That was in February 1962, and while most weather records have received a battering since, this one has held firm. Beattie’s study of the ways in which Britain has been shaped by the winds that belabour it throws up examples both benign (like Chesil Beach, a ‘prodigious accumulation of shingle’, and the archetypal example of a wind-made feature) and catastrophic, like the once-thriving Suffolk port of Dunwich which was the largest settlement in Britain to be lost to coastal erosion. Despite the destruction, it continued to return an MP until 1832.
But it’s the major storms that have struck over the centuries that Beattie keeps returning to, insisting that each has left a ‘unique meteorological footprint’. It’s also fair to claim that each has impacted upon the national consciousness: among the immediate consequences of the great storm of 1703, which claimed thousands of lives and destroyed millions of trees, was a vast increase in church attendance. That we know so many details of that particular storm is due to Daniel Defoe, who offered a blow-by-blow account.
It might have been handy to have had him around in 1953, when thousands more died in floods – an all-but-forgotten disaster. Beattie’s explanation for this is that the event didn’t chime with the national mood of post-war optimism: tragedy was off-message. Besides, the worst hit areas were remote and generally poor; areas where metropolitan journalists did not tread. Beattie, stepping into Defoe’s shoes centuries later, proves himself up to the task.
This review was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.