As I’m writing this, the wind’s howling, the rain’s swirling, leaves are taking flight and making paths treacherous, and the homemade wooden contraption in the front-room chimney breast – designed to avoid sudden downfalls on the hearth – is clunking away in harmony with my typing, as autumn meets winter in squally downtown Lancashire.
I’ve just had that dreaded call – and parents will understand this – revealing that my youngest daughter has forgotten her lunchbox. That means that despite my earlier smugness about working from home on a day like this, I’m going to have to be out there among the sodden dog-walkers after all. But it’s only a bit of weather, and – as us old gits tend to say – “Call this bad weather? Why, back in 1987 ….”
Yes, it’s 25 years since that fateful day that Mother Nature dealt us The Great Storm, which ripped up Southern England and tossed it back at us in a different form, from which at best it took us a few days to recover.
I’m thinking of a scene from 1939 classic Will Hay film, Ask A Policeman, set in the village without crime – Turnbotham Round, a gale blowing as high-pitched oil-skinned fisherman Seth Monroe calls in with a keg of brandy, telling hapless Sergeant Dudfoot, “There’s a storm coming up, I can tell ‘ee!” Well, it was a bit like that, I suppose.
Yet this Great Storm – although portrayed in a few dramatic scenes on TV since – including Our Friends In The North – was no fictional tale, but the kind of severe weather pattern we tend to hear about whipping across the US eastern seaboard instead. And on the night of October 15th/16th, 1987, it just happened to tear through my old neck of the woods in rural Surrey.
Everyone recalls Michael Fish’s weather forecast that previous night, the poor man later pilloried and hung out to dry, so to speak – and wrongly so (see note at end). The rest is history of course. What was expected to be something ‘a little breezy up the channel’ (and that was no euphemism) turned out to be very different.
The pictures that came in over that next day or so let us know just what had happened that night – with countless scenes of devastation, caravan sites crushed, vehicles tossed aside, roofs ripped off, houses wrecked beyond repair and not safe to go near, once-mighty trees sprawled across main thoroughfares, and lots of casualties and fatalities, on a night in which it was estimated that the emergency services received the equivalent of four months’ worth of calls.
It proved to be a busy night at the London Weather Centre as operations to redress the damage – metaphorical and physical – kicked in and forecasters did their best to get the message out. But of course it was all too late. The storm was heading the way of the capital, brushing aside those southern counties on the way, with London soon powerless and sporadic looting already being reported. Sometimes it’s as if the scum of this land have an in-built alarm system that tips them off.
Meanwhile, the storm ripped the roots off age-old trees, sucking them out of the ground and hurling them around like angry giants, with every major road blocked and no respite until the storm petered out somewhere across the North Sea later that morning.
By then we’d lost around 15 million trees – whereas Dutch Elm disease had accounted for a mere 10 million. It was also estimated that 90% of forestation in the south-east had been destroyed, and it took many more days before our telephone lines and power were back on, let alone until every road was opened again.
I’ve just looked at an old diary, and was reminded I’d planned to see my mates’ band A Month of Sundays at the Greyhound in Fulham that Thursday night. I only decided against it at the last minute, not least as I was off to see The Wedding Present at the University of London on Friday night, and there was certainly plenty to gaze at in horrified wonder at on the way up the A3 on that occasion.
I also noted that the telly still wasn’t working by that Sunday, the Hog’s Back transmitter down. I probably did some taping instead. That’s what I tended to do in those days on a rare night in. Tell the kids of today that ….
Strangely enough, I did make it to the Fulham Greyhound three weeks later, this time to see the Dubious Brothers, and on that occasion freak weather conditions hit the south-east again, this time with it taking us more than two hours to get home to Guildford because of the thickest fog I’d ever encountered, the A3 closed by the police for safety reasons and us forced to use the old London Road instead. I remember at one point going three times around a roundabout before I could see enough of my exit to head off towards it. Scary stuff.
Yet on that occasion I got home and told my tale – full of it – only to be verbally slapped down by my Mum, who was quick to let me know that The Great Fog of 1987 (everything was great in those days, eh daddio!) had nothing on the old pea-soupers she was brought up with in the ’30, ’40s and ’50s. And here I am now, 25 years on, letting my own children know they ain’t seen nothing yet compared to what I encountered back in my day.
Not true of course. Freak conditions remain with us, and I was, after all, the bloke who slept through The Great Storm of ’87. Surely not? I hear you say. Well, that’s something to tell my grandchildren one day.
This is where I should add a story of derring-do, rescuing calves trapped by fallen trees, stopping traffic from driving towards ravines and fallen electricity pylons, delivering a baby in the back of a beaten-up Ford Escort Mk II. That kind of thing. But the truth of it was a little more mundane.
