Rising from the eye of the Great Storm

Aerial view of storm damage at Toys Hill, Kent, after the 1987 storm

This October marks thirty years since the Great Storm wreaked havoc across the South East. The Trust lost hundreds of thousands of trees across 3,000 acres of woodland. Three decades on, the effects endure in the landscapes and memories of places caught up in the eye of the storm.

‘It was a battle zone’ says gardener Alan Comb. He started work at Emmetts Garden, Kent, a week after the plantsman’s paradise lost 95 per cent of its woodland. ‘There were trees sticking up like totem poles’.

Emmetts Garden was left looking like a battle zone
Damage caused by Great Storm, October 1987, at Emmetts Garden, Kent

Stark statistics

Alan’s tale is echoed across Kent, Sussex and Surrey, home to some of the worst-hit areas. 

Toys Hill in Kent, gifted to the Trust by founder Octavia Hill, lost 98 per cent of its trees. A 245-year-old Lebanon cedar tree was strewn across the grounds of Petworth, West Sussex. Thousands of beech trees at the historic Slindon Estate, East Sussex, were crushed. 

For National Trust rangers who witnessed the devastation, it was hard to bear. Then Peak District ranger Charlie Cain visited Slindon days afterwards. ‘I walked across the park. It should’ve taken just 20 minutes, but after two-and-a-half hours climbing through and under trees I was in tears.’

At Chartwell, the hill behind the house and garden lost most of its trees in the storm
Damage to the trees around the lake caused by the storm in 1987 at Chartwell, Kent

An unprecedented rescue mission was launched, with an emergency appeal raising millions in six weeks. 

A force of nature 

Tom Hill, National Trust Trees & Woodland Officer in the South East, explains ‘It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the damage. The statistics can’t do justice to the heartache of our rangers, gardeners, volunteers and communities as they woke up to a scene of chaos on 16 October 1987.’

From the wreckage, though, emerged new thinking and lessons that continue to evolve in our care and conservation work today.

The Great Storm, though devastating, was a natural occurrence. ‘This is significant’ says Tom. ‘In the time since, we’ve witnessed the cycle of this natural phenomenon in the way that nature has healed and restored itself, alongside the extensive conservation carried out by our teams.’

At Knole many of the sweet chestnuts and other traditional trees were lost in the storm
Aerial photography of areas damaged by the Great Storm in 1987 at Knole, Kent

Different views

Nature remains our priority as we continue to manage the landscapes for people to enjoy. Around 25,000 trees were re-planted at Petworth. At Emmetts, a badly damaged handkerchief tree was winched upright and still stands strong today. 

New views opened up by the Storm at places like Chartwell and Scotney Castle now form the backdrop to countless country walks and picnics. Fallen trees exposed tree rings hidden for centuries, enabling us to date them and reveal more about the history of the special places we care for.

Work to safeguard the future is underway too. At Emmetts Garden the thinning out of flower beds, over-planted after the Storm, has provided around 1,200 cuttings for the National Trust’s Plant Conservation Centre. These rare species will be cultivated, used in other gardens and kept as security for years to come.

Unexpected winners

With time, there were unexpected winners in wildlife. At Slindon, hazel dormice and a globally-rare false click beetle thrived in new habitats created by the storm.

At Scotney Castle 400-500 year old sweet chestnuts were lost in the storm, some narrowly missing the house
Scotney Castle, Kent, affected by the Great Storm in October 1987

It was also a chance to re-evaluate the way we work with nature.  At Toys Hill, an exclusion zone around storm-damaged woodland was put in place. This has enabled our team to monitor the area’s natural recovery compared to those that were more closely managed post-storm.

‘It’s a bit wilder and there’s more deadwood’ says area ranger Chris Heels. Trees that seeded naturally have been seen to develop faster than those planted too.

Thirty years on, the determination of people and nature to not only survive but thrive after the storm endures. They’re watched approvingly by the few trees that predate the storm at Chartwell, Kent, rising in silent memorial above the canopy.