Sarah Ann Henley’s Unplanned Parachute Jump, 1885

Unlike the hundreds before and after, one woman survived jumping into the chasm of Avon Gorge from the bridge that spans it. Find out what quirk of fashion saved Ms Henley from her attempt to end her life.

The city of Bristol, UK, is a charming place in England’s West Country. It’s famous for a number of things; Massive Attack, Concorde, Banksy, Aardman Animations and… the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

This iconic structure was designed by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and completed in 1864. It spans the craggy Avon Gorge and thousands of ships have passed under its grand arch, sailing along the river Avon over the decades since.

Unfortunately, it also acquired a reputation as a place to end one’s life, with around 400 despairing souls who’ve scaled the railings before plummeting to their deaths 75 m (245 ft) below.

And so, Sarah Ann Henley’s story comes to light: On a Summer’s day in 1885 this distraught young woman made her way up through Clifton’s streets of fine townhouses to make her way along to the middle of the bridge, sobbing as she went. She stopped and peered down, contemplating her next move with a deep gulp.

Earlier she had got a letter from the man she loved and was engaged to marry, a porter for the Great Western Railway. In it, he announced his intention to break off their engagement and, in the depths of despair she made the rash decision to end it all. She climbed over the railings and onto the parapet and, before onlookers could rush to intervene, she flung herself off.

Fate had a twist for her however. As was the style of the time she was wearing a crinoline skirt — a stiff petticoat designed to hold out a woman’s skirt. Witnesses claimed that a billowing effect created by an updraft of air beneath her skirt acted as a parachute of sorts to slow her fall, misdirecting her away from the water and instead onto the river’s muddy banks. Two passers-by rushed to her assistance and found her in a state of severe shock, but alive nonetheless.

They escorted her to the refreshment rooms of the nearby railway station and from there she was taken to hospital to recover. Sarah Ann put the incident behind her and went on to marry Edward Lane in 1900 and lived to the age of 85.

Ms Henley, the bridge she leapt from and the crinoline skirt which acted as her parachute (thevintagenews.com)
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Birmingham, Gloucester, Plymouth, and their Trans-Atlantic Twins

Birmingham 

Birmingham, Alabama’s towering skyline (elements.envato.com)

The ‘Magic City’ was founded in 1871 and was planned from the very beginning to become the massive manufacturing hub it burgeoned into. Today, it is Alabama’s premier metropolis and is regarded as one of the US’s best places to earn a crust. Because the city was always planned to be a centre of industry, it was named in homage to Britain’s own hub of enterprise and industry.

Across the pond in England’s West Midlands, Birmingham city vies with nearby Manchester as Britain’s ‘2nd City’. Outside of the heady superlatives of London, Birmingham is the country’s powerhouse of economic diversity which is why it’s dubbed ‘The City of 1001 Trades’.

The name ‘Birmingham’ (pronounced ‘Birming’um’)  comes from the Old English ‘Beormingahām, meaning the home or settlement of the Beormingas – an Anglo-Saxon tribal name meaning literally ‘Beorma’s people’. Founded in 1154, its profile rose as Britain’s profile burgeoned throughout the world, being but a market town until the Industrial Revolution plugged it in to England’s vast canal and rail network and propelled it into a teeming metropolis.

Today (2021), Birmingham is a city of a million people known as ‘Brummies’. It hosts a royal ballet company, the Repertory Theatre and Hippodrome that are all nationally renowned. Its National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is 190,000 m2 (over two million square feet) large and its library is the UK’s largest. The city also hosts no less than four top football clubs. Birmingham gave the world music bands Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath and UB40. Formula One World Championship and the CART Indy Car World Series winner Nigel Mansell; Prime Minister Nevil Chamberlain and Homeland actor David Harewood all hail from Birmingham too. 

