Thirty years ago today the historic Kent town of Sevenoaks woke to find it was now ‘Singleoak’ following the Great Storm of 1987.
Six of the seven mature oak trees which gave the town its name had been felled by winds of up to 120mph, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Much of southern England had been battered by the violent storm, with the costs of repairs and a huge clear-up operation initially estimated at well over £1bn. Worse than that, 18 people had lost their lives, mostly due to falling trees and buildings, and hundreds more were injured.
The stormy weather had first been predicted several days earlier, when forecasters at the Met Office identified a depression strengthening over the Atlantic. Shipping in the English Channel was warned to beware of severe gales, but TV weatherman Michael Fish famously laughed off a report of “a hurricane on the way”, instead reassuring viewers the weather system would remain largely off the UK’s coast
Delivering the forecast at the end of the BBC’s evening news, Fish told viewers: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t, but having said that, actually, the weather will become very windy, but most of the strong winds, incidentally, will be down over Spain and across into France.”
He later claimed his comments had referred to a hurricane which had hit Florida in the USA and been mentioned in a news item just before the weather forecast. Even so, by the time most people in southern England went to bed on the evening of October 15th, they had not even been warned of exceptionally strong winds in national weather broadcasts.
They were in for a rough night and, in many cases, a rude awakening as the fierce storm cut a swathe across the southern half of the UK. On the Isle of Wight the famous Shanklin Pier, almost 100 years old, was reduced to driftwood and in Folkestone a Sea Link ferry, MV Hengist, was blown aground, its crew having to be rescued.
In Jaywick, Essex, a caravan park was virtually flattened, while in Dover a bulk carrier ship, MV Sumnea, capsized and two seamen drowned in the harbour. Right across Hampshire, Sussex, Essex and Kent there was extensive damage to property, with roofs blown off, windows blown in and buildings collapsed or damaged by falling trees.
Traffic disruption was widespread, with hundreds of roads closed by fallen trees or other damage and the railway network similarly affected. Thousands of commuters were simply told to stay at home, although hundreds of thousands had no electricity as power companies struggled to repair downed power lines. Even reporting on the devastation was difficult as many of London’s TV studios were without power and news programmes where hastily switched to other venues.
Across the south, an estimated 15 million trees were down, including the ones at Sevenoaks and many important specimens at Kew Gardens and the Bedgebury National Pinetum, in Kent. It had been a late autumn in the south and many of the trees were still in full leaf, making them more vulnerable to strong winds.
Many of London’s tree-lined residential streets were also hit, the shallow-rooted plane trees blown down onto parked cars. Clearing the fallen trees was a huge job across the south, one of the only upsides being that many towns and villages had their biggest and most spectacular November 5th bonfires for many years.
The Great Storm cost the UK insurance industry an estimated £2bn, at that time a record sum, although it was surpassed by the Burns’ Day Storm of 1990. Despite the widespread destruction, the death toll was relatively light, mainly because the peak wind speeds came in the early hours of the morning. Many badly damaged buildings, including several schools, were unoccupied when the storm struck and the streets were largely deserted.
One long-term effect was that many wild boar escaped from private enclosures and ‘farm zoos’ across the south when fences were brought down. They have since bred and established populations in forests and woodland across the south of England.
After leaving a trail of destruction across the south, the storm went on to cause damage in the Channel Island and France before finally blowing itself out. According to the Met Office, it had been the most violent storm to hit England for more than 280 years.