The Great Storm - 30 years on at Blickling

Blickling Hall with a tree in the foreground

The Great Storm of 1987 was the worst storm to hit the UK in nearly 300 years. In the early hours of the morning on October 16, hurricane force winds claimed 18 lives in England. At Blickling in Norfolk, the garden team awoke to a scene of devastation on an unprecedented scale.

A scene of devastation...

With the highest wind gusts of 122 mph recorded at Gorleston in Norfolk, it was the storm that the Met Office were heavily criticized for failing to predict - with weather forecaster Michael Fish famously dismissing worries that a severe weather storm was on the way. 

Storm damage on Blickling Estate
Trees damaged by the Great Storm
Storm damage on Blickling Estate
A rude awakening...

For Stephen Hagon, who is now assistant head gardener on the Blickling Estate, it would be a morning he would never forget. 

"That morning I was woken by a phone call, rather than the sounds of my alarm clock. I’d remarkably slept through the storm that had battered on outside and mine was one of 250,000 homes in the region without power. As you can imagine, I got up and looked outside and couldn’t quite believe my eyes, as a piece of corrugated iron from next doors shed flew past the window!"


Heart breaking scenes

Stephen, who has been a gardener at Blickling for 45 years, didn’t make it into Blickling until lunchtime that day and the scene that faced him was heart breaking. Stephen shares his memories of that day and the clear-up operation that followed.

The then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, called it the "worst, most widespread night of disaster” since the Blitz. Whilst most of England and Wales experienced wet and windy weather that night, it was southern and eastern parts of England that were the worst hit.

265 trees were lost that night
265 trees were brought down by the Great Storm at Blickling
Trees brought down in the Great Storm
265 trees were brought down by the Great Storm at Blickling

Hurricane-force winds had battered their way through Norfolk and Blickling was directly in their path. In total a staggering 265 trees were brought down on the Blickling Estate. 

" As we walked around the estate, it didn’t take long to grasp the scale of the damage and scene of devastation. It was heart breaking, for many of the old boys, they were almost in tears to see the woodland they’d cared for now destroyed."
- Stephen Hagon

In total an estimated 15 million trees were lost around the country, with 600,000 cubic metres of woodland wiped out in Norfolk and Suffolk. And six of the seven oak trees after which the town of Sevenoaks in Kent is named, were blown down.

The hard work then began...

A team of eight National Trust gardeners and contractors then had the difficult task of clearing up the damage.

As they headed into winter and with heavy machinery to move the trees, it was a cold and muddy job that took two years to complete. With large areas closed off to visitors and a skeleton team of two left to maintain the herbaceous borders it was a challenging time. 

An aerial view of Blickling Estate today
An aerial view of Blickling Estate today
An aerial view of Blickling Estate today

Blickling’s re-birth

Today, you can walk along the avenues of trees that now stand 50 feet tall and you’d be none the wiser that they were planted to replace the trees that were lost. Stephen knows of course. 

As well as clearing up the fallen trees, re-seeding areas of grass, re-planting low lying vegetation and spring bulbs, the team went about re-planting the trees in the same positions that they had fallen, using the opportunity to fill in gaps where other trees had been lost over the years. 

In total 365 trees were planted, one for each day of the year.