With the close passing of hurricane Ophelia over Ireland then Scotland, we are vividly reminded of the storm of 1987.
Most Britons went to sleep on the night of Thursday October 15, thirty years ago without the slightest idea of the damage they would wake up to. Although strong winds had been forecast overnight, the country was actually to be hit by the worst storm of its kind in over three hundred years, and eighteen people were killed.
Indeed, the winds led to so many trees – an estimated fifteen million – being blown over that the landscape was dramatically altered overnight in National Trust properties like Wakehurst Place in West Sussex, where fifteen thousand trees were destroyed by the storm, and Toys Hill in Kent, which lost ninety seven percent of its woodland. Ashridge was on the edge of the storm and only lost a few trees – in fact the storm in January 1990 was to prove more destructive to our woodland, when forty seven people lost their lives in the UK.
Two meteorological factors caused what came to be known as ‘the Great Storm of 1987’: the huge temperature contrast in the Bay of Biscay – where cold air from the north collided with warm, moist air from the south – and the jet stream, which was much further south than normal for that time of year and moving very quickly. These two things combined to form a deep area of low pressure which then moved north eastwards, up the English Channel – bringing an extra tropical cyclone, with hurricane-force winds, to southern and eastern parts of the UK.
The cyclone caused damage to thousands of buildings and homes, ripping the entire roofs off some, and left millions without power – some for days – after trees fell on power lines. Coastal areas were particularly hard hit with winds of up to 122mph. Fallen trees and collapsed buildings also led to transport routes – both road and rail – being severely disrupted in south and east England. Much of the public transport system in London was paralysed, and workers in the capital were advised against travelling into work.
The Great Storm caused £2 billion of damage, and although a massive clear-up operation took place, it was days before many services were back to normal. It also led to a government inquiry into how forecasting could be improved, as the Met Office was strongly criticised for failing to provide adequate warning. Today their four-day forecasts are as accurate as the one-day forecasts were in 1987. Met Office forecasters had, in fact, been issuing warnings of severe weather for several days before the storm – but in 2012, chief meteorologist Ewen McCallum admitted that they had got it wrong.
Storms can of course take place at any time of year and it was to be a June blow which took out the oldest tree at Ashridge in 2014. The Harry Potter beech dubbed the “Queen” by Richard Mabey the celebrated author, which featured in a number of films, was particularly vulnerable to summer storms when in full leaf. It’s demise was probably due to the removal of nearby protective oaks on land owned by the Berkhamsted Golf Club. For some dubious reason they were clear felled leaving the “Queen” highly exposed. It is understood that the landowners were subsequently censured by Natural England and their forestry funding was questioned. Meanwhile Richard Mabey had visited and paid his respects.
At Wakehurst Place they are now celebrating the existence of a natural woodland after thirty years of decay and renewal, as we have at Ashridge – an untidy wood is a healthy wood.
The only sting in the tail from hurricane Ophelia as she barrelled her way north was the desert dust, dragged in on warm air to southern England from Africa creating a “red” sun at midday.