The Lincolnshire Marsh – an unloved landscape

THE LINCOLNSHIRE MARSH – AN UNLOVED LANDSCAPE

Here, you can see almost forever. It is a great green plain bounded by low wolds to the west and the North Sea to the east, by the River Humber to the north and the shining mudflats of the Wash to the south. It is a landscape for seven-league boots and ten-league thoughts, as the sun falls behind the small, blued summits and shadows rush away eastward.

It is a desirable, debatable territory maintained and menaced by countless capillaries—creeks, inlets, havens, estuaries, outfalls, deeps, lakes, meres, ponds, bogs, swamps, waters, rivers, streams, becks, brooks, ditches, drains, dykes, sykes, cuts, sluices, holes, lades, gowts, and gulls – which may at any time rise up and overtop the embankments, tops, rises, sills, bridges, lanes, ways, droves, pullovers, and gaps. At the lowest tides can be seen the stumps of trees among which animals and men hunted and were hunted 10,000 years ago, and the more recent ribs of ships left behind on seal-haunted sandbanks – and there are the semi-remembered, semi-fabulous stories of Great Storms, important ports drowned, wharves washed away, straightened waterways torn out of alignment, masonry dredged up by nets, kingly landing places laid low, abbeys annihilated, church bells heard tolling underwater.

The ancestral antediluvian experience and the ever-present apprehension of dangers and drownings inevitably to come are just aspects of a complicated and continuing saga, because the high tides and inundations have also deposited a dirty gold of salts-rich silt attractive to animals and cereals, as well as to the keen-faced men who for millennia have strewn seeds into the welcoming clay and released long-fleeced sheep to snuffle and snaffle for rich facefuls of grass and clover across the pastures and cotes, fitties and fields, nooks, gallops, and rides.

Prehistoric pedestrians, Roman soldiers, Saxon merchants, Anglian anchorites, Danish overlords, motte-and- bailey building Normans, harassed monarchs, tax collectors and customs men, journeymen, tinkers, Dutch engineers, countermarching Cavaliers and Parliamentarians, itinerant Protestant preachers, horse-traders, navvies, farm laborers, and tourists escaping modernity have passed this way, and looked down in idle curiosity or admiration at this great sweep of England’s edge—at this contour map without contours, this child’s dream landscape of big fields lined with hedges, strung-out villages, ships curving in through sea-haze towards Hull and Immingham, narrow twisting roads, coverts and holts, fluorescent rape, imperial linseed, glittering water, old houses of plum-red bricks fashioned out of the earth on which they stand, and, raised above everything else, the squat, sometimes slightly out of true towers of medieval churches in cow-parsley choked churchyards in parishes whose euphonious names go back to otherwise obliterated Danish landowners and even the Celts.

The Ordnance Survey maps, with their Gothic-lettered sites of deserted villages, monastic foundations, earthworks, and cultivation terraces, can read like the score of a thus-far unwritten North Country Symphony – Aby, Addlethorpe, Alford, Austin Fen, Gayton-le-Marsh, Grainthorpe, Grimoldby, Humberston, Marshchapel, Orby, Saltfleetby, Skegness, Theddlethorpe, Wainfleet, Willoughby. It is a wind- borne music audible to those who have discovered some of this place’s secrets, who have stood there, in that lane, and peered through a brake of hawthorn at hares boxing, weasels playing, the sycamore-studded Norman mound, the toppling 18th-century manor with the Venetian window and wrecked cars littered across the lawn.

The sparse, staccato spires – Perpendicular monumentality at Louth and Decorated stateliness at South Somercotes – and the elegantly Italianate dock tower at Grimsby (up crumbling iron ladders, and out finally into jacket-plucking wind and an arc of creeping ships and cloud-chased immensity) merely accentuate the fabulous flatness of this ocean of green leading to the ocean of blue beyond.

It is what Joseph Conrad would have called “an insignificant foothold on the earth . . . ignored between the hills and the sea” (Tales of Unrest). It is a place for silence and thinking, and listening breathlessly to the geese as they fly heavily over, their calls numinous with a sense of illimitable space, countries unseen, seas unnavigated, strands untraversed, marshes unexplored. It is also preeminently a place to bring joyful Jack Russells down expectant bosky paths and across morasses populated by marsh harriers, owls, bitterns, rooks, dragonlies, hoverflies, bumblebees, water spiders, hares, badgers, weasels, natterjack toads, newts, birds-foot trefoil, lords and ladies, cuckoo pint, rose bay willowherb, great mullein, Aaron’s Rod, a roe deer standing on its hind legs feeding from a tree, an angler-fish skeleton marooned hundreds of yards above the tideline, a washed-up 19th-century ship’s door, lichen-encrusted fortifications thrown up hastily in 1914 to pin down Wilhelmine shock troopers who never came. It is a place of subtle, unconventional beauty and recondite charms for a small number of cognoscenti – a place of escape, a place that has escaped.

