Sunday, 25 November 2012

On this day in 1703, the wind blew


The weather map for early Sunday morning shows strong winds across the south of England, which brought heavy rain and damage to the south-west especially. At this time of year, in 1703, a strikingly similar weather pattern crossed the country (but with much tighter isobars) and caused devastation on land and at sea.

Daniel Defoe advertised for eye-witness reports of "casualties and disasters" of the tempest and collated a unique record of the Great Storm.

Many of the records from across the country came from vicars and landowners describing damage to churches, houses, farmland and livestock, especially in Somerset and Bristol, which were badly flooded by a storm surge up the Severn. But it was off Deal that the greatest loss of life occurred, with warships and merchantmen sheltering in the Downs between the coast and the Goodwin sands.

"There remained in the Downs about 12 sail when this terrible tempest began at which time England may be said to have received the greatest loss that ever happened to the royal navy at one time either by weather by enemies or by any accident whatsoever"

Defoe wrote a poem about Deal's involvement in the Storm, presumably damning the town for not providing the usual safety to the ships, but perhaps because he believed that the inhabitants might have made a profit from the wreckage that would have been washed up on its shore. It should be remembered that he had recently had to give up his tile-making firm in Tilbury to pay his debts and would otherwise have become rich as demand for tiles would have increased after the damaging storm.
The poem is copied from the website of The Just Reproach micropub in Deal. The wit of the writer, and of the landlord who chose the name, is echoed by the friendly chat of the customers.

In his later book, A Tour through the island of Great Britain, Defoe changed his view of Deal to a more charitable one: "The town of Deal is very much improved of years to which the great resort of seamen from ships in the Downs has not a little contributed. The great conveniency of landing here has been of infinite benefit to the place so that it is and populous containing upwards of 4000 inhabitants is divided into the upper and lower towns adorned with many good buildings being in effect the principal place upon the Downs and on that account having both in war and peace a continual resort of people."

Back in 2012, after the gales overnight it was invigorating to walk to the end of Deal pier. We looked across the churning sea to the Goodwins where so many died on the fateful night in 1703.

For the past fortnight a raft of scoters has bobbed around off the end of the pier over mussel beds harvested by a fishing fleet in the summer. We counted over 200, including four velvet scoters (who revealed themselves only in flight). Also present were a black-throated diver, red-throats, great-crested grebes, a couple of guillemots and an eider.

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