That night, I was knackered after another punishing week, and when I woke up in the middle of the night – with the wind howling into my bedroom – my 19-year-old self just about stumbled out of bed, reached up to the top window and slammed it shut, quickly falling back into a deep sleep, only waking up when the alarm went off around seven the next morning.
Even then, when I heard my Mum listening to local radio (an oddity in itself, I seem to recall) I wasn’t fully aware of what had gone on. Despite her advice about reporters telling of trees blocking roads and local roads being impassable, I was soon on my way, taking no more precautions other than deciding against taking my trusty racer the three miles to the other side of Guildford. Might be safer in my car, I compromised. Besides, these local journalists do tend to exaggerate (something I’d find out for myself a few years later).
Yet within a mile of the house I was fully aware of what I’d slept through and wondered just how I’d managed that, with the mightiest oaks felled and straddled across roads, saws buzzing as sections were cut up around me, forced to take a fair few diversions in post-apocalyptic scenes before I could even reach work. Needless to say, I was one of the few who showed up that day.
As in all these dramatic weather situations, I was pleased to see the good old Spirit of the Blitz alive and well. This was illustrated nicely by the wideboy postman driver who called on us each morning at work. He was the spitting image of James Beck’s spiv Private Walker in Dad’s Army, not just in looks either, able to deliver whatever you requested within days, however bizarre. In my case it was usually just VHS and C90 cassettes, but for others I dread to recall what they asked for. That morning, he was later than usual, but battled his way through the security doors of our office, coolly sucked on his ciggie then announced, “Anyone wanna hire a chainsaw? Competitive rates assured.”
What a night that was. For those who don’t know the full story, it was billed as the worst storm on these shores in 300 years, four times the size of a hurricane, with winds of up to 110mph recorded. It killed 19 people, including two firemen out on a rescue, and changed the face of Britain forever, not least as Sevenoaks in Kent became for all intents and purposes Oak.
It took a few days to get back to normal, and some of those I worked with used the excuse to have at least a couple of days off, as was often the case – just like on the rare occasions when snow hit us in mid-winter.
Anyway, I must deliver that lunchbox now. Wish me luck. And remember, “There’s a storm coming up!”
Mark Doyle, a good friend of this blog who supplied the above image collage, put together in 2007 an article centred on Woking FC’s home game with Billericay Town the day after The Great Storm. For the record, the Cards won 3-1. But here’s a few more relevant details:
Newly promoted Woking had to contend with more than just a few downed trees and battered buildings at Kingfield just thirty-six hours after the “Great Storm of 1987”. Over £500,000 worth of damage had been caused back in March to the dome of the adjacent Chris Lane tennis centre by an 80 mile an hour gust of wind, but another £350,000 was added to this bill during the early hours of 16 October 1987. As the people of Surrey tentatively rose from their slumbers, they found that the hurricane force winds had transformed the face of southern England in the worst night of storms in living memory. As dawn broke over Kingfield we were greeted with the unusual sight of a large portion of the Chris Lane’s corrugated roof in-bedded into the Kingfield Road End goal, after it had broken free during the night, raced down the field and smashed into the net with the power of a deadly Eddie Saunders back pass!”
Mark added that Vauxhall Opel Division One games at Lewes, Wembley, Basildon and Southwick didn’t survive the historic weather conditions that day, in a year when we’d already had to cope with the success of Rick Astley’s debut single “Never Gonna Give You Up”. His article continues:
“By the time most people went to bed on 15 October 1987, exceptionally strong winds had not even been mentioned in media broadcasts. By morning, an estimated 15 million trees were uprooted, and with roads and railways blocked, most people found it impossible to travel to work the following day. During the storm a tornado touched down near Admirals Walk just outside of Pirbright and cut a swathe of trees, a hundred yards across and half a mile long, the century old Shanklin Pier was reduced to driftwood and the Sealink ferry MV Mengist was blown ashore at Folkestone. The storm was reportedly responsible for the deaths of twenty-three people. Five died in Kent including two seamen in Dover Harbour and in Dorset two firemen were killed as they answered an emergency call. One in six households in the south east of England, submitted an estimated £2 billion in insurance claims. The last storm of similar magnitude in England occurred in 1703, so the storm was a “one in 300 year event”, but another storm swept across England 27 months later!
“BBC meteorologist Michael Fish was heavily criticised for reporting several hours before the storm hit, in seemingly flippant fashion: “Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she’d heard there’s a hurricane on the way . . . well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t”. In fact his comments about a hurricane had nothing to do with the UK; they referred to Florida, but have been so widely misreported that the British public remain convinced they referred to the approaching storm. Fish went on to warn viewers to “batten down the hatches”, saying it would be “very windy” across the south of England, but predicted that the storm would move further south along the English Channel and the UK mainland would escape the worst effects. The remainder of his warning is frequently left out of re-runs, which adds to the public’s misrepresentation of his forecasting that evening.”