Until now. For here, pricking once-unsullied horizons, rising dizzyingly up and up above the churches, there suddenly are gigantic white aluminium and PVC pillars, atop which sit three enormous sweeping scythes, harvesting the high winds as tiny earthbound men have for so many centuries tilled the prostrate land so far below.

The wind turbines are finally bringing industry and the city to the Lincolnshire Marsh, one of England’s last “empty” spaces – foreshortening vistas, filling fields of vast vision with flickering metronomic movement, kicking contemptuously away the pretensions of the churches, dragging unwilling minds away from Pan towards plasma TVs, turning open skies into Sky Sports and green places into Green Parties.

They are grandiose toys, as falsely friendly as the giant rubber balls that bounced across Portmeirion to capture and choke The Prisoner – avuncular stelæ pinning down, like fading beetles to cardboard, the formerly untrammeled vistas loved by Tennyson, adding a plastic surreality to the ghost-filled east coast that always, as W.G. Sebald observed,“stands for lost causes.”

That melancholy, reactionary seaboard may now itself be lost because of Whitehall’s self-imposed frantic rush to obtain 15 percent of national energy needs from “sustainable” sources by 2020 – to which end they are subsidizing electricity producers to the tune of £485 million per annum and centralizing planning powers to over- rule those peasants who are presumptuous enough to want to protect their areas. Our ever-increasing, ever more gadget-dependent population every year requires more and more megawatts to keep its Blackberries, iPhones, laptops, palmtops, satnavs, and net-books powered up and Chinese factories ticking over. And our government, in its lamentably lackadaisical way, instead of gently slowing population growth, altering our assumptions, and challenging our consumption, has opted to throw the people the fell meats they demand even though they know deep down that the diet is making them sick.

For the government it is business as usual, stoking the same old engine in the same old way: gorging on gigawatt gobbets to keep the lights on always in our police stations, courts, prisons, sex shops, sex clinics, needle exchanges, all-night bars, floodlit bungalows and executive homes, old people’s homes, sports stadia, expanded airports, supermarkets, shopping malls, job centres, business parks, closed factories, regulatory offices, equality commissions, bailed-out banks, and government departments – and to make brilliant the motorways that carry ever-thickening traffic to ever-shrinking destinations.

Sixteen turbines loom up above the Earls’ Bridge at Mablethorpe, the scene of an apocryphal duel in which two earls died, that sad-bungalowed sea- side resort made yet meaner; twenty at Conisholme, showing the tiny tree-surrounded church with its Anglo-Saxon crucifix its true importance; two at Croft, whose church contains one of England’s earliest brasses; and fifty- two offshore – all visible for over 20 miles from any angle. And more are planned—many more offshore (1), six at Langham, twenty at Orby, two at Tetney, ten at Gayton-le-Marsh, eight in the Wolds at Baumber (2), and yet others, marching like H.G.Wells’ Martians across supposedly protected spaces – powering not just houses but also a subsidiary demand for pylons, sub- stations, access roads, fencing, and security lights. And these are merely the planning applications that have been lodged; there are other landowners pondering the trade-off between money now and beauty tomorrow – an all-too easy decision for some, a decision others will probably live to regret.

The Lincolnshire Marsh has already paid exorbitant Danegeld to the god of global warming and more than fulfilled its regional targets on green energy, losing much more in attractiveness than it has so far gained in protection or even gratitude. Although turbines are springing up all over the country, guilt-reducing magic bullets aimed at a complex problem, many neighbouring areas have so far fought off applications – local politicians and planners there being perhaps longer-sighted or just wilier.

In January 2008, Dale Vince, the founder of the turbine operator Ecotricity, said,“We need every bit of green energy we can get and those who say otherwise are simply wrong and selfish.” In March, Energy Secretary Ed Milliband upped the political stakes, saying that opposing wind turbines should be “as socially unacceptable as not wearing a seat belt.” Such comments are simultaneously setting the agenda and going with the moral flow, with turbine skeptics now being routinely accused of selfishness, narrow- mindedness, ultraconservatism, and even “Duelling Banjos attitudes” (according to a letter attacking this writer in the Lincolnshire press). Naturally, the finger-pointers rarely offer their own backyards for the turbines, but are content for others to bear the burden of their bad conscience. (Similarly,Ted Kennedy is protesting a scheme to erect turbines that would be visible from his Cape Cod home.)

