Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/22 posted by hidden europe on

We were surprised to learn recently that the place in the world where you are most likely to experience a tornado is the Netherlands. True, those Dutch twisters don't cause quite the havoc of the big tornadoes that occasionally sweep across the US Mid-West. But the chances of someone living in the Netherlands, or for that matter southern England, having seen a tornado is pretty high.

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Dear fellow travellers

We were surprised to learn recently that the place in the world where you are most likely to experience a tornado is the Netherlands. True, those Dutch twisters don't cause quite the havoc of the big tornadoes that occasionally sweep across the US Mid-West. But the chances of someone living in the Netherlands, or for that matter southern England, having seen a tornado is pretty high. Risk is all a matter of perception - and we tend to judge places like England and Holland as fairly tame when it comes to environmental hazards. One reason, perhaps, why it's surprising that the worst earthquakes each of us has ever experienced were, respectively, in England and the Netherlands.

Unlikely hazards

It was intriguing to read last week how trains from Gatwick Airport to London were disrupted by a landslide. This is gentle Surrey terrain, a region of Europe largely free of earthquakes, plagues and pestilence. A UK Met Office study a few years ago showed that Surrey was the least-likely place in Britain to be struck by lightning.

But even in sedate southern England, there are landslides. Foreign visitors to Britain arriving at Gatwick Airport suddenly had a new gloss on the 30-minute train journey to central London. "Never realised that there were precipices and canyons in this part of the world," quipped Kevin from Colorado, who clearly hadn't realised that human agency - a broken water pipe - underpinned the landslip. Kevin's worried wife, born in Surrey, feared that possibly entire tracts of the county had been swept from the map.

Landslides in southern England

Southern England has its fair share of landslides. And railways are often involved. Memories fade quickly, but in December 2007 train services between Epsom and Waterloo were disrupted for a week following the failure of an embankment at Worcester Park. That was a mere tiddler of a slide compared to the catastrophe that befell the railway line from London Bridge to Croydon in 1841. Heavy rain caused an embankment to collapse and it was three months before trains could run again. That 1841 slip highlighted how thin layers of London Clay in soft strata could create a real risk of slides even in the relatively tame terrain of south London and Surrey.

Southeast England may seem safe, but last week's slip is a reminder that hazards certainly occur. Even avalanches. That's what happened in Lewes in December 1836 when eight people were killed in an avalanche. It remains to this day Britain's worst avalanche catastrophe. Nor is the area utterly safe from earthquakes. Over a six-week period in early 1750, a series of tremors struck central London, with several of them felt across Surrey. It was "very injurious and terrible in its effects," recorded one local commentator. Though probably not so injurious and terrible as the riots which have beset English cities this past day or two.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.