Iconic canal boats moored up in the city’s 35 miles (56km) of waterways (birminghammail.co.uk)

Although Birmingham is not exactly festooned with Renaissance architecture, the city likes to boast that it has more miles of canal waterways than Venice in Italy. So, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood you should absolutely take a tour the city in a traditional canal boat. Birmingham also boasts five Michelin starred restaurants and numerous festivals, including one of the world’s largest St Patrick’s Day parades. A stay in the city should also include heading to Victoria Square, with the Council House, Symphony Hall and Town Hall, all built as triumphs of Victorian architecture. There are top museums and galleries throughout the city and visitors can also stroll through Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter or satisfy their sweet tooth at Cadbury World.

The grand Victoria Square, Birmingham, England (en.wikipedia.org)

Gloucester

This hardy Massachusetts city is synonymous with the North Atlantic deep sea fishing industry and it’s where Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous and movie The Perfect Storm were set. Gloucester is one of the USA’s most historic settlements, founded way back in 1623. Today, it is still a working fishing port but also a popular tourist destination. 

Gloucester, Massachusetts’ bustling harbour (tripsavvy.com)

England’s namesake is similarly a smallish, historical port in an out-of-the-way corner of the country. Gloucester, England sits on the river Severn, close to the Welsh border. And it is the UK’s furthest inland port. Its docks are accessed by the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal connecting it to the Severn Estuary then the seas beyond.

The City’s original Roman name was ‘Glevum’ but later took the Welsh name ‘Caer-loyw’ meaning ‘fort-bright/light/glowy’. ‘Loyw’ pronounced ‘gloyw’ by some had the Anglo-Saxon ‘cester’ (old fort) added later to become ‘Gloyw-cester’, then Gloucester. This ancient city was founded in 48 AD as an important fort and Roman colony. It remained strategically important during the Dark Ages, with St Peter’s Abbey being built in 680 AD and King Edward the Confessor holding court there in 1051. Later, it was in this strategic hub King Henry III was crowned and Gloucester’s significance in the Middle Ages is underlined by the fact that many monastic orders flocked to the city. Gloucester grew during the 16th-17th Centuries and construction of its canal began towards the end of the 18th Century, but was only completed in 1827. By that point, however, shipping of the industrial Age had largely outgrown Gloucester’s port facilities.
In the 20th Century, Gloster Aircraft Company would manufacture the UK’s first jet aircraft. In 2007 the city suffered biblical flooding that ironically disabled its water supply for 17 days.  

Famous residents of Gloucester include Methodist Church founder George Whitefield and the founder of Sunday Schools, Robert Raikes. The composer of America’s national anthem John Stafford Smith, Comedic actor Simon Pegg, not to mention the infamous serial murderer couple Fred and Rose West also called Gloucester home.

Gloucester Cathedral, opened in 1089 (gloucestershirelive.co.uk)

This city, within easy reach of the Forest of Dean to its west, and the quaint Cotswold Hills to the east, is a modest one of about 130,000 people but its rich history can be seen throughout its streets. The city centre street layout is the same one the Roman legionnaires laid down all those centuries back and visitors can view half-timbered Tudor shops, the tailor’s house from Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and the city’s very fine 11th Century cathedral where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Gloucester’s best place is its Historic Docks where you can explore the bars, shops and eateries nestled among the renovated red-bricked warehouses around the harbourside. With so much history there is as much to discover within this ancient city’s borders as there is in the bucolic splendour beyond.

Gloucester Docks (aboutglos.co.uk)

Plymouth

Another Massachusetts city, dubbed ‘America’s Hometown’. Although a small city on the fringes of America’s economic development, Plymouth is at the root of its cultural development.

Downtown Plymouth Massachusetts (joesretirementblog.blogspot.com)

It was at Plymouth Rock the fabled Mayflower Pilgrims made landfall in 1620 and, after surviving that first brutal winter, celebrated Thanksgiving the following Fall after a successful harvest restored their vigour and durability. This signified the moment the newborn USA came off of life support to begin its own baby steps. 

Of course, it was England’s port of Plymouth that the Mayflower set sail from. This longtime home of the Royal Navy is all the way down in the south west of the country and now hosts the largest naval base in Europe aside one of the world’s most impressive natural harbours.

