“An area of outstanding natural devastation”: 30 years after Sussex is hit by the Great Storm

[This story was published on October 12 in the Observer series. Read the original story at http://www.chichester.co.uk/news/an-area-of-outstanding-natural-devastation-1-8192279.]

Great Storm 1987-2017 1
Mr Anthony Nelson looking at the tree devastation caused by the storm at Graylingwell Hospital with the hospital’s works and development assistant general manager, Mr Phillip St George
Great Storm 1987-2017 2
The wind-strewn wreckage that was once someone’s holiday caravan lies in West Sands holiday camp, Selsey. The village took a terrible pounding in the storm
A damaged stained glass window on the west wall of Chichester Cathedral
A damaged stained glass window on the west wall of Chichester Cathedral
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Not everyone was unhappy about the storm debris. These youngsters thoroughly enjoyed a day off school!
A sad sight: one of the many cars damaged by the night's storm
A sad sight: one of the many cars damaged by the night’s storm

Three decades ago, West Sussex woke up to incredible devastation.

The Great Storm of 1987 wrecked such havoc on the county that immediately after the hurricane, Mrs Mary Lochner, chairman of the county Coast and Countryside committee, described Sussex as “an area of outstanding natural devastation”.

More than £20 million was reported by the Observer to be the staggering total cost of the trail of damage left in West Sussex by the worst storm in living memory.Thousands of homes and business premises were damaged as winds of up to 108 miles per hour – the strongest ever recorded – lashed the county for hours on end during the night of October 15 to 16. There was also considerable damage to windmills, harbours and country parks across the county. A massive repair operation was launched on the spire of Chichester’s 900 year old cathedral, which had been completely exposed to the winds. Masonry had crashed down through the roof, landing on the apron of the cathedral’s Arundel Screen. West side windows were also damaged, as were two of the four tower pinnacles, one of which had snapped off. Chichester Cathedral was not the only historic building to become a storm casualty – the city Cross had also suffered serious damage, and was cordoned off while firemen worked to remove the ball and vane, which was hanging at a dangerous angle.


Great Storm 1987-2017 14
Devastation at the White Sands Caravan Park, Selsey
A soldier keeps watch at the scene at White Sands Caravan Park, Selsey
A soldier keeps watch at the scene at White Sands Caravan Park, Selsey
Devastation at the White Sands Caravan Park, Selsey
Havoc created by the storm at West Sands Caravan Park in Selsey with destroyed and overturned caravans, littering the site


Selsey was hit particularly hard by the storm – hundreds of caravans were overturned by the gales and more than 100 people were evacuated to the safety of the local parish hall, where they were given hot drinks and sandwiches, using candles to light the hall when the electricity failed. Station officer Tony Dann said that at West Sands holiday park, where firemen had been called after electric cables were reported down, the men were faced with “total devastation”. There was a wall of sea spray and unidentified flying objects, and the firemen were unable to stand up in the winds. One fireman was blown off his feet 30 feet along the ground, losing his helmet. The ambulance service received more than 100 calls, but, due to road bloackage, were unable to get through to Selsey, meaning that local doctors stepped in to treat the injured. Selsey parish councillors were told that their parish clerk, Mr Mike Blaylock, was on duty for 21 hours during the night of the storm.

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– The 15ft high wall to the Bishop’s Garden at Chichester demolished when a huge tree was uprooted by the gales. There were similar sights throughout the city
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A resident in Lime Close, Chichester, hacking away at the roots of a lime tree that destroyed his garage, car, and carport
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Four boys from Chichester, Kevin White. John Withall, Nathan Brown and Leon Attwater, with one of the huge trees down in Priory Park, Chichester
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Next to an onlooker, a huge tree lies against a house in St Martin’s, Chichester, after the storm
Storm power: a tree devastated by the storm in West Dean gardens
Storm power: a tree devastated by the storm in West Dean gardens
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The Avenue, Chichester, once a tree-lined road, became a scene of disaster after the great storm felled so many trees
A collapsed tree on Chichester's The Avenue
A collapsed tree on Chichester’s The Avenue
Not a chainsaw massacre, but tree clearance in The Avenue
Not a chainsaw massacre, but tree clearance in The Avenue
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The entrance to Rainbow’s End, Hotham Park, Bognor, which was damaged by fallen trees

The landscape of heavily wooded West Sussex dramatically changed as a result of the Great Storm, necessitating work on the 2,500 miles of footpaths in the county.  Large numbers of trees, ranging from unique centuries old specimens in arboretums and the grounds of great country houses to huge new timber plantations, were brought crashing to the ground during the storm. Trees at Kingley Vale nature reserve, the historic gardens at West Dean House, and Goodwood House were seriously damaged. Fine tree specimens were lost completely, including some in Priory Park and in the Summersdale area, and several roads were blocked.  