These “Greens,” for whom the countryside is a “resource” rather than a place of beauty, are in bed with an electricity industry now able to obtain positive headlines while simultaneously securing impressive profits. According to Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times, writing in January 2008,

Lavish subsidies and high electricity prices have turned Britain’s onshore wind farms into an extraordinary money-spinner, with a single turbine capable of generating £500,000 of pure profit per year. According to new industry figures, a typical 2 megawatt (2MW) turbine can now generate power worth £200,000 on the wholesale markets – plus another £300,000 of subsidy from taxpayers. Since such turbines cost around £2m to build and last for 20 or more years, it means they can pay for themselves in just four to five years and then produce nothing but profit.

Nonrenewable fuels also face a climate-change levy, from which renewable producers are exempted. Meanwhile, electricity bills have increased by approximately 15 percent in the last year. One would like to ask Mr. Vince who is really being the most “selfish.”

Yet all this investment, and all of Britain’s 211 operational wind farms (totaling 2,434 turbines, according to British Wind Energy Association figures), still only power around 1.9 million homes – and even this quotient needs to have conventional plants to back it up because wind power notoriously cannot be stored. (A system is being developed to solve this problem, but sadly it requires an old mine to house the necessary machinery.)

It is less obvious why local planners and politicians are often so compliant. Local councils do have limited and diminishing powers, but one might have thought they would have been putting up more of a fight for the area and the people they are elected to represent. There certainly seems to be too little understanding that Whitehall is not a friend, but a hostile power that must be outwitted.

A deeper reason affecting this part of the country specifically may be the conventional prejudice against flat landscapes as being somehow “boring” – a prejudice that has survived since earliest times, when marshes were places of disease and banishment, metaphors for marginalization, attracting saints like Guthlac, who built a small cell in the reeds at Crowland, in defiance of the “wilde menne” who plagued him, from which grew a great but now diminished abbey and today’s tiny town with its unique three-way bridge crowned by a weathered Christ the King.

It is simply too much trouble for these presently allied groups to encourage other renewable energy methods (solar power, tidal power, or biomass), or to outfox London bean-counters trying to offload their headaches, or to court unpopularity by asking people to change their habits. They have their “easy answer,” and they are going to stick to it, just as the town planners of the 1960s stuck resolutely to their tower blocks. In 20 years, when everyone will want to know who allowed all these turbines to be built, the monomaniacs or idlers responsible will be retired or retiring, encrusted with habit and self-justification and OBEs, weighed down with pension schemes and presentation clocks – Lilliputian facsimiles of the national politicians given peerages as a reward for lifetimes devoted to decline management.

Against the combined weight of administrative inertia and Green fervour are scattered individuals or small, fragmented groups short of money and time (there are some 140 anti-turbine campaigns in the United Kingdom), trying to galvanize local politicians and members of the public to fight for such life-enhancing intangibles as character, beauty, heritage, and quality of life. Even the recession has not yet stopped the march of the pillars and pylons – with Gordon Brown, like Barack Obama, trying to use investment in the green energy sector as a means of kickstarting the economy. Including the Lincolnshire turbines enumerated above, a further 846 turbines are presently being erected, another 1,837 have been given planning consent, and planning permission is being sought for 3,244 more (British Wind Energy Association figures).

There are heartening counter-developments: increased emphasis on offshore rather than onshore turbines, greater professionalism and coordination of anti-turbine groups, a new ten metre high turbine that is more efficient and less obtrusive, and developments in solar, tidal, and biomass technology that will soon make these commercially viable. The danger is that these longer-term solutions will arrive too late – and the lovely, lonely, taken-for-granted Lincolnshire Marsh will have drowned under a tsunami of towers before most people have even noticed it exists and is worthy of defence.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in August 2009, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner

NOTES

  1. There are now over 100 offshore turbines off the Lincolnshire coast, with more planned.
  2. Gayton le Marsh has since been approved, despite overwhelming opposition from local people and the county and district council. The Baumber scheme was, however, eventually refused. Local councils have become strongly anti-wind farm, but their awakening was slow and they are in any case weak vis-a-vis Whitehall. The “localism agenda” promised by David Cameron has not so far  materialized.

 

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