Wind power has had a rather mixed press lately. More than 100 MPs signed a letter seeking a reduction in subsidies, and the Chairman of the National Trust told the Daily Telegraph that he regarded wind farms as a “menace”. In December they provided 5% of our electricity. But as the Government’s lead scenario is for renewable energy to meet 30% of our needs by 2020, we can expect a lot more of them.
My attitude to wind farms is like that of a poorly child faced with some unpleasant tasting medicine. I know they’re good for me, but I wish I didn’t have to have them. The massive structures seem utterly incompatible with the fine grain of the English landscape. But I’ve often wondered whether I might be converted if I got to know one personally.
So let me take you back two weeks. There is snow on the ground and the thermometer reads -6oC. I am setting off on foot for a fifteen mile walk across Romney Marsh on the Kent – Sussex border, through the Little Cheyne Court wind farm to Dungeness. There is barely a breeze, but from my starting point at the Ypres Tower in Rye I can see through the early morning haze that the turbines down on the marsh are moving. There are 26 of them at Little Cheyne Court. It is the largest on-shore installation in the south of England, and has for me the great added benefit of a public footpath right through the middle of it.
Romney Marsh is dead flat, steadily reclaimed from the sea over the last 1500 years. East Guldeford level, where I start my walk, was the last to be drained, around 500 years ago. An empty landscape of sheep, dykes and, today, ice and snow, it’s easy to visualise it as the shallow sea it once was, with the higher ground of Rye and the Isle of Oxney forming the “coastline”. And like being out at sea there isn’t a lot to navigate by. Particularly this morning. The footpaths are obscured under the snow, and there are rarely footprints to guide me.
I make a little detour to visit East Guldeford church, a 16th century building all alone on the marsh, and realise that I’m now on the wrong side of the dyke. I see two young foxes trot across the white landscape ahead of me, maintaining stride as they cross the frozen ditch confidently and continue on the other side. But I’m not sure the ice would hold my weight. I need to find a footbridge. I spot one a bit further along, and in the end they become my main navigational aids. These substantial wooden bridges are quite a recent addition. The traditional plank bridges would have been much harder to see.
The wind farm didn’t look very far away when I started out, but after I’ve been walking for an hour I still haven’t reached it. My brain must be struggling to make sense of the size of the things. Even the pylons carrying the power lines from Dungeness nuclear power station, which were until recently the tallest structures on the marsh, appear like Lilliputian contraptions beside them. But as I navigate by eye from one footbridge to the next, the steadily rotating turbines seem silent and benign, unheard above the traffic on the A259, the firing from the army ranges at Lydd and the crunch of my boots on the snow.
Out here on the marsh the turbines are perhaps less intrusive than in a more conventional landscape. In fact Little Cheyne Court is almost like an offshore installation, far from any sizeable settlement, and generally only experienced from a distance. It is only when I am 400m away that I start to become aware of any noise. The footpath meanders right under the turbines, and I sit beneath one for a few minutes and listen. The rush of the blades is (unsurprisingly) reminiscent of a windmill, and the turbine itself hums quietly. The strangest thing is the shadows from the rotating blades. They are enormously long in the low winter sun, creating a strobe effect across the walls of a farmhouse almost half a mile away. I hope they are only hitting outbuildings, rather than somebody’s living room window.
Close up the wind turbines are absolutely huge, but I find a certain beauty knowing that each one is generating enough carbon-free electricity for over 1000 homes. Then with a sudden roar the nearest one brakes and comes to a stop. The noise and movement cease, and I realise that close up the turbines dominate my sensory experience. But 400m further on, as I walk towards Lydd, they are again silent.
In Lydd I get into conversation with a pub landlord about the wind farm. He is sceptical, putting his faith in wave and tidal power as a more efficient long-term solution. His main concern is not the visual impact but how little electricity wind power generates for the cost. Little Cheyne Court provides power for 33,000 homes. Dungeness B can supply about 1.5 million. We do a rough calculation and agree that you would need to cover most of Romney Marsh with wind turbines to replace the generating capacity which will be lost when the nuclear power station closes in 2018.
I suppose that might be possible. With nothing in the way the wind must be pretty reliable, and England’s lands reclaimed from the sea – Romney Marsh, the Fens and the Somerset Levels – are not nationally protected landscapes. So the only restriction that Government planning guidance places on more capacity is the need to take the “cumulative impact of wind generation projects in particular areas” into account. And I don’t know how often that reason for refusal has been upheld on appeal.
I leave Lydd and continue south tracking the power lines to Dungeness. One of the great joys of walking on footpaths is that I can feel the geology changing under my feet. Dungeness is a shingle spit beyond the reclaimed marsh, and I soon find that I have two miles of pebbles to walk across to get to the power station. It’s hard work but explains why the Government has decided against replacing Dungeness B. It is essentially a nuclear reactor built on a beach, and the shingle spit isn’t really stable enough.
The power station dominates the view at Dungeness, if you choose to look that way. But the little groups of wooden summer homes perched on the beach in front of the nearby lighthouse have a character all their own – more like a Scandinavian holiday community than part of England. Any minute I expect Sarah Lund to turn up and start investigating a gruesome murder. For the amount of power generated Dungeness has far less impact on the appearance of the landscape than Little Cheyne Court – but then again there are no recorded instances of radiation leaking from a wind turbine.
And anyway it’s an unfair comparison. We aren’t installing wind power because it’s less visually intrusive – but because it’s carbon neutral and secure. And offshore, or on the broad flat acres of a remote part of Romney Marsh, it appears benign and unobjectionable.
But two days later as I drive up the nearby Elham Valley, I try and visualise 115m high wind turbines there, and shudder at the thought. Of course it won’t happen, as the Elham valley is part of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but the charm of the English landscape isn’t easily corralled by lines on maps. Much of our “unprotected” countryside has a similarly fine grain, which I fear wind farms would change for ever. So getting up close and personal with Little Cheyne Court hasn’t really worked after all. I still don’t want to take my medicine.