Plymouth’s etymology derives from its position at the mouth of the River Plym; ‘Plym’ meaning ‘plum tree’ in Old English (and ‘ploumenn’ in Cornish). Plymouth was an important trading port for tin from prehistoric times well into the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, it managed to retain its Cornish culture distinct from the rest of England. It wasn’t until England’s coming-of-age when the Spanish Armada swept up the Channel that the city came to be an important base of naval operations, and the Naval Dock was established in 1689. From then on, its long seafaring tradition flourished. It was from this Cornish bastion in the late 16th Century Sir Francis Drake made a name for himself on his many voyages and forays. The Plymouth Company was issued with a royal charter by James I of England to establish settlements on the coast of North America, and the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620 to found the 2nd permanent colony in N. America. The city became ever more economically dependent on the Royal Navy thereafter which certainly kept the city busy over the centuries. On 28 May 1967, another intrepid Francis – Sir Francis Chichester – returned to Plymouth after the first single handed Clipper Route circumnavigation of the world and was greeted by an estimated crowd of a million spectators.

Today Plymouth is a city of over 250,000 whose citizens are called ‘Jenners’. Famous residents includes the great globetrotter Francis Drake as well as actor Donald Moffat, known for his portrayals of US presidents real and imagined.

It is rapidly diversifying its economy from one servicing the ‘Fleet’ to one that services its ballooning numbers of visitors instead. Visitors who are fascinated by aquatic creatures really should spend a few hours at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium, the deepest in Europe. Just a short walk away is the historic Barbican area of town. There, explorers can visit Plymouth’s very own Gin distillery, grab a bite to eat at Jacka – the oldest bakery in the UK, or simply wander the cobbled streets and take in Barbican’s old-world charms.

The Old-World narrow streets around the Barbican district

The place where Admiral Drake finished his game of bowls as the Spanish Armada crested the skyline is a bracing and awe-inspiring park that offers panoramas of Plymouth’s vast natural harbour; gateway to the deep, blue sea beyond. Plymouth Hoe is the no.1 spot to crash out on the grass with a picnic. Perhaps even take a dip in the Tinside Lido – Plymouth’s landmark outdoor, art deco swimming pool.

Plymouth Hoe on which Admiral Sir Francis Drake infamously finished his game of bowls before sailing out to attack the Spanish Armada (historic-uk.com)
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6 Films Depicting Britain without the Hollywood Filter

A selection of UK movies that left their mark; films that veer away from the Hollywood vibe and portray contemporary British culture before the Age of the Internet

These are films I enjoyed in my younger days, just out of school, forever raiding my absent brother’s legendary stack of VHS movies.

Each review includes the classic quotes and moments that make each film special.

Hard Men

Director: J. K. Amalou Year: 1997

Hard Men has been touted as inspiration to Guy Richie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (bang2write.com)

Bear: “55,980 pounds.”

Speed: “That’s twenty quid short. What the fuck are you trying to do? Do you know who you’re fucking with?”

Mr Ross: “Hey, I made a little mistake. Relax.”

Speed: “Don’t tell me to fucking relax!”

Co-starring ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, famed for once being a top gangland enforcer in the Kray-Twin era, and Vincent Regan a familiar face for fans of the Ancient Greece genre, Hard Men is a gangster movie portraying leery, swaggering cockney gangster geezers at their worst, or best, depending on your outlook.

The synopsis is of three underworld debt collectors ‘Tone’, ‘Speed’ and ‘Bear’ who are in the middle of a showdown when Tone discovers over the phone that he’s a new father. Tone quickly decides he wants to ditch the gangland lifestyle to make a better life for his new family yet their crime boss ‘Pops Den’ has other plans. Speed and Bear decide that Tone’s subsequent last night alive should go out with a bang, in every sense of the term.

