish.
In Sussex, increased numbers of breeding birds such as warblers and wrens have been attracted to the new food sources and nesting sites of the open spaces.
Mr Betts, now the Forestry Commission’s regional director for South East of England, says, “To see trunks lying there, with the branches all heading skywards to become their own trees, symbolises how resilient our trees and woodlands are, and how the devastation of the losses felt by the storm have left a unique ecological legacy for possibly hundreds of years to come.”
To mark the 25th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987, Andy Jackson, Head of Wakehurst Place, will hold a tree-planting ceremony and deliver a public lecture entitled Phoenix From The Ashes, at 2pm on Tuesday, October 16 at Wakehurst Place, near Ardingly.
Admission is free to garden visitors. For more details, call 01444 894067 or visit www.kew.org.
Don't miss The Argus's eight-page Great Storm 25th anniversary souvenir in the Tuesday, October 16 edition of The Argus.