Quaking all over: Tremor that shocked a nation

It lasted barely two minutes, but it shook Britain. And, in a curious sort of way, a lot of us seem to have rather relished the experience. Emily Dugan reports on an earthquake that felt alarmingly serious – but caused mercifully little devastation
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The Independent Online

It began as a low rumble, just before 1am yesterday morning. Windows and bedposts started to shake, chimney pots went flying, walls cracked, and alarmed residents ran on to the streets. Within a few minutes, it was over, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.

It has been almost a quarter of a century since Britain experienced an earthquake on such a scale. And yet, in a curious sort of way, it seems to have represented that kind of shared encounter with adversity that we as a country traditionally relish.

It certainly touched an enormous number of lives, however slightly. The magnitude 5.2 quake, which began just north of Market Rasen in Lincolnshire, was so strong that its effects were felt as far afield as Scotland and south Wales – and even in the Dutch town of Haarlem.

Police and fire stations across the country received hundreds of calls as terrified people awoke to find their homes shaking beneath them. There was plenty of structural damage – the total cost is expected to be measured in tens of millions of pounds – but, mercifully, no loss of life.

That's not to say that the impact wasn't serious. David Bates, a 19-year-old student, was lying in bed watching television in his attic bedroom in Wombwell, near Barnsley, when the roof above him caved in and a chimney landed on him, breaking his pelvis.

His father, Paul, was woken by the tremors before he heard David's screams for help. "I'd just heard the big rumble that everyone else heard but then I heard David shouting 'Dad' and I ran upstairs," he said. "This massive piece of stone had landed on his hip and he was just shouting that he thought it was broken and I called an ambulance."

Their terraced house was left with a hole in the roof and pieces of stone strewn around the garden. "You just don't expect it," said Mr Bates. "Of all the things that can happen – an earthquake."

In Market Rasen, Emma Omond, 19, who works at The George Inn, was clearing up the bar when the earthquake hit. "It was pretty scary," she said. "There was this bang and all the fridges were shaking. The first thing we thought was that someone had crashed into the pub."

Walking outside to see what was happening, she saw the whole street was there. "Everyone was standing outside in their pyjamas, we were so confused; you just don't expect an earthquake in Britain."

It may have been unexpected but Britain does experience about 200 tremors a year, mostly too tiny to notice, take place in Britain every year. And people who suffered damage to their properties yesterday acknowledged that it could have been worse.

One of the most seriously damaged buildings in Market Rasen was St Thomas's Church. The Reverend Michael Cartwright said a large stone cross had been toppled from the roof, shattering tiles. The repair bill for the church is expected to exceed £10,000. Mr Cartwright said: "Fortunately for us, it did not actually go through the roof. Obviously, the earthquake has given us some slippage with the tiles as well, but we have been very, very lucky."

More than 150 miles away, in London, the tremors were still strong enough to wake thousands of people. Annie Wood, 24, was jolted from her sleep by the vibrations in St John's Wood, north London. "The whole house was shaking," she said. "At first I thought someone had maybe put a tumble-dryer on. But then I thought 'Oh my God, the whole house is going to fall down'."

In North Yorkshire, police fielded almost 700 calls from people frightened by the experience. And in Warwickshire, police had to deal with 240 calls between 1am and 1.30am, many from people who had mistaken the noise of the tremor for someone breaking into their house.

The British Geological Survey (BGS) said it had been inundated with calls, both from the public and the emergency services. The quake was tiny in a global context – in terms of ground movement, it was a million times weaker than the one that caused the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 – but it was large in a British context, because it was felt by so many people. The Association of British Insurers said the cost of the damage would run into tens of millions of pounds. Jason Harris, a senior claims manager at Norwich Union, said its claims line had been inundated with calls about homes damaged by the earthquake. "We have seen a number of claims coming in to our call centres overnight, but we expect further calls today as damage will be more obvious in daylight," said Mr Harris. "At the moment these are reports of mainly minor damage such as tiles off roofs, breakages inside the home and brick walls collapsing."

Davie Galloway, a seismologist at the BGS, said that many had been expecting the results of the tremors to be far worse. "Lots of people here were expecting there would be much more damage," he said. "This is a 'significant' earthquake, and the biggest we've had in nearly 24 years."

The last time Britain experienced a quake on this scale was in 1984 in the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales. That quake had a magnitude level of 5.4 but, because the region is largely rural, the damage was relatively slight. Yesterday, the shockwaves passed through a large number of built-up areas. What prevented it from causing mass devastation was the fact that it occurred at a depth of 15.4km.

Unlike places such as Indonesia or Japan, which lie on tectonic plate divides and for which the extreme effects of plate collisions are a common occurrence, Britain lies at the centre of a plate.

Scientists still puzzle over why the UK can be hit by earthquakes on such a scale at all. Professor Bob Holdsworth, head of earth sciences at the University of Durham, said: "Most potentially damaging earthquakes like this occur near to plate boundaries such as the San Andreas Fault [in California]. But the UK lies in the interior of a plate, so this is quite unusual. The causes and controls of UK seismicity are still poorly understood, but it is possible that it reflects the reactivation of an old fault zone that has lain dormant for tens or hundreds of millions of years. The UK crust is riddled with such old faults which form an important part of our geological heritage. Perhaps this one is just reminding us that it is still there."

Mr Galloway believes it may be a result of the ice age, more than 10,000 years ago. "Britain was pushed down during the ice age by the ice sheets that lay on its surface," he said. "Since that ice melted, there is isostatic rebound, causing the plate to move."

So is this the kind of natural calamity for which we should be becoming more prepared? Not according to Mr Galloway. Such earthquakes occur roughly every 30 years, he says, and there is no sign they are getting any worse in scale or frequency. "We could wait another 30 years, or there could be one tomorrow," he said. "But if you look back throughout history the number of earthquakes on this scale has remained largely the same."

About 1,300 earthquakes of this magnitude happen every year, in other parts of the world. "If they got a quake like this in California they'd probably still be sitting round drinking coffee," said Mr Galloway.

Great shakes

* Yesterday's tremor was the strongest since the Lleyn peninsula in north Wales was shaken by one with a magnitude level of 5.4 in 1984.

* The UK's strongest recorded earthquake was in 1931 in the North Sea. It measured 6.1 ML.

* The most damaging tremor of the 20th century was in Swansea in 1906. It measured 5.2 ML and injured two people.

* In 1884 Colchester suffered extensive damage when local houses and churches were destroyed by a large tremor.

* A tremor in Comrie, Scotland, in October 1839 caused the Earl's Burn Dam to breach.

* An quake measuring 4.7 ML was recorded in Derby in 1683.

* Britain's first recorded quake-related deaths took place in London in 1580.

* In 1089 the Duke of Malmesbury said of a tremor: "All the buildings were lifted up, then settled again as before."

* The first reports of a tremor in the UK were in 680.