As I have mentioned before, I used to live in Crowborough, East Sussex, and twenty five years ago to the day that I’m writing this, it was a bit windy there, and in many other places too.
Because October 16th 1987 was the day of the Great Storm.
Now, I’m sure you will have seen and heard many nostalgic media reports about that day already, but I thought I’d give you my own personal recollections of the aftermath of that night.
7am on the 17th October, and I got up for work as usual, opened the curtains, and stopped…
Clearly, I had slept through some slightly unusual weather.
The fence in the back garden had collapsed into the fir tree hedge behind, and there were flower tubs and bits of garden furniture everywhere.
A bit windy last night then. Ok.
Having had breakfast, I left for the twenty minute walk to work, turned out of our front path and stopped…
Opposite the top of our steeply sloping road were a pair of tall Victorian houses, dormer windows on the front pitch of the slated roof evidence of rooms in the loft space.
Lying on top of the left hand house was an eighty foot high pine tree that had, up until the day before, stood in corner of the garden.
Making my way up the road, I could see fences, trees, and other vegetation in varying states of disrepair, although it was nothing compared to the rest of my journey to work.
My usual walk was curtailed almost immediately as, five minutes later, I was confronted with the main road.
There were trees down everywhere, they rendered the road impassable, and I had to turn back.
I eventually got down to the industrial estate were I worked by a different route. It wasn’t much better there.
The estate was almost deserted, most businesses having informed their staff that they’d be closed for the day. However, our boss was not one to miss an opportunity to make money, and had insisted that we get in if it was possible.
So, there I am, about three quarters of an hour late, strolling through an empty industrial park, when I see what appears to be a large yellow mound in the car park of one of the bigger factories.
As I get closer, I can just about make out the shape of a car, under what I assume is a yellow tarpaulin.
Now, at the time, a new branch of now-defunct Do-it-yourself superstore, Payless DIY was being built on this estate and they had got to the stage of cladding the shell of the structure with bright yellow, corrugated steel sheets.
Sure enough, during the night, the hundred mph winds had stripped sheets of this cladding off the building and flung them across the car park.
So powerful were the gusts, the corrugated panels had been moulded round the car so tightly that you could see the outline of the wheels.
Just as I got close enough to recognise the now armour-plated car for what it was, I became aware of a strange rumbling, scraping noise behind me.
Turning round, I was only just in time to see another one of the steel panels, being blown by the still-heavily gusting wind along the ground.
The two drooping edges were barely in contact with the pavement, causing the eerie droning noise that I’d heard.
The rest of the panel was approximately 4-5 inches from the tarmac, and it was not going to stop. It looked very much like a Cylon fighter from Battlestar Galactica on a strafing run.
I did the only thing open to me, if I wanted to keep my feet that is, and jumped straight up in the air.
The screeching metal horror shot underneath me with literally centimetres to spare, careering off into a roadsign, which had already collected several others in the course of the storm.
After that, work was a bit tame.
Crowborough sits on the beautiful Ashdown forest, which is famous, not only as the home of Sherlock Holmes’ author Arthur Conan Doyle, but also for being the setting for A.A. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh stories.
Christopher Robin Milne (yes, he was real, my girlfriend met him when he was in his eighties) on the original Pooh Bridge in 1979
On that fateful night in 1987, not even Tigger and Piglet would have recognised the Hundred Acre Wood, where we too used to play as children. Even Pooh bridge didn’t escape the carnage, being badly damaged by a falling branch that went right through it.
The newly rebuilt Pooh bridge, as it looks today.
(By the way Pooh fans, I have played Poohsticks on the original Pooh bridge.)
For those of you unfamiliar with these classic tales, here is the strangely prescient Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.
Other, larger areas of the forest were almost totally destroyed that night, resulting in many people losing forested land that had been in their families for generations. At least one person that I know of took their own life as a result of the despair they felt at the destruction they witnessed happening on their property.
This was an all-too-common sight in the aftermath of the storm.
In the Kentish town of Sevenoaks, about twenty miles away, six of the mighty trees it was named after were uprooted like matchsticks.
Hundreds of thousands of trees were destroyed in that night of freak weather, changing the landscape of my childhood irreparably. The hundred acre wood of Milne’s imagination badly damaged, but still alive in the minds of millions of children.
It was an event that changed the countryside of the South-East of England overnight.
If you look at it now, you wouldn’t know anything was amiss, but those of us who woke up to it that October morning, 25 years ago today, there will always be places we will look at and think sadly, “I remember when it wasn’t all fields round here”
Someone else who had trouble with travel that morning was Zippy, and you can find his story, told in his usual, inimitable style here.
My thanks to James Hoath for his invaluable Pooh facts and corrections