Nothing new about "extreme weather"

Not even the godfearing could escape the wrath of the storm. The Bishop of Bath and Wells was tucked up in his four-poster bed when the wind blew in the roof of his episcopal palace. He tried to flee but it was too late.

The chimney stacks came crashing down, plunging bishop and wife through the floor, burying both in the rubble.

He was found, it was reported, ‘with his brains dash’d out’ while she had wrapped herself in the sheets out of sheer terror and suffocated. They were the most eminent victims of the most catastrophic and destructive storm ever recorded as hitting the shores of Britain.

The country has trembled this week, rocked by 100mph-plus winds which caused injuries and two reported deaths, but these were relatively endurable conditions compared with the tiger of all tempests, the Great Storm of 1703.

It is often overlooked. Historians acknowledge the bad weather that almost stopped William the Conqueror in 1066 and the ‘protestant wind’ saw off the Spanish Armada in 1588. The epic snow-bound winter of 1947 and the forest- felling ‘hurricane’ of 1987 have both passed into legend.

But the daddy of all these disasters — the one against which this week’s heavy winds can justifiably be measured — was three centuries ago, in the reign of Queen Anne.

As an area of low-pressure tracked its way across the centre of the country on the Friday night and Saturday morning of November 26/27, 8,000 lives were lost, a large swathe of the Royal Navy was wiped out and the Eddystone lighthouse off Plymouth was obliterated.

‘Never was such a storm of wind, such a hurricane and tempest known in the memory of man,’ wrote a chronicler of the times, ‘nor the like to be found in the histories of England.’

Gusts in the English Channel topped 140mph. So fierce was the wind that a ship torn from its moorings in the Helford River in Cornwall was blown helplessly, its cowering crew still on board as mountainous seas tossed it, for 200 miles before grounding on the Isle of Wight eight hours later.

The low pressure system causing all this was astonishing. Daniel Defoe, writer and political commentator (and later the renowned author of Robinson Crusoe) could not believe how low the mercury in his barometer had sunk, and suspected at first that his children had been messing about with the instrument.

What was actually taking place was what historian Martin Brayne terms ‘the most terrifying and catastrophic storm this island has ever known’. The hurricane-force winds caused havoc on land.

Trees were uprooted and reduced to mere matchwood. Hundreds of the windmills that dotted the landscape were destroyed and at least one burst into flames from the friction as the sails whizzed round at extraordinary speed — an uncanny precursor of the modern- day wind turbine that caught fire at Ardrossan in Scotland during high winds last month.

Church spires — which a combination of religious piety and architectural technology had been making ever higher — toppled. A curate in Kent was distraught to see his landmark spire, close to 200ft and the tallest in the county, dashed to the ground.

Lead was stripped from roofs, simply rolled up like scrolls by the unstoppable force of the wind. Tons of it were torn from the roof of Queen’s College, Oxford, and then sent hurtling through the window of the church opposite.

At Cambridge, pinnacles were blown from the top of King’s College Chapel. Gloucester, Ely and Bristol cathedrals took batterings, and the godly were convinced that the biblical proportions of what was happening meant Judgment Day was upon them.

Homes were just as vulnerable,with falling chimneys a widespread hazard. A moralising chronicler recounted the tragic tale of a child asleep in a cradle a foot from its parents’ bed. ‘The fall of a chimney beat out the infant’s brains and mashed the whole body, in the father’s and mother’s sight. ‘From whence we may observe that, in a general calamity innocency suffers with the guilty, and the poor babe is destroyed with a stroke of divine vengeance while the sinful parents are permitted to stretch out their lives.’ ....

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