Frankie Fraser’s part as ‘Pops Den’ gives the movie an authentic gangster feel while Lee Ross is well cast to play the part of Speed; an unpredictably violent, coked-up loose-cannon. The story centres around the three lads prowling the streets of London in a gold Rolls Royce, drinking, fighting and getting in everyone’s faces, along to a feisty rock soundtrack.

Memorable scenes include Tone singing a lullaby down the phone to his baby in a greasy spoon cafe while the other two look on, and Bear and Speed finding out the two ladies they picked up earlier are in fact drag queens.

Although much rougher around the edges than Guy Richie’s later gangster movies, it is in a similar mould and has plenty of fun twists and turns before its climax.

Nuns on the Run

Director: Jonathan Lynn Year: 1990

When you’re a gangster, and your make-up game is weak… but you’ve got to go under cover as a nun…(sorryneverheardofit.wordpress.com)

Abbott: “Kill her!”

Brian: “What with?”

Abbott: “With a gun!”

Brian: “I don’t have a gun, you homicidal pillock!”

Robert Coltraine aka ‘Dumbledore’ in the Harry Potter movies, and Monty Python’s Eric Idle make this gangster comedy the hilarious but cheesy hit it is.

Like in ‘Hard Men’, two gangsters, ‘Charlie’ and ‘Brian’, are faced with the dilemma of how to get out of the crime game with their lives intact.

They’re sent on a job that their boss ‘Casey’ intends to be their last; to rob a triad gang of their massive stash of drugs money. But the two turn the tables and steal the money for themselves, and in an ensuing chaotic hot pursuit Charlie and Brian realise their only sanctuary is a nunnery.

Of course, if the nuns find them skulking around, they’ll call the police …so there is only one thing for it; the two desperados go undercover as nuns.

Complete with squeaky voices, stuffed bras and extreme modesty, they keep the cops and crims off their backs long enough to escape on the soonest flight to Brasil.

All the while, Brian’s struggle to shoehorn his newfound romance into their plans almost meets disaster. Must he choose between freedom and love, or can he have both?

Coltraine’s performance as a man overcompensating for his strapping build with a dainty disposition is particularly hilarious and the film bounds along nicely from one awkward shenanigan to the next, despite a dialogue laden with much farce.

The scene where Charlie takes the opportunity to sit in with a class of gorgeous, young convent women students showering after a gym class gave me a wry guffaw.

Although it’s pretty PG, it’s not so PC. Nuns on the Run is a light-hearted movie that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Human Traffic

Director: Justin Kerrigan Year: 1999

A homage to Britain’s rave culture in the 90s (onlytechno.net)

Jip: “I think we’re all fucked up in our own way, you know? But we’re all doing it together. Freestyling on the broken wheel of life. Trapped in a world of internal dialogue. Like Bill Hicks said, ‘It’s an insane world, but I’m proud to be part of it.’”

Human Traffic focuses on the ecstasy rave culture of nineties Britain in Wales’ capital city; Cardiff.

It also examines themes around the emotional tumult in the most anxious but exciting period of adulthood; your 20s.

The idea was to make this comedy a realistic portrayal of the UK’s club scene in the final era before the numbing effects of social media entered our lives.

Although a lot of the movie’s cultural references haven’t aged well, it manages to candidly lay bare the ups and downs of a party animal lifestyle.

Every week of ‘Jip’, ‘Lulu’, ‘Koop’, ‘Moff’, and ‘Nina’s lives exist for the weekend when they can take their paltry earnings and experience the most euphoric time together, bouncing to psychedelic tunes with a cocktail of drugs and booze.

The drawback of partying hard; the paranoia and crushing comedowns, are played out in frequent sidesplitting imaginary cutscenes. Jip’s literal shafting by his shop-store boss with a £50 over his mouth and Lulu and Nina envisioning two stoner students talking out their arses, to name two, kept me and my friends laughing our heads off throughout.

Scenes such as when Jip audaciously dupes a nightclub owner into believing he is there to promote the nightclub for the ‘mixmag’ magazine so he can gain entry without a ticket helped give this movie a large cult following.

The soundtrack by DJs like Fatboy Slim, Underworld and Armand Van Helden is an absolute belter.

