Suffolk/Essex: The Great Storm remembered

It arrived without warning – a once-in-a-lifetime freak of nature that slipped in under cover of darkness to wreak havoc. 25 years ago tonight the Great Storm hit East Anglia.

THE hero of the hour was Barclay, the Old English sheepdog so named because he was bought with a Barclaycard . . .

Unfortunately, the events that led to his moment of glory on October 15, 1987 were no laughing matter, however, as frightening gales swept north-east from the English Channel, bringing havoc and so nearly claiming the life of Ipswich teenager Tracy Sharman. The early hours of Friday, October 16, 1987 are etched on the mind of her stepfather, Jack Clarke. “What I remember about that night is my wife woke me up and said ‘The house is shaking . . . I think I’ll get the children up,’” he told the EADT this week. “I said ‘Well, it does sound a bit rough out there, but if they can sleep through it, let them sleep through it.’

“Then Tracy came into our bedroom and said ‘Mum, I can’t sleep’, and then . . . wrrrugghff! She’d hardly finished that sentence. If she’d stayed in her bed . . . I don’t know, 30 seconds . . . the tree would have landed on her.”

The 80ft beech had stood in Chantry Park, bordering the family’s property.

“And the thing that woke her up, it wasn’t the wind; it was the dog. That was the marvellous thing about it,” says Jack.

Branches and debris were strewn across the 19-year-old’s room.

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Her shaken mother, Margaret, told the EADT later that day: “If Tracy had not come into my bedroom I don’t like to think what would have happened . . . she would have been under that tree.”

Tracy today lives and works on the Suffolk coast. This is what she recalls of those scary early hours.

“I was asleep. Barclay kept coming in the room and nudging me. He didn’t normally come in, panting. I woke up and thought ‘What’s that noise?’ – there was a lot of knocking on the windows – and thought ‘Shall I look out the window?’ I didn’t. I can remember going into my mother’s bedroom and, as soon as I sat on the bed, the tree came crashing down in my room.

“Really, if it wasn’t for the dog . . .”

She didn’t have her bedroom back for six months. “I couldn’t even look inside until the loss adjusters came round, and people like that.” Instead, she went to stay at her boyfriend’s parents’ home in Hadleigh while the house was repaired.

Nationally, the storm cost an estimated �1 billion in repairs and clear-up costs. Hundreds of people were hurt and about 15 million trees were wrecked during those hours of mayhem, when winds hit 115mph and took a slumbering population by surprise. By the time most people turned in on the Thursday night, the chance of exceptionally strong winds had not even been mooted on forecasts.

The EADT’s Saturday headline summed it up perfectly: Devastation.

“Storm-battered East Anglia was last night a scene of chaos and devastation after being torn-apart by hurricane-force winds,” it read. “Suffolk and Essex were paralysed as 100mph winds smashed through towns and villages already reeling from a series of freak storms.

“Millions of pounds worth of damage was caused as homes were flattened, roads closed and whole communities left without electricity, water or telephones.

“Rail and bus services came to a halt, schools were shut and television screens were blank as the worst gales for 40 years created havoc.”

Other reports called the phenomenon the worst hurricane-force winds in southern England since records began.

Locally, police issued a “stay at home” warning as falling trees and power cables turned roads into danger zones. Countless people had lucky escapes and police said “It is a miracle no-one has been killed.” Certainly on the county’s roads, where several lorry drivers survived trees either striking their vehicles or making the lorries overturn.

The weather forecast for East Anglia had predicted only moderate north-westerly winds late on the Thursday.

The Met Office admitted it had been taken by surprise and launched an inquiry. But a spokesman stressed the storm, a “once-in-a-lifetime event”, had been difficult to forecast because of its constantly-changing movements. It had been expected to travel no further north than the English Channel, but in the early hours of Friday began to batter areas from Cornwall to East Anglia.

Stansted weather centre data showed how sudden was the change. The average wind speed at 11pm on the Thursday was just 5mph, rising to 45mph at 5.30am on Friday. Gusts had reached 57mph – storm force –just after 3am and peaked at 75mph at 7am. That’s hurricane force 12.

It was a devastating blow for parts of East Anglia, which were already coping with months of wet weather. Hours of torrential rain on the Thursday cut off villages, with an inch of rain falling on some areas. Suffolk police took a record 295 reports of flooding.

