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National Trust marks thirty years since the Great Storm

Three decades on, the effects endure in the landscapes – and memories – of places caught up in the eye of the Great Storm.

Between 2am and 6am on 16 October 1987, winds reaching up to 110mph ripped across the South East, devastating homes, woods and gardens in its path.

For the National Trust, it meant the loss of hundreds of thousands of trees across 3,000 acres of land.

Rangers and gardeners who witnessed the devastation first-hand found it hard to bear.

“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 percent of its woodland.

“There were trees sticking up like totem poles”.

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Stark statistics

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

Toys Hill in Kent, the former home of National Trust founder Octavia Hill, lost 98 percent of its trees. Fallen timber piled 40 feet high and a 245-year-old Lebanon cedar tree was strewn across the grounds of Petworth, West Sussex.

At Slindon, in the South Downs, near Arundel, the Great Storm brought down a 200-year-old beech grove.

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

A force of nature

The Great Storm, though devastating, was a natural occurrence – the last of which took place in 1706.

“This is significant,” says Tom. “In the time since, we’ve witnessed the natural response to this kind of phenomenon in the way that nature has healed and restored itself, alongside the extensive conservation carried out by our teams.”

The Storm and its aftermath was a chance for the Trust to re-evaluate the way it works in the outdoors and manages its woodlands.

From the wreckage emerged new thinking and lessons that continue to evolve in the charity’s care and conservation work today.

At Toys Hill for example, some of the devastated areas were cleared, others were replanted, following clearance, and a non-intervention zone was left alone to regenerate naturally.

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In the untouched areas, trees that seeded naturally were allowed to grow and, in many cases, are developing faster than those that were planted.

Light allowed in by the removal of so much of the canopy caused dormant seeds to burst into life, including native clematis, honeysuckle and heather (unseen in the area for more than a century).

Birds and dormice also benefited in the aftermath. The woodlark and nightjar population increased, and little owls, tawny owls, buzzards, hobbies and sparrow hawks exploited the more open woodland.

Tom continues, “Today, we work more closely with natural ecological processes and, where possible, will allow damaged woodland to regenerate naturally. The National Trust looks after more than 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of woodland, 36% of which is in London and the South East, so it’s vital that we continue to evolve our approach to woodland management to help it to thrive.”

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A different view

Nature remains a priority for the conservation charity and the National Trust continues to care for landscapes and manage them for people to enjoy too.

New views opened up by the Storm at places like Chartwell and Scotney Castle form the backdrop to countless country walks and picnics.

Fallen trees exposed tree rings hidden for centuries, enabling the Trust to date them and reveal more about the history of the special places in its care.

Work to safeguard their 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.

The rare species will be cultivated, used in other gardens and kept as security for years to come.

“It’s the first time in 24 years anything’s gone from us to the centre,” says Alan. “Should we lose a plant at Emmetts we’ll always have the original.”

Thirty years on, the determination of people and nature to not only survive but adapt and thrive after the storm endures.

They are watched approvingly by the few trees that predate the storm at Chartwell, Kent, rising in silent memorial above the canopy.

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