Britain's worst storms: from 1607 to 2023
Our guide looks at the worst storms to hit the British Isles since records began, from the 1607 Bristol Channel Floods to the nationwide floods of 2013 and the recent storms of 2022.
With climate change impacting our weather patterns, we seem to be seeing more extreme weather events in the UK as well as across the world. While these events seem to be becoming more frequent, they're not entirely new. Since records began back in 1766, Britain has seen some deadly storms batter their way across the country, destroying farmland, buildings and killing hundreds of people.
Our guide looks at the worst storms to hit the British Isles since records began, from the 1607 Bristol Channel Floods to the nationwide floods of 2013 and the recent storms of 2020-22.
Britain's worst storms on record
Bristol Channel Floods – 1607
This sudden deluge occurred on 30 January 1607, resulting in more than 2,000 people drowning and devastation to farmland and livestock. For years historians believed the floods were caused by a storm surge, but in 2002 scientists Simon Haslett and Ted Bryant published evidence that the flood might have been caused by a tsunami.
The 1703 Storm
Arguably the worst storm or natural disaster to ever hit the United Kingdom. Without warning, the storm battered the country for more than a week, killing between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Southern England was worst affected, and the first Eddystone Lighthouse was swept away. Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe even wrote a book about it – “The Storm”, published in 1704.
Eyemouth Disaster – 1881
A severe storm struck the southern coast of Scotland on 14 October, 1881. Strong winds capsized several fishing boats, and 189 fishermen drowned as a result. 129 of the fishermen were from the village of Eyemouth, and the citizens of the village still refer to the disaster as Black Friday.
The Great Blizzard – 1891
For four long days, Cornwall and Devon where almost entirely cut off from the rest of Britain. Violent gales bought down trees, temperatures plummeted below zero and snow drifted in places up to 15 feet high. 200 people perished, along with 6,000 animals. Roads and railways became impassable, telephone and telegraph lines were taken out of commission.
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North Sea Flood - 1953
One of the greatest storm surges on record drowned 326 people in the UK at the end of January 1953. The flooding forced 30,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, and 24,000 properties were seriously damaged. 160,000 hectares of eastern England flooded and more than 1,600 km of coastline was damaged.
The Big Freeze - 1962/63
The harsh winter of 1962–1963 was one of the coldest winters on record in the UK. The cold weather started on 22 December, with snow falling across Scotland on Christmas Eve before sweeping its way south. The Arctic weather lasted until March, with rivers and lake freezing over.
The Great Storm of 1987
One of the most notorious storms to hit the UK, after weather presenter Michael Fish famously dismissed the idea that a hurricane was approaching. In total, 18 people lost their lives in Britain, with the damage caused costing over £1 billion. An estimated 15 million trees were lost, thousands of homes were without power for several days and wreckage blocked the roads and railways across the country. Find out more about The Great Storm of 1987.
Burns' Day Storm - 1990
Hurricane force winds struck southern Scotland, causing the death of 47 people. Damage was widespread, with power supplies cut and roads and railways blocked.
The floods of 2000
In late October 2000, the UK experienced the wettest autumn in 200 years, with five of the major rivers, bursting their banks. Gusts of 93mph battered the country leaving thousands of homes without power and more than 10,000 homes and businesses were flooded at 700 locations. It was estimated that the cost of the damage was £1 billion.
Storms of 2013
Deemed to be the stormiest December since 1969, widespread gusts of 60-80mph swept through the country, with registered gusts of well over 100mph. The worst of the damage was caused by falling trees, which damaged buildings, cars and power lines. Severe flooding also affected the country, with thousands evacuated from their homes.
The Beast from the East, February to March 2018
The 'Beast from the East' is a recurring weather phenomena where polar continental air masses and then descends onto the UK, making it unseasonably bitter. The most major recent occurrence of this was in March 2018, when a blizzard hit the UK causing a number of deaths, widespread snow and frost, and dangerous icy conditions.
Storm Ciara, February 2020
At the start of February, Storm Ciara hit the UK with gusts of up to 97mph with torrential rain, causing electricity outages, flooding and travel chaos across the country with at least 20,000 homes left without power.
Storm Bella, December 2020
It was hard enough trying to celebrate Christmas at the height of a pandemic, and then Storm Bella arrived and flattened the nation's remaining Christmas spirit. Hundreds of homes in Bedfordshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Northamptonshire were completely flooded as rivers burst their banks and train services up and down the UK were cancelled. It was a devastating blow for those isolated relatives at a time when families traditionally come together to celebrate.
Storm Darcy, February 2021
Storm Darcy blew its icy path across the UK in February 2021, bringing deep snow to the south east, especially Kent and Essex. A kitesurfer died in Suffolk. The Stevenson screen at the weather station at Cairngorm Chairlift (663masl) was buried in snow, and an extreme avalanche risk was reported in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh.
Storm Arwen, November 2021
One of the most powerful and damaging storms in the UK this decade, Storm Arwen arrived in November 2021 and caused a red alert for winds. Thousands of mature trees were felled, causing the deaths of three people in Cumbria, Aberdeenshire and Northern Ireland. It is thought that the unusual direction of the wind – northerly – partly caused the environmental devastation as the trees had grown to withstand the normal prevailing westerly wind, and weren't well rooted enough to deal with 98mph gusts from the north. Millions of homes were without power as trees brought down power lines.
Tragically, hundreds of grey seal pups were lost from beaches along the coast of the North Sea.
Storm Eunice, February 2022
The UK was on red alert, with schools closed and roads deemed unsafe to travel. Winds of up to 92mph were recorded on the Isle of Wight as this storm, which was at its most severe in the mid-morning, began its path across the British Isles.
Danny is the outdoors editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine, responsible for commissioning, editing and writing articles that offer ideas and inspiration for exploring the UK countryside.
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