24 hours that changed the world of woods

Thirty years ago a fierce storm swept across the South East of England that would change the way that we care for our woods and forests for ever. Millions of trees would be uprooted in a matter of hours and the landscape changed beyond recognition.

Ten years ago, when I was working in the National Trust press office, I spent months pulling together the story for the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of what happened on that fateful night to places such as Churchill’s home at Chartwell and the wonderful Slindon in Sussex. As night became day on the 16 October 1987 the full extent of the devastation became apparent. Once familiar places were changed beyond recognition. Its estimated that 15 million trees came down that night.

At Toys Hill, the highest point in Kent, more than 90 per cent of its trees had fallen. Most of the trees that had survived were the ancient trees, their roots deep enough to survive the power of the winds. It now looked like a lunar landscape and slowly but surely over the years nature began to re-emerge. Toys Hill became the perfect site for an experiment in natural regeneration; something that we take for granted now, but more of a new way of managing the countryside back in the late 1980s.

Talking to the Trust’s rangers, gardeners and forestry experts you got a real sense of the transformational experience of this night for them. Their love of the places that they cared for and the trees that they looked after shone through. It was a night that would change the way that they work forever with the notion of deadwood, or fallen trees, becoming the currency of woodland management, and our relationship woods re-examined and re-imagined.

Mike Calnan, Head of Parks and Gardens in 2007 at the National Trust, had the vision, twenty years earlier, to get up in a helicopter to capture the devastation across the countryside of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It was a bleak picture of trees that looked like dominoes that had tumbled over with ease. Twenty years on Mike took to the air again to see what had changed and it was fantastic to see the cover of trees back again showing the power of nature to overcome the odds.

It was amazing to listen to how an extreme weather event had changed the way that we think about the management of words so fundamentally.  There was also a feeling that it revived our love, as a nation, for the trees that have played such an important part in our collective story, showing how much we really value them.

 

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