The night of October 15/16 1987 was one to remember in the south of England. As we went to bed in Sedlescombe, there was something strange about the weather. An eerie warm stillness was in the air. We opened the bedroom window and heard a far off rumbling noise. Still, we went off to sleep only to be awoken in the early hours of the morning by the sound of roaring winds. Looking out into the darkness, the sky was being lit up by the overhead power cables shorting all over the place. We couldn't see what was happened apart from catching glimpses of the tall pines at the end of the garden flailing about in the wind. Being surrounded by big trees, we chose what we thought would be the strongest part of the house and settled down to sit out the storm. Our eldest son had just started work and he didn't even wake up during the night. When he did come to in the morning he was insistent that he had to get to work in the Royal East Sussex Hospital in Hastings. This, of course, was quite impossible as the A21 was blocked with fallen trees as were all the side roads. As it started to get light, we could see that our garden was covered in branches including the top section of a large oak tree which had been snapped off. The wind was still blowing hard from the south west and the trees had taken the full force of the gale protecting the house. Extremely rain followed during the morning. The electricity was, of course, off and it remained that way for the next ten days in Sedlescombe until it was our turn for the cables to be repaired.
When we ventured out around the Village, we were shocked to see so much damage particularly to the trees. Everywhere they could be seen uprooted with great plates at the base. The sound of chain saws could be heard for days as the great clear up began.
Following are a few quotes from local newspapers of the time:
In George Coleman's excellent book "Great Sanders and the Powdermill Basin, Sedlescombe" written in 1994 he reminds us that this was not the first "hurricane" to have struck Sedlescombe. 737 years earlier, in October 1250, Richard Budgeon recorded its progress in a pamphlet "From Sedlescombe it bore up a small valley, pretty much damaging... some woodlands. About three furlongs from Great Sanders House it passed through more woodlands, very full of fine timber, where it raged with great violence, sparing scarce anything in its way; and about a furlong down the gill at Horsford (Austford) demolished one Barn and Lodge, thence ascending through woodlands where it not only tore the trees up by the roots but took the earth which was rent up in prodigious flitches."
George Coleman goes on to record that in 1987 the nine hundred afforested acres on the Great Sanders estate were badly affected by the storm with 185 acres of timber, much of it mature, being blown down leaving complete clearance of those areas as the only solution. "The sight of the enormous gaps and devastation was appalling - the huge and peaceful 'cathedrals' of giant conifers desecrated in an instant, and a repeat of the root systems "renting up the earth" as in 1250. Restoration was put in hand rapidly by contractors, first hauling out the fallen timber and then replanting; in just three years about 50,000 trees were planted. The lost conifers were replaced with nearly 43,000 Corsican pine, Japanese larch, Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, plus 1,000 Norway spruse (for Christmas trees) Non-conifer losses were replaced by about 6,190 Broadleaves, including sweet chestnut, alder, ash and sessile oak, the latter having a maturity rotation of 120 years, demonstrating Southern Water's faith in the permanent afforestation principle."
Pat Martin and his wife Sally were running their own tree surgery business called "Trees" in October 1987. Pat has written down a few of his memories of the great storm:
"I listened on CB radio as the hurricane continued to hit our area through the night. At about 11.30pm, I heard that a tree was down across a main road in Etchingham. With my daughter Debbie I put all my chainsaw equipment into my car and drove to the scene. We cleared the road which allowed emergency vehicles to get to areas unheeded. On returning from there, we drove round various roads and cut up trees and branches that were blocking roads. We got home at about 2am.
"We stayed up and monitored the CB radio in case we were needed again. The oak trees opposite our property were badly damaged and we cleared our lane so that our workforce could get in. Our men were having difficulty getting to us at Sedlescombe, most of them coming from Hastings. Luckily, a tree surgeon from Hastings lent them a chainsaw and they cut their way to work, clearing as they went. In a later year, we were able to repay this man's generosity when he had all his chainsaws stolen and we lent him some so he could continue his work until he could buy saws of his own.
"When our workforce reached us, we started clearing the main road from Hurst Lane to Sedlescombe, dragging branches to the verge and burning the debris on site and eventually we could get to where we had been working before the hurricane, in Pine Avenue, Bexhill. The sight that greeted us was amazing; the pine trees in the avenue were either down or leaning at all sorts of angles and we worked until dark in pouring rain just trying to clear houses from fallen trees or just the road.
"At home, in our office, we had three people manning the phone and passing on jobs to the employees who were carrying out other jobs; the phone never stopped ringing for about 24 hours, the line was red hot! We were lucky that some others who couldn't get to work came in to help us. In a lot of cases we had to just make trees safe and go back to complete the work at a later date.
"On our own land, we have a Pet Cemetery which we were then running as a business. It is set in woodland and my wife Sally was running it. We were loathe to go and look at what damage had been done as we could see the track to the cemetery was covered in fallen trees. Sally didn't want to see the damage, fearing the worst but, when I managed to get to the cemetery, I found to my amazement that, although a lot of trees had fallen, only the very corner of one grave had been damaged; the trees had fallen on the paths, missing all the graves.
"As the weeks went by, after the hurricane, we were to hear of the unscrupulous people who were taking advantage of the elderly and vulnerable by charging huge prices for work on trees or roofs. This time of the hurricane certainly allowed more tree surgery firms to appear!"
Following the hurricane a Parish Tree Disaster Fund was set up in Sedlescombe. Residents donated £379 and the Sussex Men of the Trees £100. Soon afterwards, a comprehensive survey of footpaths in Sedlescombe revealed that one third of all paths were obstructed.
In 2012, it is 25 years since the "Great Storm". Tony Whitbread looks back at the advantages that the clearance of our woodlands produced in an article for the Sussex Wildlife Trust. Click here.