The Great Storm 1987 - the night Surrey will never forget
Thirty years ago, the face of Surrey changed almost beyond recognition as The Great Storm ripped through the county, felling over a million trees and leaving a terrific trail of destruction in their wake.
Thirty years ago, the face of Surrey changed almost beyond recognition as The Great Storm ripped through the county, felling over a million trees and leaving a terrific trail of destruction in their wake. Mark Davison, co-author of Surrey In The Hurricane, recalls some of the many dramatic events of that night
OCTOBER 16, 1987, is a date that the county will never forget. Thirty years ago this month, Surrey experienced the most terrifying and damaging storm for 284 years. Winds roared at speeds of over 100mph and more than one-and-a-half million trees came crashing down in less than six hours.
The hurricane-force gale sprang up out of the blue shortly after midnight on Thursday October 15. But one newspaper in the east of the county did give a warning of the impending severity of the winds the day before. Surrey Mirror predictions... The Surrey Mirror's weather columnist, Ian Currie, was so concerned at a small depression developing in the Atlantic that he sent a special message to the journal's editor. A headline in the newspaper on the Thursday morning read: "Severe gales warns our weather expert". By 10pm that night, the editorial staff at Reigate were becoming a little concerned - there was still nothing more than a light breeze that barely blew the autumn leaves along the pavement. But Mr Currie, who lives in Coulsdon, gave his reassurance: "It's on its way." Sure enough, by midnight, the winds had risen to such an extent that in Reigate dustbin lids were cart-wheeling along the road and milk bottles were rolling down driveways. Two hours later, all hell had broken loose, as screaming winds tore through the county. Countless trees were already toppling and smashing to the ground with thunderous roars; slates flew from roofs, embedding themselves in lawns; and, on the railways, trains were stranded by hundreds of trees falling across lines. A grinding halt at Merstham... One such train came to a grinding halt at Merstham tunnel after the front struck fallen trees. When eventually the obstructions were cleared, the train was plunged into darkness, so an emergency decision was made to lead some of the passengers half a mile down the track to the safety of Merstham station. From there, a few of them made the dangerous dash home - including Barry Patton who found himself chased by an oak tree blowing along the main A23 Brighton Road as he battled his way back to Redhill. "I had been working at Wapping on a shift for The Sun and was returning home late in the evening," Mr Patton later recalled. "Things were hitting the train, trees were falling and branches were crashing down. It was quite scary, especially when the train came to a halt in the darkness. "When there was a chance to leave the train at Merstham, I decided to make a run for it. I sprinted down the Brighton Road dodging falling branches and then there was a huge scraping sound and I looked round to see an oak tree being blown along the road towards me. I had no choice but to leap out of the way into someone's front garden while the tree passed. It was unreal." The remaining passengers stayed on board in the pitch dark, until eventually another train managed to shunt them back to Merstham, and then Redhill, where many of them sought refuge in the postal sorting office. When the power went off there, they were asked to go back on the train where they tried to sleep on towels laid on the floor. Farncombe drama - from such destruction comes new life... Meanwhile, in Farncombe, near Godalming, another drama was unfolding. Pregnant Jillian Collingwood had gone to bed wondering fearfully whether her baby would arrive on such an awesome night. As she lay listening to the howling winds thrashing the trees in her garden, suddenly her contractions started. She was rushed by a family member to Godalming Ambulance Station at 4am, but the crew were in darkness due to the widespread power cuts. Fortunately, they managed to set up a generator and a midwife was summoned. Then, under a police escort, she was taken to St Luke's hospital, Guildford, where little Thomas was born and weighed in at 8lbs 4oz. "The nurses nicknamed the baby Hurricane Higgins!" Gillian revealed afterwards. West Horsley story... Over in Merrow, Reverend Harry Forder, retired vicar of West Horsley, fell three floors through his house after a huge tree crashed down on the roof. Buried in rubble, he managed to call 999 before the line went dead. "The noise was just like aeroplane engines roaring before an air raid during the war," said Mr Forder at the time. "I expected something to happen, and it did! Suddenly, the attic collapsed on top of us, dropping a beam across my wife while I was hurled to the ground, incredibly, landing in the hall next to the telephone, which worked just long enough for me to dial 999. "Beams and rubble were falling around me. I knew my wife was upstairs but didn't know if she was all right. But I did know that the roof was falling around her and her legs were trapped by beams. Suddenly, she called out and then I knew she was all right." Hanging on at Outwood Mill... At the historic Outwood Mill, near Redhill, owners Gerald and Sheila Thomas were hanging on to the mill's posts for dear life to prevent the mechanism going into overdrive and taking off. If they hadn't managed to keep the sails pointing into the wind, the resistance would have threatened the structure and brought it down. "We hung on to it as best we could but at times it threatened to overpower us," said Sheila, looking back on the frightful night. "We were out there for more than an hour and somehow managed to save it from being damaged."
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On that fateful night, there were perilous escapes all over Surrey's towns, villages and hamlets. At Addlestone, near Chertsey, a large pine sliced through a house, demolishing a bedroom, but miraculously, no one was hurt. However, two garages and five cars were completely squashed. Near Camberley, a gas leak was reported in a house at Windlesham, but the fire crew could not get through the blocked roads. An explosion occurred, ripping the house apart. In the subsequent fire, a crew member was hurt. Over at Carshalton, some 15,000 trees fell in Oaks Park, and a fire crew from Wallington was trapped overnight. They ended up having to seek shelter in a bungalow over the fields. It was the worst storm in Surrey since 1703, during the reign of Queen Anne, but remarkably only two people in the county died. One was a motorist in Croydon; the other, a driver from Beacon Hill, Hindhead, whose car was struck by a falling tree near Petersfield.