The Great Storm, 25 Years On

Thousands of buildings damaged, millions of trees flattened and lives lost. It’s been 25 years since the great storm of 1987; Vine takes a look at how Sevenoaks landscapes were hit and how they have recovered

The Great Storm, 25 Years On

“Don’t worry there won’t be a hurricane but we will have strong winds”, were the words that weatherman Michael Fish famously broadcasted to the nation on the afternoon of 15 October 1987. Hours later the greatest storm to hit South East England for more than 200 years tore through the region.

Kent, Essex, Sussex and Greater London received the harshest impact. This was unusual as the South East is an area of high population density and property exposure, not usually prone to such dramatic weather.

During the storm a ship capsized at Dover and a ferry was blown ashore near Folkestone. Had the storm hit during the daytime it could have been an even bigger disaster and claimed more lives, fortunately such a storm is only predicted once every 300 years. Winds of over 100mph inflicted chaos on roads, buildings and the environment and Sevenoaks was amongst the worst hit towns.

On the morning of 16 October Sevenoaks residents awoke to utter devastation; roads were blocked, cars crushed and many homes and buildings damaged. The storm also inevitably impacted on businesses, some companies were bought to financial ruin whilst it created new opportunities for others.

Landscapes were destroyed as trees had fallen like matchsticks across the town. Six of the seven well-known oaks on the Vine Cricket Ground had been demolished. The seven oaks were referred to as the ‘coronation trees’ as they were planted on the Vine in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward 7th. The oaks were supposed to keep alive the tradition of having seven oaks in the town but the morning after the storm just one oak was left standing.

The story of the six fallen oaks has been told all over the world but miscommunications meant some people got the wrong story. Italians were told the death toll ran into thousands whilst holidaymakers in Spain were horrified to hear that Sevenoaks was flattened and homes were blown off the earth.

The greatest impact was on the environment. Trees which had stood in the Knole for 400 years lay collapsed on the ground; Knole Park lost a huge 610 trees during the storm including sweet chestnut and other traditional varieties. As the area of woodland at the Knole is a Site of Special Scientific Interest most of the trees that fell were left as deadwood.

Christopher Tipping, a land agent for the Knole tells Vine how the park has endeavoured to revive the land over the years. “There were a number of plantations created in the Park after the storm. These are now over 20 years old. We are starting to put in place thinning programmes to ensure that they develop into mature, deciduous trees which will help protect the Parks landscape for the future.”

Chartwell’s tall beech trees which formerly stood modestly, framing the view of the weald were destroyed leaving an exposed view across Kent. The neighbouring areas including Ide Hill and Toys Hill endured perhaps the harshest impact; Emmett’s Garden lost 95% of their trees, however the enormous redwood outside the mansion was one of few to survive and its tip is still the highest point in Kent.

Alan Comb has been a gardener at Emmett’s since the week after the storm and has worked hard on the regeneration of the woodland. He tells Vine,

“Emmett’s were considering planting new trees prior to the storm so it actually gave us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to redevelop with a blank canvas. It was a real mixed bag of advantages and disadvantages for us.

“The view over the weald was very restricted prior to the storm as the trees acted as a border but with the trees gone it really opened up.  The downside of the exposed space is that the area is windier.

“The fallen trees left as deadwood have grown new trunks from the branches but as they are unstable it’s unknown how long they will be standing. The deadwood also increases the amount of fungi which has great environmental benefits.”

Fungi help to feed nutrients and additional water back into the tree, more than the tree could manage alone. Many trees will die if enough fungus does not develop around their roots during their first year of growth.

Alan tells us, “unfortunately we lost many of our champion trees; those that are an exceptional example of their species due to their age, rarity, scale or historical significance. And as trees were destroyed habitats were ruined too which meant loss of wildlife, mainly birdlife. We have also had many cases of squirrels stripping the beech off trees, which would not happen to mature trees. In a bad year we lost 200 trees because of this.

Some areas were left to regenerate naturally but we have planted a lot, including many beech and birch trees. We’ve generally tried to keep the area the same as it was, I do think Emmett’s can thrive as it did before the storm, it will just take time.”

Regenerating Sevenoaks landscape was a seemingly impossible task and a lot of areas had to be left to redevelop naturally. The community put on an exceptional show of local pride when thousands turned up to participate in the planting of the new seven oaks on the Vine.

Fast forward 25 years and Sevenoaks still bares scars as it’s still recovering now and will be for years to come. But through regrowth and natural regeneration the town has healed remarkably well.

Though visitors can still see characteristics of the aftermath, Emmett’s gardens have developed magnificently. The storm gave them the opportunity to add autumn colour plants to their gardens, creating a dual season to match their Victorian Spring Garden.

Knole Park’s grounds look healthier than locals could have imagined at the time and despite the destruction of much of the wooded landscape, new plantation is blooming at the Knole. Toys Hill, where 98% of trees were flattened now has a non-intervention zone, which was set up after the storm.

It is unknown whether the number of trees that fell that night was greater than those that fell during the storm of 1703, but the blemishes and wounds that our landscape wears will be a constant symbol of the distinctive legacy that could last for years to come.

First published on vinedigital.co.uk