30 years on from Low M: the Great Storm

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Great Storm. Some 18 people were killed as winds gusting to nearly 100mph affected London and the South East. Around 15 million trees were lost with Sevenoaks in Kent losing six of its seven historic trees.

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Courtesy of the Met Office

The rapid development of ‘Low M’ took forecasters by surprise, the favoured outcome was for the low to move up through Brittany, remaining in or to the south of the English Channel.

I was living in a fairly sheltered corner of the London borough of Havering in 1987. I remember heavy rain just before midnight, around three hours before the storm reached its height, was heavy enough to send water trickling into my room, thanks to an overflowing roof valley. I thought it strange that Michael Fish hadn’t mentioned its severity in his lunchtime forecast.

I was awoken around 3.30am by a loud crash. Looking out the window I saw two dustbins flying down the road. You could sense each gust building in strength – the next dislodged a roof tile, sending it crashing on to the family car. By this point my mum and sister had awoken, my sister swearing she could feel the whole house moving: Mum ordered us downstairs. By this point the power had gone off and we sat listening to a small battery-operated transistor radio. We listened to updates from BBC Radio London where, like most other people, nobody knew what the hell was going on. The storm continued and first light gradually revealed the damage in the garden – a couple of trees over and next-door’s shed on its side; nothing compared to the rest of the region. But the disruption meant I didn’t attend school that day.

The storm was obviously a weather nut’s dream, and following so close on the heels of the coldest January I can remember. John Hall, of Surrey, can remember the storm well: “I’m not normally a very heavy sleeper, but I somehow managed to sleep through the worst of it (in Cranleigh, then as now).

“It was still windy when I woke around 7 am, but presumably not nearly as much as it had been earlier. By some miracle we still had mains power, and it was only when I switched on the radio and there was no sign of Radio 4 that I realised that something was up. (I assume the transmitter must have been damaged.) I walked the half-mile to the centre of the village to get my morning paper and then to catch the bus to Guildford station for my journey to work.

“It was only then that I learnt from the newsagent that there were no papers and wouldn’t be any buses, as every road in and out of the village was blocked by fallen trees. So I went home, switched on the TV and learnt all about what had happened.”

Dave Cornwell, of Laindon, south Essex, said: “Quite exciting but scary for me at home in Laindon. I awoke probably around 3.00 am to the sound of a metal dustbin lid (remember those?) flying down the street.

“Things sounded pretty bad and my sixth sense told me this was no ordinary windy night. I got up and looked outside and there was stuff flying by and lots of strange noises. One was my plastic gutter blown down and banging against the side of the house. I can’t be certain of the timings but we awakened our two young daughters and took them downstairs as I was worried as they slept in a room with a flat roof dormer window and there was a tall brick chimney stack directly above it. I heard more crashing sounds which unfortunately turned out to be a couple of roof tiles landing on my car roof which was parked in the drive. Of course with no internet then I did what a lot of people did and tuned into the police FM radio network. This gave me a better realisation that it was serious as they were describing the carnage on the roads and all of the emergency calls they and the fire brigade were getting.

“At about 5.30am I ventured out into my driveway to see if there was any serious damage but the storm was still raging and I can honestly say I couldn’t stand up and was unable to keep my balance so went back indoors. I think the wind speed was probably over 100mph at this point being funneled down the side of the house which runs south-north.

“By 8.00 o’clock I was getting ready for work and although by then people were being advised to stay at home I worked in a fairly essential service so thought I would give it a try. I managed to get to East London but there was debris everywhere and I saw a car completely crushed by a one of many trees that were blocking some side roads.

“Another thing I noticed that evening was my south facing windows had a layer of salt on them which must have been blown in from the south coast 60 miles away. It was a sight I’ll never forget and to this day I don’t like strong winds (had a scary flight at Heathrow in a severe gale as well) and always get a nervous feeling if I hear the wind getting up. Probably the most dangerous weather I have experienced anywhere in my lifetime.”

Much has been written about the storm, a ‘once in 500 year event’, including this summary by the Met Office. There is also an excellent paper by Bob Prichard published in Weather. The synoptic charts below show how Low M develops from 1200 on the 15th to 1800 on the 16th.