Worst hit was the River Gipping valley, where Anglian Water issued a major alert just after 6pm on the Thursday. Householders in Regent Street and Cardinall Road, Stowmarket, moved possessions upstairs and tried to protect homes with sandbags.

And then The Great Storm swept in.

Trees fell onto roads and railway tracks, paralysing much of the country. Electricity and phone lines came down, leaving thousands of homes without power for hours and sometimes days. In north Suffolk, for instance, electricity was cut to Saxmundham, Aldeburgh, Beccles, Snape, Knodishall, Friston and Southwold. Virtually every road in the north of the county was blocked during the Friday morning.

Police warned people not to touch fallen cables. Inspector Owen Lower, in charge of Leiston police station, said there had been several incidents of people propping up lines with tree branches. “It is the height of stupidity.” At West End nurseries in Leiston, Ron Geater surveyed �10,000-plus of damage to his greenhouses and the destruction of 70% of the plants. A 15ft brick wall at the Black Lion pub in Leiston was blown over, burying a car belonging to pub cleaner Marlene Bridges.

Every neighbourhood had a tale to tell of a lucky escape. At The Common, Southwold, live-in nurse Margaret Burlie had a heavy Victorian chimney collapse into a bedroom next to her. “Had it fallen the other way, I would have been lying beneath the rubble.” A woman was taken to hospital after being hit by a fallen tree near Gate House Farm, Hoxne. Jean Howlett, 49, of Syleham, suffered leg and abdominal injuries. Co-op milkman Keith Joy had delivered milk to Stutton, south of Ipswich, and was on his way to Brantham when he found his way blocked. He turned back, but near Stutton Hall two large fir trees smashed down across the road, two feet in front of him. The 40-year-old left his float to get help . . . and returned to find his vehicle a mangled wreck after being demolished by another downed tree.

At Stutton service station, winds ripped a 30ft steel canopy from its concrete mounting. It crushed two cars. One man was treated at West Suffolk Hospital, Bury St Edmunds, for hand injuries after his car was hit by a tree in Sicklesmere Road, Bury, and two cows were killed by a falling tree at Nowton. A third had to be destroyed.

A couple in Ipswich just avoided being buried under piles of rubble when their roof collapsed as they lay in bed. Donald and June Laplace, of Rendlesham Road, were woken by a crash, followed by bricks, plasterboard and tiles falling on their bed.

Hearing their screams, son Sinclair, 21, pulled them to safety before the rest of the ceiling and roof fell in.

“It was incredible,” he said. “I opened my parents’ bedroom door and all I could see were clouds of dust and rubble on their bed. My mother was trapped under a pile of bricks and plasterboard, but we managed to get her out of the bed. The lights in the house went out and as we were about to go downstairs the ceiling above the stairs collapsed and we had to stand against the wall to avoid being hit by falling debris.” Donald, 63, and his 56-year-old wife escaped with cuts and bruises. Pensioners Basil Gladden, 66, and wife Henrietta, 70, were in bed when the chimney of their home in Wherstead Road, Ipswich, was blown through the roof.

Basil said it was the fact they had a new roof that stopped them being seriously hurt. “The chimney just rested in the rafters above our bedroom. We both think we are lucky to be alive.” He added: “We were planning to go on holiday to Vienna tomorrow, but we will have to cancel that until we can get the hole in our roof fixed.”

A number of homes in west Suffolk suffered direct hits – such as two houses in Woodlands Way, Mildenhall, which had their roofs badly damaged. Audrey Black, the 13-year-old daughter of an American serviceman, witnessed a massive oak crashing against the home of near-neighbours.

Annbrook Road in Ipswich was a scene of devastation as Friday morning dawned. The winds ripped flat roofs off five houses, with the debris crushing cars and littering the street.

Motor mechanic Esker Bobo, an American working at RAF Bentwaters, was in the road at 5am after two roofs had blown off. He heard a loud crack. “Then I saw my roof lifting off. I just turned round and made a mad dash for life.”

“I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “I thought this kind of stuff only happened in the States.”

Boats were plucked from their moorings on the Deben, being holed or smashed against each other. “It’s been chaos here,” said a police inspector. The main routes into Woodbridge were blocked by fallen trees. At least three churches were wrecked, including the Baptist chapel at Cransford.

