SPIRES were untopped and church roofs damaged as Storm Eunice swept the UK last Friday, causing widespread damage and three reported fatalities.
Red weather warnings were issued from Thursday night. Trains were cancelled, vehicles were blown across roads, and hundreds of buildings were damaged in winds which, in one place, reached a reported 122 mph. At least two injuries have been reported in England, and in Ireland one man died after being struck by a falling tree.
On Friday lunchtime, the top section of the spire of St Thomas’s, Wells, was seen to be wobbling. It then blew down and fell on a path in the churchyard. No one was hurt. The dramatic moment was caught in a video posted on Twitter.
The Priest-in-Charge of St Thomas’s, the Revd Claire Towns, told the Church Times on Friday that she had initially been more concerned about the trees in her garden, thinking: “The church should be alright — it’s been here for 165 years.”
And when a non-stipendiary minister of the parish, the Revd Nick Fridd, received a call from a concerned parishioner who thought that the spire might be in danger, “I didn’t really believe him,” Mr Fridd said. “It’s been there so long.”
Avon and Somerset Police called Ms Towns, asking whether the spire was supposed to look that way. The police closed the road beside the church as a precaution. Ms Towns then watched as the top three metres of the spire, crowned with a weathervane, came tumbling down.
“I won’t tell you what I said. . . We got off lightly. Had the wind been in the opposite direction it would have fallen on the church roof and caused catastrophic damage.”
The portion of the spire that fell is more or less intact, and architects have already gathered up the debris, she said.
St Thomas’s, which is Grade-II listed, was consecrated in 1857, and the spire dates from that time. The church is now closed pending the report of structural engineers, and no services will be held over the weekend.
Chris Jenkins, one of the licensed lay ministers at the church, said on Tuesday that services this weekend were likely to be held in the church hall. Mr Jenkins had been called by Ms Towns to warn him that the spire might fall. “At first, I thought she was joking,” he said.
On Tuesday, Ms Towns said that interest in the story had been intense. Local people turned up to have a look, and news crews descended on the small Somerset town. “It certainly brings us some notoriety. Let’s hope it will be of a good sort!”
Online, many compared the footage of the falling spire to a scene in the film Hot Fuzz, in which a pinnacle is dislodged from the tower of St Cuthbert’s, in Wells, and crushes a churchwarden.
On the Isle of Wight, where gusts were recorded at more than 122 mph, the top part of the spire of All Saints’, Newchurch, was snapped by the wind and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.
Kath AbbottFirefighters pose with the recovered portion of the spire of All Saints’, Newchurch, on the Isle of Wight
The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Kath Abbott, said that she noticed that the top part of the spire was coming loose on Friday morning. By 12.30 p.m., it had snapped, and an eight-foot section, which included the weathervane, had been left jutting off the roof, attached only by the lightning conductor.
Blue Watch from Newport fire station attended on Saturday morning, when winds were low enough for them to rescue the loose portion of the spire and weathervane. Speaking on Tuesday, she thanked the fire service for making the scene safe in time for services to take place over the weekend.
The spire of St Michael’s, Brighton, also suffered storm damage on Friday. A strip of lead on the side of the spire was torn away and left flapping in the wind. The assistant priest, the Revd Kevin Humphrys, said on Tuesday that the loose portion had been “having a good old shake-about”, but that fortunately it had stayed attached.
The roof of Truro Cathedral in Cornwall was also damaged by Storm Eunice. Lead flashing was dislodged by high winds and left part of the underlying structure exposed. While the cathedral remained open, part of the green was cordoned off as a precaution. The cathedral roof was already in need of repair, with the costs estimated at £3.2 million before the recent storm damage.
The claims director at Ecclesiastical Insurance, Jeremy Trott, said: “We are expecting a significant increase in calls from customers affected by Storm Eunice, and our claims-handlers are ready to support those affected by the weather. We’re urging customers to stay safe and not take any unnecessary risks in this weather.”
Elsewhere in the UK, the London Fire Brigade declared a major incident on Friday afternoon after receiving 550 calls in a three-and-a-half hour period — more than they would usually receive in 24 hours. Gale-force winds caused significant damage to the roof of the O2 Arena. The tower of Grain Power Station near Rochester in Kent also collapsed.
Widespread power cuts were reported across Cornwall and the South West, where flood warnings were also in place. In Truro, funerals were cancelled for the rest of Friday at the Penmount Crematorium after part of the roof was damaged.