 

 

 

 

Because of widespread power cuts many television viewers didn’t see this recording of ITV’s Good Morning Britain at the time of transmission. A round up of the immediate aftermath of the storm, including comments from Jack Scott, can be seen in this edition of Thames News.

The following Daily Weather Report was published by the London Weather Centre:

An intense, and almost certainly exceptional, depression crossed the coast of south Devon soon after midnight, moving quickly, and deepening rapidly, with a track across the Midlands and out towards the Humber Estuary, leaving the United Kingdom land area around 0700 hours.

Some very severe conditions due to storm force winds were generated around the southern and eastern flank of the low, with gusts from approximately 0200 hours well in excess of 70 knots, and reaching a peak in the period 0300 hours to 0700 hours, with gusts to 90 knots reported from Herstmonceux and St Catherine’s Point in the early hours, and similar value gusts from the Channel Islands. The very stormy conditions were accompanied by some heavy rain, this rain pushing into Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland after dawn.

Clearer weather, on westerly winds, swept across southern Britain, pushing the worst of the stormy winds away into the North Sea. During the afternoon the country settled down to a blustery westerly with some heavy and thundery showers developing in clusters, running especially into western and southern coastal regions and parts of southeast England.

Across Scotland and northern England the skies remained cloudy, with outbreaks of mostly light rain, but troughs enhanced the showers in the northwest later in the evening with heavy rain. It was a rather cold day in most places, although the temperatures were near normal in the south­east.

The storm remains the most severe I have experienced in this part of the UK. The Burns’ Day storm in 1990 brought severe gale force winds in the London area but the low pressure was centred much further north.

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The most recent severe windstorm in the London area, the St Jude Day storm of 2013, brought strong winds but nothing on a par with 1987.

 

 

The anniversary of the storm, complete with a question and answer session attended by Michael Fish, will be marked at the Royal Met Society’s WeatherLive event in November.

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17 responses to “30 years on from Low M: the Great Storm

  1. I experienced most of these events ‘first hand’, or from still remembered press reports, and could already vividly recall most of them ahead of double checking my diary from the time to confirm the exact dates and glean some further relevant details.

    Monday 12 January: 20 inches of snowfall in Kent with 10 foot drifts, maximum of minus 7 Celsius in London, Essex and upland parts of Devon, and a minimum of minus 17 C in the Grampians (followed during the early part of the week by a severe mostly sub-zero northeasterly blizzard of powdery snow in much of eastern and central England in particular);

    Saturday 7 March: 6 inches of wet snow falling in a short period of time in Wolverhampton (in Cardiff, where Five Nations rugby was being played, it was a cold rain instead);

    Saturday 13 June: trip to Cannock Chase, managed to get a photo of three fleeing fallow deer;

    Saturday 20 June: managed to find sand lizards at Chobham Common (never seen there by me subsequent to 1987) but I could not get my camera to take an image that wasn’t blurred;

    Friday 24 July: a continually resonating metal post/plate in a field near Slad, Gloucestershire (not certain but it might have been set off by church bells in the nearby village);

    Wednesday 19 August: country in shock after a gun massacre in west Berkshire, got a photo of a nice sunset in the suburbs of Wolverhampton;

    Friday 21 August: following weeks of cool and wet weather, male BBC TV weather forecaster excitedly speaking at 9.30 pm of a burst of Spanish Plume type heat from the south (over 30 Celsius that afternoon in Hampshire) which was expected imminently to bring some significant tropical thunderstorms – during that night such storms gave an inch of rain in the south and southeast, whilst a separate area of intense prolonged rain linked to a cold front affected Anglesey and Lancashire;

    Saturday 22 August: vicious 90 minute thunderstorm in Wolverhampton that afternoon, on the active cold front as it crossed, with long-lasting lightning flashes and flooding (somehow I had forgotten this episode but then easily remembered the storm again after re-reading my diary – because we had been to the nearby Bradshaws fruit farm earlier in the afternoon and while there I could see that a storm was approaching);

    Sunday 23 August: continuous heavy rain and severe local flooding in northern and western Midlands; I recall an apologetic announcement at St Jude’s Church that morning (something to do with a visiting speaker having to cancel because of the flooding) – my diary suggests parts of Staffordshire experienced 5 inches of rain between 21 and 23 August;

    Thursday 27 August: got photo of nice sunset in Balham;

    Friday 16 October: the Great Storm of 1987. Briefly awoken around 4 am in Balham by vicious howling winds blowing damp leaves against a south facing window, with nearby railway cables arcing and flashing, electric power cut off, bricks and rubble on pavements, and more than half of the trees on the nearby Wandsworth Common completely felled roots and all (fatalities could have been off the scale had it all happened during daylight hours eg during the rush hour);

    Sunday 18 October: listened to a creepy sermon by R T Kendall at Westminster Chapel entitled ‘The Anointing’ (part of the message was along the lines that God sent a ‘hurricane’ that nobody even the experts saw coming and the same will be the case with future judgment);

    Monday 19 October: Black Monday (best googled if you have forgotten it; nobody saw that coming either);

    Monday 19 October: Glanrhyd Bridge collapse in south Wales – following up to 8 inches of rain over the preceding four days, a bridge over the swollen River Towy at Llandeilo partially collapsed and a train attempting to cross at the time fell into the river with fatal results (I googled for the exact date and the name of the bridge and its location in south Wales);

    Friday 25 December: ‘Always On My Mind’ the Christmas ‘Number one’ (beating ‘Fairy Tale of New York’). (Neither of which passed even me by prior to seeing the Christmas Day afternoon TOTP; I then went for a walk in mild sunshine to escape a new soap entitled ‘EastEnders’.)

    [This reproduces an email sent earlier this year after ‘Bridge to Your Heart’ from 1987 was played on the BBC’s ‘Sounds of the 80’s’.]

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  2. Listening to London Volmet at midnight the most striking feature was to me was that the temperature at Luton airport was 8c and at Gatwick 16c,summats up I said to my wife who immediately told me to go to sleep , which I did of course , the rest as they say is history……

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    • You slept through it, Ron? The large temperature gradient is mentioned on the first weather bulletin on Good Morning Britain. From 10C to 17 and back to 10C in a very short space of time.
      The lowest air pressure recorded in London was 963mb while the highest gust recorded was 95mph.

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      • No ,I certainly didn’t sleep thru it !,,nobody in my family slept after 4 am,especially my two teen aged sons as I explained to them it was just an extension of the Blittz,and everybody carried on !!.

        Ron

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  3. Reblogged this on WeatherAction News and commented:
    I remember it well living in a leafy suburb of London at the time. The trees in our front garden were young saplings and were at 45 degrees as I looked out the window at them. Usually in gales the trees would bend with the gusts, however what was unusual for me was how they were permanently slanted under the ferocious winds. My neighbors trees to this day has a 10 degree slant it grows at following the storm. A few slates came off the roof and in the days that followed cowboy builders would go door to door offering to fix them. Overall the damage on the street was slight…

    The trip to school was amazing with trees down everywhere and I have an abiding memory of Renault 5’s being flattened under them. The back streets were just a mess of tree limbs and broken cars. There were only a few of us at school that day, listening to the wind howl through the building and we were sent home by lunch.

    For me no storm has lived up to it since, although the St. Judes storm came close very briefly for sound as the jet steak landed with a roar shaking the trees violently, but it passed rather quickly.

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    • There was a violent windstorm in London (I was in Upper Norwood) and elsewhere on 30 October 2000. And what about 25 January 1990 (I was at work at Waterloo at that time)? As for 15-16 October 1987, the BBC Countryfile programme is featuring that event next Sunday.

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  4. Can’t remember the 2000 event – there appears to have been a triple point low, the parent low with a centre of 958mb.
    The deaths caused by the Burns’ Day storm were mostly in Scotland (I think). And the LP centre was also much further north than the 1987 event.

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    • In 1990 the storm centre crossed northern England and the 100 mph winds were to the south of it. Exactly where the 47 deaths occurred I’m not sure but I will probably google it. (I took some video of early on 30 October 2000 but I only have it on a VHS-C tape and I have numerous such tapes which mostly featured wildlife.) PS On 16.10.87, the Met Office have requested photos from the event and its aftermath – I have several I took of felled trees on Wandsworth Common on 17.10.87.)

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  5. Pingback: Orphelia and mid-October storm trends | Wanstead Meteo·

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