Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

PUBLISHED: 13:06 25 September 2012 | UPDATED: 22:00 20 February 2013

Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

Remembering the Great Storm of 1987

On 16 October 1987, the worst storm to hit the UK in almost 300 years devastated large swathes of southern England. Twenty-five years on, we find that the storm and its aftermath changed the four Great Gardens of Sussex forever


Alistair Buchanan, great grandson of Ludwig Messel, had just taken over formal directorship of the garden at Nymans from Lady Rosse when the Great Storm hit on 16 October.

Eighty per cent of the gardens trees were lost, amongst them some of the rarest species, many of the earliest known imported plants and some of the oldest such as the monkey puzzle tree on the Main Lawn. When Alistair arrived he had to abandon his car and climb through the wreckage of the garden.

In the house he found the 85-year-old Lady Rosse, whod thought a blackout was responsible for the lack of power in the building. It transpired that she had seen the monkey puzzle tree coming down from the window of her bedroom.

When the garden team were able to get to Nymans their priority was to open up access especially the Staplefield Road which was littered with trees. They faced unexpected difficulties they were easily disorientated as familiar points of reference were gone and their use of heavy machinery was limited so as not to cause further damage. One of the worst hit areas was the Pinetum where 250 conifers were lost.

Despite the early despair some good was to come out of the devastation. Just a month after the storm, David Masters, the Head Gardener, and his team took a display of foliage and cones to the Royal Horticultural Society show. They were awarded the first gold medal in the gardens history. Cuttings were taken from the fallen trees while they were still fresh and sent to Knightshayes garden and other botanical institutions. The resulting plants were re-introduced into the garden, ensuring the trees were not entirely lost to Nymans.

The devastation was recorded not only in photographs taken by members of the garden team but also in two paintings that were commissioned by the National Trusts Foundation for Art. Liam Thompson and Cherryl Fountain both chose to depict the fallen monkey puzzle tree

In January 1988, the garden opened for one day to allow visitors in to see the stricken garden and the efforts that had been made to remove the damage. Only a few visitors were expected but 3,700 people came to show their support. In the spring of that year every member of the garden team planted an exotic tree to signify the regeneration and Lady Rosse planted a new monkey puzzle tree to replace the one that she had watched coming down. The storm had, in fact, presented new opportunities. Densely planted areas were opened up and new views were created. By the time the garden was due to open in April all evidence of the storm had been cleared away and Nymans opened as usual.

A display telling the story of the Great Storm and celebrating 25 years of Alistair Buchanans position as family representative is in the Cooks Kitchen, near the house, during October and November.

Wakehurst Place

More than 25,000 trees in the renowned botanical gardens and surrounding woodland came crashing down as winds of more than 75mph tore through the country estate of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the early hours.

Centuries old trees fell like matchsticks, countless shrubs were destroyed, familiar views disappeared overnight and it took five years to completely clear the damage. Now, a quarter of a century on, the anniversary is a chance to look back and see how nature has healed itself.

Trees planted on the estate at Ardingly, near Haywards Heath, in the aftermath of the hurricane are now standing up to 50ft tall and a series of new tree collections were created; new features such as the Asian Heath Garden and Iris Dell, created in areas that were devastated, have become much-loved additions to the landscape, and the estate has gone from strength to strength.

This year around 200 new trees are being planted as part of ongoing work to extend Wakehursts collection of trees, as the estate continues to look to the future.

This includes a number of California Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) raised from seed collected on an expedition to the west coast of America in 2007.

During the hurricane, Wakehurst lost almost half of its California Redwoods but their close relation, the Giant Redwood, proved more resilient to the high winds.

Andrew Jackson, Head of Wakehurst Place, said: The ability of nature to restore and recover over that time has been amazing and we have some trees planted after the hurricane, for example eucalyptus trees which were planted in Coates Wood, which are now between 45 and 50ft tall.

Immediately after the storm, garden staff cut a hole in the debris of the fallen trees to make planting spaces in the midst of the carnage they were already looking ahead and began building for the future.

High Beeches

Anne and Edward Boscawen rescued High Beeches Gardens, some 50 years ago. They spent much of their lives enhancing, expanding and preserving the historic and important plant collections at High Beeches Woodland and Water Gardens. The gardens are now in the care of Sarah Bray daughter of the Boscawens, and Anne and Edward Boscawen continue to take a keen interest in the running of High Beeches. These are Annes memories of the Great Storm Storm:

High Beeches is a glorious, carefully designed landscape full of rare and unusual plants particularly the species or wild forms. Massive damage caused by the gale has exposed the gardens to harsher weather and the loss of so many historic and rare trees was dreadful. The destruction was on a scale, previously unknown.

