Fringe Box



Sleeping Through the Great Storm

Published on: 16 Oct, 2012
Updated on: 19 Oct, 2012

‘A woman has rung in and said a hurricane is on the way…’

By Malcolm Wyatt

With the wind howling, rain swirling, leaves taking flight, the paths treacherous and the homemade wooden contraption in the front-room chimney breast clunking away in harmony with my typing, autumn met winter on October 16th, 2012, in my corner of Lancashire.

On days like these, it would be nice to avoid the school run. But then again, it’s only a bit of weather, and as us old gits say, “Call this bad? Why, back in ’87 ….”

Yes, it’s 25 years since that fateful night Mother Nature dealt us The Great Storm, which ripped up Southern England and tossed it back in a different form. It was the kind of severe weather pattern we tend to hear about whipping across the US eastern seaboard rather than the bottom corner of the UK. And on the night of October 15th/16th, 1987, it just happened to tear through my old neck of the woods in rural Surrey.

Everyone recalls Michael Fish’s weather forecast that previous night, the poor man later pilloried and hung out to dry (so to speak), wrongly so as it turned out. The rest is history. What was expected to be something ‘a little breezy up the channel’ turned out very different.

The pictures that came in over that next day or so let us know just what had happened that night – with countless scenes of devastation, caravan sites crushed, vehicles tossed aside, roofs ripped off, houses wrecked beyond repair and not safe to go near, once-mighty trees sprawled across main thoroughfares, and lots of casualties and fatalities, on a night in which it was estimated that  the emergency services received the equivalent of four months’ worth of calls.

It proved to be a busy night at the London Weather Centre as operations to redress the damage – metaphorical and physical – kicked in and forecasters did their best to get the message out. But of course it was all too late. The storm was heading the way of the capital, brushing aside those southern counties on the way, with London soon powerless and the almost-inevitable sporadic looting reported.

Meanwhile, the storm ripped the roots off age-old trees, sucking them out of the ground and hurling them around like angry giants, with every major road and rail route blocked and no respite until the storm petered out somewhere across the North Sea later that morning.

By then we’d lost around 15 million trees – whereas Dutch Elm disease accounted for 10 million. It was also estimated that 90% of forestation in the south-east had been destroyed, and it took many more days before our telephone lines and power were back on, let alone until every road and train route was open again.

What a night. For those who don’t know the full story, it was billed as the worst storm on these shores in 300 years, four times the size of a hurricane, with winds of up to 110mph recorded. It killed 19 people, including two firemen out on a rescue, and changed the face of Britain forever, not least as Sevenoaks in Kent became for all intents and purposes Oak, the century-old Shanklin Pier was reduced to driftwood, and Sealink ferry MV Mengist was blown ashore at Folkestone. The storm was reportedly responsible for the deaths of 23 people, including two seamen in Dover Harbour and two firemen in Dorset killed as they answered an emergency call, with an estimated £2 billion in insurance claims to follow.

I’ve just looked at an old diary, and was reminded I’d planned to see a band at the Greyhound in Fulham that Thursday. I decided against it late on, not least as I was off to see The Wedding Present at the University of London on Friday. And there was certainly plenty to gaze at in horrified wonder at on the way up the A3 that night.  Besides, there was no telly to watch for the rest of the week, the Hog’s Back transmitter down.

I did make it to the Fulham Greyhound three weeks later, and on that occasion freak weather conditions hit the south-east again, with it taking us more than two hours to get home to Guildford because of the thickest fog I’d ever encountered, the A3 closed by the police for safety reasons and us forced to use the old London Road instead. I remember at one point going three times around a roundabout before I could see enough of my exit to head off towards it. Scary stuff.

On that occasion I got home and told my tale – full of it – only to be verbally slapped down by my Mum, who was quick to let me know that The Great Fog of 1987 (everything was great in those days!) had nothing on the old pea-soupers she was brought up with in the ’30, ’40s and ’50s. And here I am now, 25 years on, letting my own children know they ain’t seen nothing yet compared to what I encountered.

Not true of course. Freak conditions remain with us, and I was, after all, the bloke who slept through The Great Storm of ’87. Surely not? Well, this is where I should add a story of derring-do, rescuing calves trapped by fallen trees, stopping traffic from driving towards ravines and fallen electricity pylons, delivering a baby in the back of a beaten-up Ford Escort Mk II. But the truth of it was a little more mundane.

That night, I was flagging after a punishing week, and when I woke in the middle of the night – with the wind howling into my bedroom – my 19-year-old self stumbled out of bed, reached up to the top window and slammed it shut, quickly falling back into a deep sleep, only waking up when the alarm went off around seven.

Even when I heard my Mum listening to local radio, I wasn’t fully aware of what had gone on. Despite word of reporters telling of trees blocking roads, I was soon on my way, taking no more precautions other than deciding against taking my trusty racer the three miles to the other side of Guildford, instead taking my car.

Yet within a mile of the house I was fully aware of what I’d slept through and wondered just how I’d managed that, with the mightiest oaks felled and straddled across roads, saws buzzing as sections were cut up around me, forced to take a fair few diversions in post-apocalyptic scenes.

Needless to say, I was one of the few who showed up at work that day. It took a few days to get back to normal, and some used the excuse to have at least a couple of days off. But as in all these dramatic weather situations, I was pleased to see the Spirit of the Blitz alive and well in Guildford, not least in the shape of the wideboy postman driver at my sorting office base offering ‘chainsaws for hire – competitive rates assured.’

Freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt is a former Guildford County School pupil and Shalford resident who moved to Lancashire in 1994 but still regularly returns to his home town to visit family, friends and old haunts. For further examples of his work – and a longer version of this article – visit

Martin Giles adds his recollection…

I was living in a flat in Chaucer Court, Lawn Road. I had slept soundly, hearing nothing, but rose early to travel up to Heathrow where, at the time, I worked as an Immigration Officer. I was on early turn, it was about 5am. I noticed nothing in the courtyard where my car was parked, so I jumped in and turned on the radio. Nothing. I tried another station. Nothing. “Damned radio,” I thought. “Another bill to get it fixed probably.”

I set off. As I turned on to the Portsmouth Road I thought it seemed a bit windy. By the time I got to Stoke Road approaching Stoke Church (that stretch of road was still like a mini dual-carriageway in those days) I realised that it really was quite unusually windy. I went on to the A3. Some of the trees on the verges seemed to be bending almost double in the wind.

“Good,” I thought. “Heathrow might be closed.” With no flights I might have a quiet morning and catch up with some paperwork. Then I noticed some tail lights in front. They appeared static on the near-side lane. “What damned fool has stopped there?” I thought. The damned fool was a police officer who was not a fool at all. He had parked his car so that its headlights were illuminating a tree that had fallen onto the road. I could have easily driven into it if it had not been lit up.

I proceeded even more carefully. The radio came to life and I started to hear non stop reports of the weather. There had even been fatalities. Sevenoaks was now misnamed. “Hmmm,” I thought “this seems quite serious.” I drove on, turning on to the M25. I don’t recall any further incidents.

At the bus stop in the North Side staff car park everyone was behaving with typically British sang froid. With the wind still blustering around us we all stood in the bus queue disdaining conversation. But I think some of the air crew girls were a bit anxious about their hair dos.

I thought there were less staff around than usual but stupidly still did not associate it with the weather. When I got to my office the duty Chief Immigration Officer seemed surprised but very pleased to see me.

“You made it!” he said. He saw my frown. “Most haven’t,” he said, adding, “I thought you lived out in the sticks?”

“Guildford,” I replied.

“Blimey!,” he said, as if I had just driven in from Inverness.

I shrugged as if tackling nation stopping obstacles was an everyday occurrence for us Guildford bumpkins and went on duty. It had not, luckily for me maybe, been a big deal and, I seem to remember that, despite the weather, flights did soon start arriving.

We need photos to go with these memories. Do you have any? If so please email them with any comment to Or if you just have no photo just a memory of the Great Storm you would like to share, please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ box below. Your email address will not be revealed.

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Responses to Sleeping Through the Great Storm

  1. Fiona White

    October 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    I was one of the people who slept through the Great Storm. I had no idea what had happened until I woke up and found that we had no electricity to the house. The radio worked (batteries) so at least I had an idea of the extent of the damage but it wasn’t until I took my kids to school and then went on to work that I realised how bad it was. In those days I was a conveyancer with a firm of solicitors. Friday was completions day and the banks were not able to transfer money so conveyancers for whole chains had to agree to meet up with bank drafts at one office where the completions took place the old fashioned way. I am pleased to say all my clients completed their sales and purchases.

    The other memory is that I had acted for an elderly lady client who moved out of a bungalow high up on a hill into a purpose built flat on the day before the storm hit. She slept safe and sound but the people who had bought her property were woken by a tree falling through the roof! I am pleased to say no-one was hurt.

  2. Roger Smith

    October 19, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    I had driven my daughter and her friend to a “Wet, Wet, Wet” concert in Hammersmith that evening. Rather apt, I guess. I was lucky, I was driving a Triumph Stag, a heavy and powerful car. But coming back to Guildford in the early hours via the A3 was unreal. At one stage we were in the outside lane when a tree blew across the road in front of us and our car was moved to the nearside lane by the wind. We got home safely and went to bed at about 01.30.

    I was woken at 05.30 by a ‘phone call. At the time I managed the 24/7 South East Trunk Telephone Network Management Centre for B.T. located in the Guildford Exchange, although the managers and staff were drawn from right across SE England.

    Very few staff could get to work, and those at work overnight were stranded. The Trunk Network was threatening chaos, and we had lost Sevenoaks Trunk exchange, while others were also at risk.

    I walked to work! The staff on night duty then stayed on, and were booked into local hotels. Those trapped at home were deployed to manage the most critical problems near their locations, and the SE Trunk Network was back fully working by lunchtime. I really had a great team then!

  3. Graham Collyer

    October 20, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    The aftermath of the Great Storm became all too apparent when I attempted to leave my then home in Hindhead for the offices of the Surrey Advertiser in Guildford, where I was the editor. As one of my sons needed to get to college in Farnham my journey was always going to take a little longer than usual, and I quickly realised that it was going to take several hours before I reached Martyr Road.
    Leaving Hindhead in the direction of Farnham took an age. Eventually, we joined a queue behind a motorist with a chain saw, and made slow progress down the hill to the Pride of the Valley inn and on to Tilford, all the while collecting more vehicles and hearing the sound of more chain saws.
    The onward journey from Farnham would normally have been across the Hog’s Back, but I think I must have attempted to reach my parents’ home at Elstead without success. Instead I travelled via Cutt Mill and Puttenham and out to the A3 at Compton. Everywhere great trees that I had admired since I was a boy had been ripped out of the ground. Old friends had simply been torn to shreds.
    When I reached the Surrey Ad, colleagues were sharing their journey experiences and these then formed the basis for our Great Storm special edition published the following week.
    Twelve years earlier, when living in New Zealand’s South Island,we experienced a winter storm with winds up to 165kph which brought down whole forests and did untold damage to property. Fortunately, it occurred mainly during the hours of darkness, otherwise there surely would have been fatalities.