Miraculous escape from Great Storm
The greatest storm to hit England since 1703 started with the most understated forecast since records began.
BBC weatherman Michael Fish famously found himself in the firing line by stating – several hours before the fierce storm hit the country – that it could become very blowy, but that most of the strong winds would be over Spain and France.
Fish's forecast, you may have noticed, featured in the London Olympics opening ceremony. In fact it was worst weather – with winds of hurricane force – to hit the country since the Great Storm of 1703.
The Bristol Post headline the following morning read, "Killer Winds" and the Western Daily Press, "Hurricane from Hell". During the afternoon of October 15, 1987, the winds were very light over most of the UK.
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The pressure gradient was slack but, over the Bay of Biscay, a depression was developing with warnings of Force 10, severe gales. For those at sea the warnings of severe weather, were, it seems, both timely and adequate.
That evening TV weatherman Bill Giles told the public that it would be "quite windy" but said that the main feature would be heavy rain.
By the time that most people were off to bed, about 11pm, exceptionally strong winds had not been publicly mentioned at all. By the early hours, however, the civil authorities had been alerted and told that the might need assistance from the military.
The greatest damage occurred in south east England, where gusts of 81 mph or more continued for up to three or four hours.
In some areas, Sussex, Essex and Kent, for instance, the gusts reached an amazing 120mph. The strongest winds recorded in Bristol, however, only reached 76mph. The storm swept first into Cornwall, where schools were closed as a precaution, before tracking into Devon and then over to the Midlands, going out to sea via The Wash.
But, by some miracle, our section of the West Country was spared the worst of the killer winds. Nevertheless, a cyclist suffered back injuries when he was smashed off his bicycle by a falling branch in Chew Stoke. The storm caused substantial damage, taking out, in its wake, an estimated 15 million trees.
In London, many of the plane trees which had lined the streets for generations, were blown down, crushing parked cars. The historic collection in Kew Gardens – 11,000 trees gathered from all over the world – was especially badly hit losing up to 10 per cent of its stock
Much labour, not to say money, was expended in the post-storm clean-up, something which took many weeks, if not months.
But realising that this was unique opportunity to study the effects of natural regeneration after such a storm, the National Trust left many trees as they fell. Many others, of course, those which had blocked roads and railways and caused widespread damage, had to be cut up and re-moved. Several hundred thousand people, including many in Devon and Somerset, were left without electricity which, for some, was not fully restored for more than two weeks.
National Grid officials later said that they had lost more cables in this one storm than in the entire preceding decade. As well as many small boats being wrecked, a large ship capsized at Dover and a cross-channel ferry was driven ashore at Folkestone.
A hotel in Hastings was blown down like a deck of cards, trapping guests.
Scaffolding and billboards also collapsed in many places, endangering those walking the streets.
In Bath there were scenes of chaos as three city centre roads were closed during the morning rush hour.
Violent gusts of wind had sent huge sheets of galvanised scaffolding sailing thirty feet through the air from Manvers Street to South Parade.
A police spokesman told reporters: "If anyone had been in its path, it could have sliced them in half."
Around Bristol most of the damage was limited to fallen trees, downed power lines, closed roads and minor damage to roofs and buildings. Considering the loss of life and serious damage in other parts of the country Bristol, in retrospect, got off very lightly.
The following morning, both ITV's TV-am and BBC1's Breakfast Time programmes, were broadcast from emergency venues. With much public transport at a standstill – the capital had been buffeted by winds of 94mph – Londoners were advised not to try and get in to work.
Shop windows had been smashed – there were some reports of looting – and masonry strewn everywhere.
Shanklin Pier on the Isle of Wight was broken into three, the mountainous waves sending gaming machines crashing into the sea. And in Dorset two firemen were killed when a tree fell on their engine as it was returning from an emergency call.
In Chatham, Kent, a woman died when a tree crashed through the roof of her house, and a motorist was killed as his car hit a tree which had fallen across the road. In Windsor a woman was hit by a chimney which fell off a house roof in the high winds and, in London, a homeless man was found dead under a pile of fallen bricks.
Other people lost their lives in road accidents. The storm cost the insurance industry £2billion making it the second most expensive UK weather event on record.