Thanks to Alan Mason for this interesting article.
We have had several days of media hype about a severe impending storm, here in the UK, which has turned out to be rather less serious than expected. It reminded me of the disaster which struck south-east England on Friday, 16 October, 1987. It is often described as “a hurricane” which it was not. However, there were hurricane-force winds and several million trees were blown down.
At the time I was working in Tonbridge, Kent, and during the early morning became aware of the sound of very high winds. Electrical power was off for a time, but BBC news reports on my battery radio told of a major crisis. I lived in lodgings about seven minutes walk from the college where I worked, and on leaving the house was amazed by the number of fallen trees blocking all the main roads. I had to climb over, or duck under these to get to college.
Our largest building was a four-storey tower block. The hurricane had torn the steel roof off the lift shaft, carried it a few yards, so it smashed through the roof of the staff canteen and buried itself in the floor. To my surprise I met one of my students, a girl of sixteen, who asked if college would be open today. Had she noticed all the fallen trees in the town, I asked?
“Yes, I had to climb over several of them to get here.”
“Most students come in by bus, car or train. None of them can get here. Neither can most of the staff.”
I made her a cup of hot chocolate, and advised her to go home for the week-end and do some of her college work there. The local radio would tell her if the college was functional by Monday.
This brief recollection is a tribute to the staff of Tonbridge Borough Council, Kent County Council, and council workers in general. They do humdrum jobs which most of us take for granted. On the morning of the hurricane, those workers who could walk into their depots did so, and started up the machinery. They used chainsaws to cut their way out on to the roads and diggers or mobile cranes to swing the cut logs parallel to the roadsides, so that a little traffic flow was possible.
Not only were colleges and schools unable to function, but neither were hospitals, ambulances, fire services, or police stations. For the direst emergencies there were helicopters. We tend to forget a simple truth that the Great Storm taught us. Block the main roads and you bring modern civilisation to a complete stop.
It is remarkable that things were greatly improved by Friday evening, as a result of the efforts of council workers through a long day. Tonbridge still looked like a disaster area, but traffic was moving slowly and carefully. I was keen to get home to Buckinghamshire for the weekend and I walked down to Tonbridge station.
British rail workers had managed to lift fallen trees from the track using giant crane wagons, and trains were now running between Sevenoaks and London, but Tonbridge itself was still cut off. I shared a taxi with several other travellers, to cover the eight miles to Sevenoaks. As we set off up Quarry Hill out of the town, the way was still piled with massive cut logs at the roadside. Once on the fast dual carriageway of the A21 things seemed almost back to normal.
Sevenoaks had been as badly hit as Tonbridge. Of the seven oaks around the green, which gave the town its name, only one was left standing. Travelling through London and on to Buckinghamshire, I became aware that most people had no idea of the disaster which had struck Sussex, Kent and Surrey, as well as the south-western coasts. While they talked of occasional fallen trees and minor inconveniences, I knew that whole towns had been brought to a complete standstill, and villages were likely to be cut off for days while more urgent work went on.
In the aftermath, there was much clearing up to do, and the people of Sevenoaks planted seven oak saplings to replace the fallen giants, and the one original oak remains, alongside them. There was also much replanting across the whole of the Weald. The word, “weald” is Anglo-Saxon, cognate with the German word, “wald”, meaning woods or forest.
The three illustrations are taken from “In the Wake of the Hurricane” by Bob Ogley, Froglets, 1988