Friday, 19 October 2007

The Great Storm

The Great storm, the worst that Britons had experienced for over 300 years, struck 20 years ago this week. Deaths were caused, electricity supplies cut, cars were flattened, roads blocked, railways lines closed, house roofs blown off and landscapes devastated as trees were uprooted.

In London there was a blackout, the first since the Blitz in 1945 and it was thought at the time that the Kent and Sussex countryside, devoid of its trees, would never be the same again. The historic town of Sevenoaks was dubbed One Oak when it was learned that six of the old trees had crashed to the ground, hitting the town's very identity.

In addition, the ancient deer park of Knole in Sevenoaks, now owned by the National Trust, lost seventy per cent of its trees. Many of the trees over 200 years old -oaks, beech and chestnuts - were uprooted by the gale force winds, crashing to the ground felling others in their wake. The park, so beloved by the inhabitants of the town, was a scene of utter devastation.

In towns and villages throughout the South East similar damage was experienced: no-one could go anywhere for days and the sound of chainsaws was constant. But in fact it was amazing how few deaths there were and how many families and properties survived such a terrible storm. This was due in large part to the fact that the hurricane struck overnight.

The Met office had failed to predict the hurricane: some lucky souls slept through the entire thing, shocked when they opened their curtains on scenes of mayhem and destruction. This happened to me, I could hear there was a storm and peering out of the window saw the branches of our large purple beech flapping as if ready to take flight: Best Beloved slept on.

Terrible wind, I thought, and went back to bed. In the morning we were shocked to see two conifers – one at the back of the house one at the front - had fallen parallel to the house: lucky or what. If the wind had been coming from a different direction we may never have got up at all.

Non-native evergreen conifers are densely leafed – the wind didn't pass through their branches – and shallow rooted they fell by their thousands. And venerable hardwood trees are vulnerable in high winds: in fact many of the trees that were uprooted had passed their sell-by date.

Britain had been steadily deforested over hundreds of years: wood was needed for fuel or arable land, timber framed houses or fighting ships. Later, when vast estates were owned by the landed gentry and passed on form generation to generation, tree planting was something that was natural: ones heirs would benefit. Nowadays, when the average time to live in a house is about five years, there is less incentive for the home owner to plant for posterity.

In the last fifty years new forests have been mostly coniferous and existing hardwood forests have not been renewed – previously pigs or deer had kept the under-storey of broadleaf woods clear of saplings and invasive species without which the woods slowly lost their good health. Old trees were not taken out so hysterical had we become about 'saving' trees. At the same time Town or Borough Councils planted fewer and fewer roadside trees – paranoid about being sued for anything - our townscape the poorer for it.

It's generally not appreciated that much of the hedged and wooded landscape we love –and often think of as natural – was in fact planted for sporting pursuits. Farmers and landowners are less inclined to plant trees – which are not a very lucrative crop – as there's no longer fox hunting and less need for pheasant coverts. When there were, these small parcels of woodland were managed (see my blog archive of May 8) and the woodlands healthy.

After the Great Storm the landscape is certainly not the same, but it has regenerated. Many woods lost trees that should have been felled long ago: after losing them the new clearings opened up the woodland floor allowing wildflowers, birds and insects to flourish. In the woods bluebells, which had disappeared from many woods due to lack of light, were suddenly thriving again.

Surviving trees grew well without the need to compete for nutrients or light and a massive tree-planting programme, undertaken throughout Britain with the help of grants and philanthropists, added to the stock.

The loss of so many trees created a collective appreciation for the beauty of the natural environment and we began to treasure our woodland as never before. Now, twenty years on, the scars have healed and we have beautiful and healthy woodland again, better able to weather any storm.



Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Lucy!

I remember that storm well. It blew out all the windows in the lounge in our flat in London. And when we walked through Regent's Park on our way to class, it was amzing all the trees that had blown down.

Lucy said...

Hi Elizabeth, I guess this will be one of the stories you'll tell your children and grandchildren...
I can remember when....Great stuff!