1987: The Great Storm


The dramatic view at Cuckfield Park of 'The Avenue' in May 1988 after tree surgeon pollarding. Photograph by Fred Wheatland.

We are in the 35th year since the Great Storm of 1987 - the worst storm in living memory. It occurred on the night of 15 to 16 October, with hurricane-force winds claiming 18 lives and resulting in many hospital casualties in the UK. The storm has since en termed a ‘weather bomb’ due to its rapid development. The highest gust peaked in this country at 120mph (190 km/h). It's impact on the local area was devastating and resulted in an extraordinary recovery operation swinging into action, the likes of which has never been seen before.



'The Avenue' at Cuckfield Park the morning after the Great Storm. Photograph by Fred Wheatland.

It is claimed that this storm was the worst since the Great Storm of 1703. But this has been challenged as storms of this strength regularly form over the North Atlantic, where they typically track to the north of Scotland. The unusual aspect of the storm was that it struck the densely populated south east of England - and the likes of this might happen once in 200 years.


There was extensive damage in the local Sussex area with power lines down, rail and bus travel brought to a standstill with main roads blocked - and causing interruption to the emergency services who were at full stretch (400 calls in four hours, Crawley News reported). It took several days to get the road network back to some degree of normality.

Telecom engineers in action in Sussex after the Great Storm

Restoring services

Steve Turner was a British Telecoms engineer at the time and recalled his involvement in the clear up, 'I remember the storm very well - it brought down thousands of telephone lines. I lost count of the endless hours we worked to recover the situation. The problem was that hundreds of poles had been reduced to matchsticks. Unlike the electricity board, who couldn't restore service until the poles had been replaced, due to the high voltages involved, we were able to lay temporary cables to get people working until the new poles went up.'


Steve also recalled that his dedication and hard work was well rewarded, 'Every cloud has a silver lining, the overtime was great!'


Fred Wheatland recalled, 'I was working on restoring the power lines which involved some really long hours delivering wood poles and switchgear to sites in Sussex, Kent and Surrey. After a few days we were doubled up due to the hours so we could share the driving. This went on for about a fortnight from 6am until midnight and then things gradually eased. It was hard work but the joy on peoples' faces when we had reconnected them, made the effort all worthwhile.'


As the storm was over Friday morning, the return to work for those who had to travel to work - was not until the Monday. And, amazingly, much of the work to clear the main roads had been achieved over the weekend.


Crawley News looking back in 5 May 1999 observed: 'The destruction was so great that the army had to be called in to help. Between 150,000-200,000 homes were left without electricity, with some families having to wait for three days before paratroopers carrying out repair work managed to restore power … More than 5,000 trees had fallen and blocked railway lines. It took round-the-clock action to get the service at Crawley rail station back to normal on the following Sunday.'


The cost to the community was considerable too with the disaster costing West County Council four million pounds towards the £8.5m damage costs.


Windmill fire

At the Clayton windmill known as 'Jill', sustained severe damage and this after a long restoration had recently been completed. The mill had started grinding corn again in 1986 after a break of 80 years, and a second set of millstones were due to be installed shortly before the disaster struck. The mill's brakes had been applied prior to the storm, but the high winds were still able to rotate the sails, creating friction which set the internal timber work on fire.


Members of the Jack and Jill Windmills Society raced into action with a chain of buckets and water - and thanks to their stoic efforts of the amateur firefighters they managed to put the blaze out.



Chownes Mead Lane the start of the clear up after the storm. Photograph by Fred Wheatland.

Other wooded areas were badly hit and Maisie Wright recalled in a Chronicle of Cuckfield, ‘New England Wood was one of the casualties of the Great Storm of 1987, but it is well cared for by a group of volunteers who meet for regular working parties.’


Wakehurst Place

In an article in The Guardian newspaper on 15 October 2012 the fate of Wakehurst Place was highlighted. It lost around 20,000 trees - and that was 60% of its collection.


‘While many historic houses and conservation bodies rushed to replant and clear up the devastation - Wakehurst took four years to devise its plan.’ The article continued that Andy Jackson, in charge of the clear up, decided to leave one third of its devastated 180 acres exactly as it had happened leaving the trees where they had fallen and let the woodland regenerate itself. The article adds ‘It was radical thinking for the time, but is now recognised as good conservation.’


More widely in the area Sussex folk were galvanised into action - and it proved a memorable opportunity for community joint action when the Mid Sussex landscape was changed forever by the loss of 25% of its trees.


The road into Worthing the morning after the Storm. Photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking from East Preston. Wikimedia public domain image.

As Maisie Wright recalled, ‘The young and able turned out with chainsaws to help those cut off by trees fallen across their paths, including the limes of Cuckfield Park drive. Those left standing were subsequently expertly pollarded to good effect.’ [see the top photograph]. Today they look just as they did before the storm - but with some inevitable gaps.


Fred Wheatland who lived on the Cuckfield Park estate kindly provided many of the photographs that accompany this article which he took at the time.


Can you help please?

If you have any old photographs of Cuckfield recovering from the devastation of the Great Storm - please do let the editors know we have the means to copy them, whether slide or print.


Telecom photo supplied by Steve Turner.


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.



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