On the positive side, new vistas have been opened up. These gardens, now 100 years old, and extending over some 27 acres, have always been much loved and cherished. On the morning of 17 October 1987, we saw a scene of devastation. We climbed and scrambled round the gardens and assessed the horrific damage.

Within the gardens, six large beech trees, and three old oaks were down, blocking every path. Searching for a special tree, one would find the wreckage round ones feet. In all, 150 specimen trees were down, inside the gardens, and much of the protective North East shelter, were down across the main road including 11 60ft-high spruce trees. We lost our lovely Weeping Spruce, many specimen conifers, and many other treasures. Importantly most of our 200 year old oak trees, forming the framework of the gardens, stood firm. Restoration would be huge task, but not impossible.

All electrics were out, but we did have the telephone. Voices in the dark. Our children came across the fields, with a chainsaw, candles, potatoes, milk, and some energetic young helpers. Soon we were joined by the Historic Houses and Gardens Association and English Heritage.

At that time we owned the gardens, a few fields and some woodland, in total 100 acres. We had no estate or woodland staff to help us and our garden staff of two.

In the dark and pouring rain came two young tree surgeons, looking for work. Are you insured? Let us see your gear, where did you train? They were highly skilled, and worked for us part-time for two years.

We decided that all the 100 native oaks would have to be high pruned, for safety, and for the health of the trees. We had to clear the access paths first ourselves, and clear again around each tree, when the tree surgeons had finished. Everything was carried or trucked out, or chipped and the resulting mulch sprayed on the nearest shrub beds. This was hard work, and it was difficult to keep morale high. It continued to pour with rain, and the electrics were out for two weeks.

We lost many treasures, but we did not lose a maple tree, or a rhododendron. We also received many gifts of interesting, often wild, collected species.

This rejuvenated and much increased the plant collection. Because we did not use heavy machines, we preserved the topsoil, and the native flora, especially the bluebells, flourished immediately. All the fences were down, giving rabbits, until then fairly well controlled, free range, and 100 metres of roadside fence had to be replaced as soon as possible.

Today, the gardens are more beautiful than ever, the buildings restored, and they now include a flourishing Restaurant and Tea Garden. The young people have taken over the management of the gardens, and the memories of that dreadful time are fading.

Borde Hill Estate

Borde Hill Estate, on the High Weald of Mid Sussex, is made of a combination of traditional arable and livestock farms, country cottages, houses and barns as well as the world famous gardens. Whilst remarkably, not a single tree fell directly onto any buildings, an agricultural barn was bodily blown over by the wind and landed on its roof in a nearby field. Many people on the Estate were trapped in their homes and the garden team worked tirelessly to clear the debris and free them.

Throughout southern England an estimated 15 million trees were lost and, in a single night, the storm fundamentally changed the character, structure and ambience of the garden, parkland and woodlands at Borde Hill. Thousands of trees were felled and many more were damaged and destined to die over the subsequent months and years.

One complete woodland was lost (ironically called Flat Wood) and others, including Tolls Wood, the Pinetum and Warren Wood were severely damaged. Many more new and exciting trees have been planted since the hurricane; continuing the planting tradition at Borde Hill.

Each year we add to the tree collection, providing interest for future generations, said Andy Stevens, Head Gardener. Although the storm caused great loss, one of the benefits resulted from the loss of the Pinetum it revealed the Great Ouse Valley Viaduct, which was obscured for many years by evergreens.

The view of the Viaduct is one of the great features at Borde Hill.

Visiting the gardens

High Beeches: Open every day except Wednesday, 1-5pm until 31 October. Group visits and guided tours by appointment. Admission: adult 6.50, child (under 14) free

Borde Hill Garden: Balcombe Road, Haywards Heath RH16 1XP Tel: 01444 884121
Open daily from 10 March to 4 November, from 10am with last admission at 5pm and closing at 6pm, or dusk if earlier.
Admission: adult 8, child 5

Nymans Handcross, near Haywards Heath, RH17 6EB. Tel: 01444 405250.Open daily from 10am with last admission at 4.30 and closing at 6pm or dusk if earlier. Adult 9, child 4.50

Wakehurst Place: Ardingly, Haywards Heath, RH17 6TN
Tel: 01444 894066.
Open daily from 10am to 6pm, last admission 5pm. Admission: adult 12, child (under 17) free

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