If you’ve ever been in the rave scene then this is definitely worth checking out.

Trainspotting

Director: Danny Boyle Year: 1996

Danny Boyle’s psychedelic cult classic (timeout.com)

Interviewer: “Mr. Murphy, do you mean that you lied on your application?”

Spud: “No! Uh. Yes. Only to get my foot in the door. Showing initiative and that like.”

Interviewer: “But you were referred here by the Department of Employment, there was no need for you to ‘get your foot in the door’, as you put it.”

Spud: “Ehhh… cool. Whatever you say, I’m sorry. You’re the man. The dude in the chair.”

The most successful movie in this list with its massive cult fanbase, it’s laden with iconic scenes and characters. It’s a ‘Generation X’ favourite.

This dark comedic drama follows the ups and downs of five dysfunctional friends wrestling with the banality of their young lives and various vices.

The characters are all so quirky; from the violent savagery of ‘Begbie’, (brilliantly played by Robert Carlyle) the spaced out ‘Spud’, (Ewen Bremner) to the straight-laced ‘Tommy’ (Kevin McKidd) and the main protagonist, wily ‘Rent Boy’ (Ewan McGregor) with his fluttering flame ‘Diane’ (played by Kelly Macdonald) to name a few.

With so many zany subplots along the way, the film follows the main protagonist Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton as he struggles to wrest himself off his heroin addiction. First, suffering the ordeal of ‘cold turkey’ then the grim clarity of sobriety before finally escaping to the bright lights of London.

His so-called friends don’t make that easy, however, yet a one-off drugs sale might give him the windfall he needs to escape Begbie’s insufferable companionship and make a better life.

Far too many memorable scenes to mention; Renton’s dream-like swim in ‘Scotland’s worst toilet’, Begby’s casual beer glass thrown onto the dance floor below just so he can have a brawl, and Spud’s dopey job interview are my favourites.

The film is famous for its often humorous cutscenes and the kind of soporific soundtrack that is a Danny Boyle trademark. It’s probably the coolest movie of the ’90s, even if it is mildly depressing.

Threads

Director: Mick Jackson Year made: 1984

Honestly one of the most bleak and bone-chilling movies you’ll ever watch (kqed.org)

Mrs. Beckett: “Ruth love, come on love, you’ll have to eat something. You’ll have to love, it’s not just you now you know, the baby needs food as well.”

Ruth Beckett: [crying] “I don’t care about this baby anymore, I wish it was dead.”

Mrs. Beckett: “Oh Ruth! Don’t say things like that.”

Ruth Beckett: “There’s no point! There’s no point with Jimmy dead.”

Threads is a 1980s docudrama depicting the likely outcome if the USSR were ever to attack the UK in a nuclear war.

With no thrills acting and special effects typical of low-budget UK movie productions bereft of CGI or Hollywood budgets, this staid production none-the-less hit me like a hammer when I watched it a few years ago, and that was largely because the plot was based on expert opinions of what would probably happen in such a nightmare.

Set in Sheffield, the producers wanted to depict the effects of nuclear war on one of the UK’s major urban centres and its citizens. It starts with introducing a senior municipal leader and a young couple named ‘Jimmy’ and ‘Ruth’ who are planning to marry after finding out Ruth is pregnant.

Yet, the global political situation is quickly unravelling as a skirmish in Iran puts the USA and USSR on course for total war.

There’s no need to warn about spoiling the plot here, folks, because the educated person can guess how it plays out.

The war triggers a full nuclear exchange and a warhead hits the city, largely obliterating it.

Millions die and the survivors are quickly forced to contend with the effects of radiation poisoning and a breakdown of food supplies then civilised society as the days, weeks and months pass.

A decade later and Britain has been reduced to a crude, barbaric society. Children born after the war are intellectually underdeveloped and speak a stunted form of English.

Poignant scenes include the senior municipal leader reassuring his wife everything will be ok with the stiff upper lip for which Brits are world-renowned before he heads down to a bunker in which he will be eventually entombed, and a soul-shattered Ruth gnawing on a dead rat as a man attempts conversation with her.

