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The Great Storm of 15 and 16 October 1987

An aerial view of fallen trees in woodland on the Bradenham Estate in the Chilterns, Buckinghamshire following the Great Storm of 15 and 16 October 1987. In just a few hours, fifteen million trees were thrown down in south-east England: on National Trust properties alone, some 360,000 trees were blown over. Image © Patricia Macdonald

 

The publication of Woods: A Celebration coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of the Great Storm of 15 and 16 October 1987 – the most dramatic, single event in recent meteorological history, and a night that did untold damage to National Trust properties across southeast England. The hurricane-force winds reached 110mph (177km/h) and caused eighteen deaths, while the transport network collapsed and some three million houses were hit. The total insurance bill came to over £1 billion. The greatest cost, however, was to trees and woodlands.

The ferocious gale arrived with disastrous timing: after several days of rain, the ground was soft, while the mild autumn temperatures meant the trees were still heavily laden with leaves. In just a few hours, fifteen million trees were thrown down. Sevenoaks in Kent became ‘Threeoaks’; historic woodlands and arboretums in Suffolk, Sussex and Kent were destroyed.

On National Trust properties alone, some 360,000 trees were blown over. The epicentre of the storm was around Greensand Ridge, a heavily wooded sandstone escarpment bordering the Weald in Kent. At Emmetts Gardens, the National Trust garden and arboretum, almost all of the mature trees were either blown down or had to be felled except one notable survivor – the giant redwood, still standing proud. At Toys Hill, a National Trust woodland on the escarpment, some 95 per cent of the trees were razed.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, many woodlands were machine-cleared and then replanted, at great expense. As the years passed, however, foresters, woodland managers and ecologists realised that woodlands left entirely alone often fared better than those where there was intervention. Allowed to replenish itself, nature does a good job. It seems remarkable, but after thousands of years, our understanding of woodlands is still evolving.

Toys Hill (below)was at the epicentre of the Great Storm of October 1987. Some 95 per cent of the mature oak and beech trees along the top of the escarpment were flattened during that momentous night. In the aftermath, photographs of Greensand Ridge showed a level of destruction that was hard to comprehend: from the air, the scene was like a trompe-l’oeil – of splintered matches scattered on a basket of dried moss.

Pic 1 – An aerial view of the woodlands at Toys Hill following the Great Storm of 15 and 16 October 1987. Some 95 per cent of the mature oak and beech trees on the escarpment at Toys Hill were flattened. Pic by Dr Mike Howarth.

Pic 2 – An aerial photograph of woodland at Toys Hill taken in 2007, twenty years after the Great Storm. In the areas that were machine-cleared and replanted in 1987, birch has outgrown almost everything else, to create a monoculture. Pic by Dr Mike Howarth.

Pic 3 – Scorchs Wood, an 80 acre site at Toys Hill that was left untouched after the Great Storm. Pic by Andrew Butler.

The above extract is from Woods: A Celebration by Robert Penn