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A 17 year old girl narrowly escaped injury when this huge pine tree crashed through the roof of her home at Elmleigh, Midhurst, and into her bedroom


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Giant oaks, which have stood for a thousand years in Petworth Park, were torn up and discarded by the hurricane-force storm
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Michael Bellamy (ten) was dwarfed by the root of this giant beech at Cowdray Park – another victim of the storm

A man trapped in his car by a falling tree in Pound Farm Lane had to be freed by Chichester firemen. The fire brigade was particularly busy during the night with hundreds of calls, many of them to houses in a dangerous condition.

The council barn at Kingsham destroyed in the wind
The council barn at Kingsham destroyed in the wind
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Three council Transit vans lie smashed beneath an ancient barn roof which collapsed at Kingsham

More than £100,000 pounds worth of damage was caused when an 18th century barn on the Chichester high schools’ campus at Kingsham collapsed on the eight vehicles inside. The horticultural industry was badly hit by the storm. Mr John Frampton, a director of Chichester’s Framptons Nurseries Ltd, said that there was damage to large areas of glass and the structure of the buildings. In addition to extensive damage to the greenhouses, there was also great concern for the crops inside. Lettuce crops were a write-off due to glass among the leaves.

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Dodsley Lane, Easebourne. Paul Mellings, a dentist in town, inspects a crushed car
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A Petworth landmark survived the hurricane althugh it was badly damaged. The giant wisteria in the town square was damaged but survived
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Power engineers struggled in the middle of the shattered trees of Slindon Woods to reconnect a broken power line

Despite the devastation, the people of Sussex were quick to respond: builders embarked on a massive repair operation throughout the country, repairing damaged roofs and chimneys. Hundreds of West Sussex County Council staff worked flat out to repair the damage left by the hurricane.

The Observer reported that Selsey Parish Council chairman Mr Peter Ogden ‘paid tribute to the wonderful community spirit which prevailed in Selsey village at the time. Selsey had something to be proud of in its villagers he said’.

Local amateur radio operators were able to assure a radio user in far off South Africa that her parents were unharmed in the hurricane. Jim Kimpton, a member of Chichester and District Amateur Radio Club, was taking part in Chichester District Scouts’ Jamboree of the Air, contacting Scouts abroad, when an anxious voice crackled through the receiver. Jim said: “It was an operator called Jenny, on the air on behalf of the White River Scouts in the Transvaal, South Africa. She had been unable to contact her parents in Chandlers Ford since the hurricane hit Britain, and she was worried that they had come to harm. Within an hour we managed to find out that Jenny’s parents were fine but their phone was out of order, and she was very relieved to hear it.”

Shops and flats at Kingfisher Parade, East Wittering, lost their roofs
Shops and flats at Kingfisher Parade, East Wittering, lost their roofs
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A farm machinery depot at Swanfield Drive, Chichester, which collapsed onto the machinery inside
A yacht blown high and dry by the storm hit someone's garden in the Witterings
A yacht blown high and dry by the storm hit someone’s garden in the Witterings

The emergency services worked phenomenally hard to help West Sussex residents, often putting their own safety on the line. Three firemen answered a call for help from two young mothers with two small children and a baby. The wind was so strong that firemen could not walk into the house, and they had to crawl. Unable to evacuate the families, the firemen stayed with the two mothers and their children until dawn.

A record 2,773 calls, compared with a normal daily total of 700, were received by police through Sussex. Staff at the Chichester fire brigade headquarters were so inundated that they did not have time to count the number of calls their team received.

Hospital staffs were also praised for their work during the storm. Although several Chichester hospital buildings were damaged, amazingly, only two patients were affected by the hurricane.

The storm and its aftermath changed the landscape of Sussex forever, and 30 years on, many people still have vivid memories of their experiences that night. What are yours?

The scene of devastation in Hotham Park, Bognor
The scene of devastation in Hotham Park, Bognor
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Motorists driving carefully through storm damage at Middleton on Friday morning


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