The no-thrills style of acting only adds weight to the film’s harrowing realism.

After I watched this movie it was lunchtime, and I have never been more grateful to have a plate of food in front of me than at that moment. If ever a film could be used to help define the word ‘bleak’, this is it.

Dead Man’s Shoes

Director: Shane Meadows Year: 2004

Powerful performances by Considine and Kebbell (pictured left and centre) make this small budget movie a compelling watch (ilikedthatmovie.wordpress.com)

Sonny: “You know the lads had this ridiculous idea tha…”

Richard: “Yeah, it was me.”

Sonny: “Oh, it was? Thought so.”

Considering this movie was produced with a budget of less than £750,000, Dead Man’s Shoes is a thoroughly watchable dark tale of a lone, lethal ex-soldier out for revenge against the lowlifes who bullied his brother.

Its success is borne upon the shoulders of Paddy Considine’s powerful portrayal of ‘Richard’ — a deeply troubled ex ‘Para’, and Toby Kebbell’s amazingly convincing performance as ‘Anthony’ — Richard’s mentally handicapped younger brother.

Set in England’s Peak District, the story follows Richard, with Anthony in tow, as he tracks, torments and terrorises a gang of small-time drug dealing bullies led by ‘Sonny’.

The film builds satisfyingly to its climax, as scenes alternate between Richard and Anthony’s touching moments together and Richard’s ever meaner trick attacks on the gang, leaving the worst of them to last, though not before a jarring, unexpected twist.

A sign of a good actor is when their character evokes feelings from the audience towards them, good or bad. Gary Stretch, the man who plays the sleazy, seedy Sonny, does that well as he succumbs to a most gratifying downfall.

This is a good watch although the film’s wooden script and cast means it might not keep you coming back to it again and again.

Highlights include scenic shots of the two brothers hiking across England’s hill-land and Richard brazenly screaming at drug dealer ‘Herbie’ in the middle of a social club.

(imdb.com)

10 Little-Known British Natural Disasters

Read about the worst that Mother Nature has thrown at Britain

When Mother Nature gets angry the effects can be both spectacular and catastrophic. You’ll rarely hear stories of homes getting obliterated by violent winds, buildings rocking on their foundations or tornadoes tearing across the land emanate from Great Britain, however.

The UK has, it seems, a very droll climate, yet you’d be surprised by the extreme weather events and natural disasters that have actually occurred on this supposedly green and pleasant land.

Hurricane

Between a tree and a hard place; two of Britain’s iconic telephone boxes sandwiched by one of the 15 million trees uprooted that night (alamy.com)

The Hurricane of 1987 was an event immortalized in the annals of British pop culture by preeminent BBC weatherman Michael Fish denying on live TV that a hurricane was on its way, only to eat his words hours later.

On the night of 15th/16th of October, the great storm ploughed into the English south coast and gave the country a thorough battering before coming out the other side again at The Wash.

With the highest gusts measuring 135mph (217km/h), 15 million trees were felled, blocking roads and crushing cars.

Roofs and windows were smashed and several hundred thousand people were left without power, not fully restored until more than two weeks later. At sea, one ferry capsized.

18 people perished and the damage totalled over two billion pounds.

Heatwave

1st August 1911: Men sleeping on the sands at Westcliff, Essex during the 1911 heatwave (notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com)

For a country known for its rain and mild climate, the UK has endured some pretty brutal heatwaves over the decades.

The worst of them was the heatwave of 1911. For over two months, temperature records were smashed, with a high of 36.7 °C (98.1 °F).

It got so hot rural workers in Lancashire had to adopt a ‘siesta’ workday where they would quit the mid-afternoon swelter to return to their labours in the evening. Whilst on the London Docks thousands of workers went on strike in desperation to escape toiling in the merciless heat.

2500-4000 souls, including over 600 babies, succumbed to the punishing heat before it abated.

