Great Storm of Friday, October 16th 1987

With the current interest in the weather, here is an abstract of my notes made while residing at Foxhole Cottages, these being relatively sheltered by being tucked behind a north-facing hill, whilst working on the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat, near Seaford.

This storm seemed to be the climax of two weeks of heavy rainfall; I’d never seen the [River Cuckmere] meanders and ditches so high. The storm struck the coast at about 2am; I was awakened by wind which reached severe storm force 11 from the south veering to south-west; a perceptible vibrating of the house could be felt at times.  At daybreak, our windows were opaque with sea salt and pieces of grass.

The south coast bore the brunt of the storm. The centre of the storm moved at 95mph across the country from Devon to Humberside with the strongest winds to the south-east of it. The small depression responsible deepened rapidly as it had approached the country, 963mb being recorded in London. It had tracked further north than expected, with wind speeds 20/30mph higher than forecasted – the famous Michael Fish hurricane forecast the evening before.  Winds gusted to well over 100mph and were the highest wind velocities recorded since records were begun. It has been compared with the great storm of 1703. My father could not remember seeing anything quite so bad, the nearest he thought, being in 1935.

Daylight brought a scene of utter devastation; half the leaves on trees the previous day were blown away, trees had still been well-leafed. Remaining leaves were severely ‘burnt’ by the salt-laden wind; raspberry canes and strawberries in our relatively sheltered garden were blackened. The Park’s large expanses of grassland appeared as if someone had meticulously raked all the grass one-way and then had rolled it. By Sunday, most leaves were quite dead and the strange aroma so characteristic of Friday had gone.

Scene at Exceat itself. The large macrocarpa [conifer] tree so much a part of the scene at Exceat, had crashed down across the brick pathway, bringing down the adjacent brick and flint walls. A large sycamore tree behind Exceat House was blown on to the steel support cable of a wooden electricity supply pole, causing this starting to bend like a bow. The greatest damage was in the Park’s forest car park; dozens of trees blown down and dozens more needing to be felled, particularly the larger pines, a scene of mayhem! The boundary fence alongside the A259 road was partially thatched with grass torn up by the wind as it had roared across the open downland. Many of the bushes at the top of Exceat Hill were leaning out into the road, some were partially uprooted and two large elders I had to chainsaw away.

Countless trees were brought down; particular areas of Friston Forest were devastated [I recall they appeared like the contents of countless matchboxes all carefully orientated in one direction]. Winton Street [near Alfriston] was ‘roofed in’ with fallen trees including one on to a house. The lanes into Litlington were not ‘opened up’ until midday Sunday, a joint effort by farmers and the East Sussex Countryside Management Service. Thoughts of health and safety went largely by the board during the following week! Some piglets at Cornish Farm near East Dean were found 1 miles away across open downland at Crapham Hill towards Eastbourne!.

The scene in nearby Seaford. Eastbourne Road appeared like something from a war film, large trees of all types including many large macrocarpa’s laying across the road. Contractors were busy cutting through the macrocarpa’s which had crashed across the road from East Quinton [Cuckmere House School] into gardens opposite. The road by mid-morning had been partially opened. There was a deserted look about the town centre, considering it would normally have been busy being a Friday morning, with a subdued air of surprise and thankfulness that the worst was over. Lots of shattered tiles and slates littered the pavements. Most shops were open using gas lamps, or plain gloom, with Boots and Safeway’s [now Morrison’s] having emergency lighting available. The Midland Bank [now HSBC] was open but with gas lamps accompanied by a gloom and eerie silence, there being no telling machines working, just subdued conversation.

We made use of the Rayburn range at our neighbours to cook food and heat water; we were fortunate, with our power being restored Saturday afternoon. We boiled water for tea on the open fire; dinner was by candle light! Telephones gradually failed as Friday wore on. 1 1/2 million people were without power for a time with 500,000 still blacked out the following day. Some people in Sussex were disconnected for up to 6 weeks!. Power workers were brought in from the Midlands, Wales and the south-west to cope with the damage. Initially, no trains were running in SE England; Gatwick airport was closed for a while.

On the Sunday, I started work with my son on the huge macrocarpa at Exceat until my chainsaw broke-down. I managed to get to a chainsaw stockist at Horam; there was a queue of about dozen people; all his stock of chainsaws had sold by Saturday! He said he had often lain in bed at night and wondered ‘what it would be like if this ever happened.’ Now he knew!. Eventually I got it running again by going to the Cresta Marine workshop at Newhaven who were conversant with two-stroke engines. Spent much of the two following weeks clearing trees and also, collected 5 loads of deck-cargo timber from off the beach at Cuckmere Haven.”


More environmental stories can be found on: