I slept very well the night of 15th October 1987. I attribute that to the exhaustion of being a young mother with a six year old and an 18 month old.
Morning came and when I tried unsuccessfully to turn on the lights, I realised we’d had a power cut. Living on the outskirts of the West Sussex village of Storrington, we were used to periodic outages. It wasn’t until my husband John opened the door to take the dog for a walk that we knew this wasn’t a normal power cut. This was serious. Trees and branches were strewn across our lane. A large oak had come down on our neighbours’ driveway – just missing their house. Overhead electricity and telephone cables had snapped, their loose ends hanging.
We had awakened to the aftermath of the Great Storm of 1987 – the one that Met Office weather forecaster Michael Fish famously insisted would not be a hurricane. In fact, 18 British lives were lost, 15 million trees were felled, including some rare specimens at Kew. Shoreham-by-Sea, a mere 20 minutes from us, was battered by the storm’s highest recorded gust: 120mph. Chanctonbury Ring, five minutes away, had lost most of its iconic beech trees.
We lived in a community with single-track lanes. On that first morning, these lanes were completely blocked. There was no way we could get out. John and our neighbour, Glyn, had the only petrol-driven chainsaws; everyone else’s were electric – absolutely useless in the circumstances. John and Glyn spent the entire day going round to help ‘saw’ others out! (Both were given many bottles of wine as thank-you’s from grateful neighbours.) We started a bonfire at the bottom of our garden to which everyone added debris. It continued burning for days.
My daughter Jennie was delighted that she didn’t have to go to school that first day. ‘Mummy, can I turn on the telly?’ ‘There’s no electricity,’ I said. ‘Then can I phone Lucy and see if she wants to play?’ ‘Sorry, sweetheart, but there’s no telephone, either.’
On the Monday, John was able to go to work – to civilised, relatively unscathed Redhill, Surrey, leaving me to cope at home. Reminding myself that I’d been a Girl Guide (!), I went into overdrive. I’d already started to use up food from the fridge. Now it was the freezer which was defrosting and leaking all over the kitchen floor. The ice cream was particularly popular with my children. Power had been restored to Storrington village after one day, so friends living in town kindly put some of my items in their freezers. Another friend lent us a two-burner camping gas cooker so we could warm up soup and boil water for tea. We endeavoured to ‘barbecue’ meat in our large open fireplace. John held a torch to help me see what I was trying to cook but the heat was so intense that it melted the torch’s plastic lens. We resorted to take-aways after that. The candles I’d kept for dinner parties were now used every day – especially as the village shops had sold out.
I can’t emphasise enough how friends in the village rallied to help. Two in particular, Lorna and Jo, volunteered their baths and showers. What a treat to have running hot water! I had resorted to using a cool box for perishables, such as milk. Again, Lorna and Jo came to the rescue, alternating in taking my defrosted freezer blocks in return for ice-cold ones. These lovely ladies even did my laundry for me.
At first, it was kind of fun – rather like camping – but this soon wore thin. My little boy was so confused – and frightened when it started to get dark. He would follow me everywhere, not understanding why it was as dark inside the house as outside.
Day 4: I spotted a solitary Seeboard Electricity van moving slowly down our lane. ‘Hooray!’ I shouted at the driver. ‘Maybe next week!’ he yelled back.
Day 5: I saw another Seeboard van parked nearby. ‘How much longer?’ I asked, hoping for a better answer. ‘Could be another fortnight,’ he responded cheerfully. My heart sank.
I’d heard that several hundred thousand people were also without power. It was no consolation to know we were part of that group.
Day 7: John brought home a small generator which he’d hired for a week. I felt a momentary twinge of guilt – thinking of our less fortunate neighbours – as I joyfully turned on a few lights and the fridge.
Day 8: Ten Seeboard vans arrived with technicians to tackle the slack and broken cables. We then spotted a small battalion of Gurkhas, armed with chainsaws and kukri knives, who proceeded to hack through the remaining jungle of fallen trees. They were hard at it until nightfall.
That evening, John turned on the generator as usual. Its whirring hum was comforting.
Then came a knock at the door. “Haven’t you noticed? The power’s back on!”
My first reaction was to switch on every light in the house. Next, I turned on the electric cooker and made us a meal which we ate on trays in our sitting room, watching television.
We’d literally weathered the storm…and heartily welcomed the return to normality.