Tsunami

“So violent and swift were the outragiouse waves…” (volcanocafe.com)

You might find it hard to believe, but some evidence suggests a tsunami devastated the coastline of the Bristol Channel in 1607AD.

It drowned thousands of people, swept away houses and villages and destroyed whole flocks of cattle.

A contemporary account of the event described the disaster: “… so violent and swift were the outragiouse waves, that pursued one an other, with such vehemencie, and the Waters multiplying so much in so short a time, that… most part of those cuntreys (and especially the places which lay lowe) were all over flowen, and many hundreds of people both men women, and children were then quite devoured, by these outragious waters, such was the furie of the waves, of the Seas, the one of them dryving the other forwardes with such force and swiftnes.

Tornado

Tornado or terrorism? Carnage aftermath of 2005 Birmingham Tornado (BBC.com)

The UK actually gets about 35 twisters each year, though admittedly, quite weak ones.

In Birmingham 2005, however, a tornado tore through the city, briefly reaching F3 status on the Fujita scale.

It picked up cars and flung them around, ripped the tower off a primary school and uprooted 1100 trees, among other damage caused. 19 people were injured and 40 million pounds of damage was caused.

In 1981 the UK was hit by an outbreak of over 100 tornadoes in the space of five hours on November the 23rd. Although the strongest reached just F2 status, hundreds of properties were damaged. It was the largest recorded tornado outbreak in European history.

Drought

One of Britain’s many parched reservoirs (todayifoundout.com)

Although Britain is notorious for its frequent showers, it has suffered a number of droughts in recent history.

The UK was absolutely parched and desperate for a thirst-quenching downpour by the end of the summer of 1976. This was the most severe drought in living memory.

The warmest Summer in 350 years was preceded by an exceptionally dry 12 months including the previous winter which received only 61% of the rainfall expected.

In the Summer of ’76 some parts of South West England hadn’t seen a drop of rain for 45 days and by August the situation had deteriorated to the extent Parliament passed the Drought Act.

This resulted in thousands of homes in Yorkshire and East Anglia having their water supply replaced by communal standpipes in the streets, and many house-holders in Wales and the west of England were left without tap water for much of the day.

Meanwhile, crops were badly hit; £500 million pounds worth of crops were wasted resulting in a 12% jump in food prices.

The Haweswater Reservoir dried up so much it held just 10% capacity.

September rains finally broke what had become the driest 16 month period in more than a quarter of a millennium.

Snow Storm

Men work to dig out one of the many snowed in trains during the ‘Big Freeze, 1963 (dovegreyreader.typepad.com)

The UK once made a sterling attempt to imitate the frigid Siberian Tundra in what became dubbed the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1963. It was the coldest winter in 200 years with an average temperature of −2.1 °C (28.2 °F) in the month of January.

In Scotland the thermometer bottomed out at an arctic −19.4 °C (−2.9 °F).

A blizzard hit Britain just before the turn of the year and snowdrifts formed up to 6 metres (20 ft) in places. My father remembers it as the winter when he awoke one morning to find the snow was up to his bedroom window!

On the 20th of January 283 workers had to be rescued by RAF helicopters from Fylingdales, where they had been snowbound for several days.

In February people had to endure a whopping 36-hour-long blizzard. The transport network was severely disrupted and farmers could only keep their flocks from starving by dropping food to them from helicopters.

Meanwhile, lakes and waterways froze over and could be skated on. The Thames even saw its first car rally on the ice.

Even the sea off the Kent coastline froze to a mile out. The Chatham Dockyard was only kept open with the use of an icebreaker.

Most of the country was covered in snow for January and February and it was only until March that this once temperate land began to thaw out.

At least 50 people died in this artic spell.

Wildfire

The Scottish Highlands on fire (wildfiretoday.com)

From ice to fire, we’ve been awed by the footage of raging forest fires that break out every year across vast swathes of the USA and Australia, torching everything in their path to a crisp, but the UK also regularly gets wildfires.

One of the worst of these was a wildfire which ignited in Scotland, of all places, in 2019.

Dry conditions and high winds caused the flames to spread aggressively and at its height, 80 firefighters were tackling the blaze.

In just the first day, the fire incinerated more than 40 square kilometres (10,000 acres) and created a plume of smoke that could be seen from space.

Later, firefighters thought they had tackled most of the blaze and left the scene. However, it reignited and scorched another 50 square kilometres (12,400 acres).

Avalanche

The aftermath and rescue efforts of the Lewes Avalanche (historic-uk.com)

The winter of 1836 was an exceptionally severe one and blizzards had swept across the island, even to the very south of it over the South Downs around Lewes town.

One of the hills above and around the town, Cliffe Hill, though not very big, did have a very steep slope and at its base was a row of cottages.

The blizzard conditions had caused a huge amount of snow to accumulate into a cornice hanging over the row of houses, and even back then they could see the danger and the cottage residents were advised to evacuate, but they chose not to.

When the accumulation of snow finally gave way, 15 people were judged to have been in the houses below.

One eyewitness described what happened: “The mass appeared to strike the houses first at the base, heaving them upwards, and then breaking over them like a gigantic wave. There was nothing but a mound of pure white.”

A rescue operation by townspeople succeeded in pulling seven survivors from the wreckage before hypothermia or suffocation could claim them, but eight other individuals were found dead.

The Lewes Avalanche remains Britain’s deadliest ever.

Landslide

Racked by grief, a mother says goodbye at a funeral of one of the 116 children who perished that day (businessinsider.com)

The story of a horrific landslide that hit Aberfan in Wales on 21st October 1966.

The village is nestled on the slopes of the Brecon Beacon mountain range where mining was an integral part of the economy.

Over the years a spoil tip (accumulated waste material removed during mining) had been negligently built up on the slopes above the village.

A period of heavy rain in the days leading up led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill.

Those who heard the mass of mine mud surging down towards them said the sound reminded them of a low-flying jet or thunder.

The tragedy was that it wasn’t just houses in the path of this slurry of death; Pantglas Junior School also lay in its path and was full of students when the wall of sludge overwhelmed them and snuffed out most of their short lives.

Feverish rescue efforts managed to save dozens of buried adults and children yet, sadly, 144 people died that day, including five teachers and 109 pupils from the school.

Earthquake

An elderly woman is helped from her home through rubble after a 4.3 earthquake in Folkestone in 2007 (thesun.co.uk)

Although the UK is clearly not earthquake-prone, it may interest you to know that 200–300 tremors and mild quakes are detected every year by the British Geological Survey.

On June, 7th, 1931 a severe earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter Scale hit 60 miles (97 km) off the Yorkshire coast in the North Sea which toppled chimneys and caused cliffs to crumble. A woman also died from a heart attack triggered by the shocking event.

Flood

Due to flooding around Foulness in Kent, a herd of cattle takes sanctuary around an old abandoned farm (channel4.com)

This is one natural disaster we British are very familiar with, particularly around my corner of the island in the Cotswold Hills. It makes me recall driving to work in 2007 over the top of the hills with the bizarre sensation of being surrounded by lakes of floodwater on either side of the road.

The worst flood, indeed natural disaster, to befall the UK in modern times undoubtedly has to be the North Sea Flood of 1953.

On New Year’s Eve a combination of roaring winds and a high spring tide forced seawater to rise and overwhelm the inadequate sea defences along the south-east coast of England (not to mention of Belgium and the Netherlands).

The sea level swelled so quickly, thousands were caught off guard as water surged into their homes and businesses. 250 square kilometres (65,000 acres) of land were submerged.

People were forced to wait for rescue as the water continued to rise, with an account of at least one family forced to spend the night exposed to the elements on the roof of their house as the waters sloshed around them. Houses and livestock were washed out to sea as water levels rose by 4m (16ft).

The death toll is estimated at 307 plus another 224 at sea, and 30,000 had to be evacuated. There was also a whopping £50 million pounds worth of damage.

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