On the night of October 16, 1987, some 15 million trees were blown down. 12 million were trees within forests, but 3 million or so were individual trees - from parks, gardens, and along the leafy avenues of South East England.
Among the victims were six of the eponymous Sevenoaks of Kent. In Hyde Park some 300 trees were lost; Hampton Court and the Royal Botanical Gardens lost 1000 trees each. Over one million trees (two-thirds of the forest) were lost in the Suffolk Sandlings, including 400,000 at Rendlesham Forest.
As foresters woke up on that morning many travelled to work with trepidation, not knowing what they would find.
Steve Scott, now Regional Director for East England, but then a District Forester at Rendlesham Forest, near Woodbridge in Suffolk, made his way gingerly to the forest on the morning after the night before. He left his car in a safe spot, and set off on foot through the Forest near Ipswich.
“The trees were dropping round my ears. I soon reached a field where local hauliers stored heavy metal containers in the middle of the forest. The containers were blowing around as I walked, so I had to time my run to get past them – with hindsight, it was rather risky - but I just had to see what was going on there."
In front of him, hundreds of thousands of Corsican and Scots pines had been snapped off below the half way mark, or uprooted, with entire root systems lifted out of the ground.
"It was a horrific sight. All in all 1400 hectares of woodland on the Suffolk coast was flattened - 30 years of timber growth lost in one night."
One of the immediate tasks was to assess the scale of the devastation - something you could not do from the ground.
Alan Betts, who was then working in the Commission’s Forest Surveys Branch in Hampshire took to the air to get a clearer picture of the impact.
"It was all systems go. We had to know the extent of the damage, to work out where we needed to put in effort first to clear roads and allow the clear-up to begin. But we also needed to get an idea of the scale of the impact on both Forestry Commission managed woods, and on woodlands across the South East and East Anglia."
Alan, who is now the Regional Director for South East England, was sent up in a plane, and was shocked by what he saw.
"It was amazing to see it all from the air, and I remember being fascinated by the extent to which some areas were devastated, then alongside them there were wooded areas that had escaped unscathed. The most memorable site was seeing all the white chalk brought to the surface over the Downs as great roots had pulled up millions of mountains of fresh soil."