There was substantial damage to homes near the seafront in the Landguard area of Felixstowe, with many gable ends demolished, garages wrecked and roads strewn with bricks and slates. In Trimley St Martin, almost all the roof and half the walls of the Methodist Chapel were destroyed. It had celebrated its centenary the previous year.

Damage estimated at more than �100,000 was caused at Ipswich Airport. Buildings were destroyed and planes overturned. Operations manager Neil Pascoe said nine light aircraft had been damaged, two almost certainly beyond repair. The headquarters of Ipswich Parachute Centre were destroyed, with only part of the walls still standing.

In Essex, the roof of St Joseph’s primary school in Harwich was “sucked into the air,” said a county council spokesman. Walton-on-the-Naze Coastguard was inundated with calls from marinas as hundreds of craft drifted out to sea or along rivers. A lifeboat that went to the rescue of a yacht measured the wind at 90 knots.

The 650 passengers on Sealink’s St Nicholas ferry had to wait five hours before they could step on dry land. The ferry rode out the storm by mooring at the harbour entrance. One seaman said: “It just seemed as though we were on the rollercoaster at Yarmouth, up and down like a yo-yo. It was really rough.”

Damage to power lines cut off electricity to thousands of Essex homes, and stopped pumping stations working, meaning much of the county had no fresh water supply. Braintree, Cressing, Harwich, Clacton and parts of Colchester saw pipes begin to run dry. Householders were urged to conserve water. The authorities in Essex were stretched to breaking point by pleas for help from the public that began at 6am and started to abate only four hours later.

Witham police were out of radio contact with their patrol cars for most of the day after transmitters were affected by electrical faults and an emergency generator failed.

At one point on the Friday the office was lit by Tilley lamps.

Braintree council set up an emergency unit to take calls. A spokesman said: “It is chaos here. We have got calls coming in literally every second.” In Colchester, the army helped shift heavy trees blocking roads. In Military Road, bricks and rubble from the wall of a flat crashed onto the forecourt of a neighbouring car showroom, causing damage put at �12,000. Occupants Sharon and Vincent Clarke fled to safety with their young son and baby.

Fourteen students at the University of Essex were evacuated when the roof of a two-storey building caved in. Numerous windows were also smashed in the university’s 14-storey tower blocks, and about 100 trees on the campus were uprooted.

The Orwell Bridge at Ipswich was closed the day after the storm, after two lorries toppled over – the container of one of them straddling both carriageways. Diesel flooded the road. Infrastructure was under pressure. The phone system threatened to collapse under the sheer weight of calls. By 4pm, 2,500 faults in Colchester had been logged by BT, five times the normal Friday average. East Anglia’s rail network was paralysed, with officials saying there was no hope of restoring normal services until after the weekend. Hundreds of British Rail workers had toiled through the night in an effort to remedy problems at 160 different locations.

No trains to East Anglia ran from London’s Liverpool Street, and the Lowestoft to Norwich line was the only local service that managed to operate.

Folk pitched in across the region. In north Suffolk, for example, people turned out with chainsaws and other tools to help the emergency services clear roads and to run errands for older folk.

At Eye, butcher Alan Cooper heated water in a boiler so locals could fill flasks. One resident said: “We were completely cut off this morning, but it tends to bring the old Dunkirk spirit out.”

By Friday night there were still problems with the supply in the county. Eastern Electricity declared a “board-wide” emergency for the first time in 40 years. Most of Felixstowe spent much of the day without power – efforts to restore supply hampered by heavy rain. Even the board’s headquarters at Wherstead, outside Ipswich, lost power until Friday lunchtime. Engineers drew up plans to work round the clock during the weekend. Extra help from North West Electricity Board – 24 two-men teams – was drafted in to assist the 250,000 staff already had working across the region.

The storms caused plenty of drama at sea.

Fears that a chemical tanker could explode led to the closure of Felixstowe port for nearly four hours and thousands of people to be evacuated or turned away.

The 1,300-ton Silverfalcon was loaded with a potential time-bomb of industrial chemicals. Gales tore it from the oil jetty, with 13 officers and crew on board. There were fears toxic gases could seep from the vessel and drift inland. She was actually holed in three places above the waterline: in the engine room, in a store, and – without puncturing the inner skin of the double hull – near a cargo tank.

Eventually, she was taken in tow to Ipswich.

They were days no-one will forget.

See the storms section above for more coverage of the 1987 storm. Send your memories via