Hinkley Nuclear Power Station and the Steart Marshes: when do human-made landscapes become ‘natural’?

By Jill Payne

When (as is increasingly likely) the construction of Hinkley C nuclear power station goes ahead at Hinkley Point in Somerset, its two new reactors, the first civil nuclear construction in the UK in around two decades, will emerge beside the Bristol Channel alongside the two decommissioned reactors of Hinkley A station, and the two still operating at Hinkley B station.

The immediate ‘reality’ of the Hinkley site’s presence is, for many people, perhaps most entrenched in its looming figurative relevance; as a place of nuclear power production, the area has attracted headlines ever since the construction of Hinkley A began to be debated in the late 1950s. However, even without the Hinkley C units (which, from a distance, should appear as just less than the height of Hinkley B’s), the existing infrastructure makes for a substantial visual presence on the coastline.

Hinkley A Reactor

Reactor pastoral? The decommissioned Hinkley A nuclear power station framed by surrounding farmland (photo: Adrian Flint).

Up close, the power station buildings are intimidatingly brutalist. From a distance, they are visible on most reasonably clear days from across the Somerset Levels to the east and out on the Channel to the west as blocky silhouettes on the horizon. However, as with all infrastructure, Hinkley is simply one aspect of the wider human-made landscape in which it is situated, plus, it is not the only large-scale engineered addition to the area.


Steart Marshes

New natural? Across the flats from Hinkley A and B power stations (on the horizon to the left), the tide retreats from the freshly-constructed Steart Marshes (photo: Jill Payne).

There is another substantial human-engineered change taking place just along from Hinkley, in the shape of the Steart Marshes. To some extent, it’s quid pro quo: the original construction of Hinkley involved land reclamation and stabilisation on the sea-side of the site, and the existing precinct is encased in concrete and tarmac; the Steart Marshes plan has involved the reconstruction of a swathe of the nearby peninsula as an intertidal zone of saltmarsh and freshwater wetland. Old flood defences have been breached, and an artificial watercourse has been bulldozed out of former farmland. Now, at high tide, the waters of the Parrett Estuary spill out over what are currently raw mudflats. In future, the rewilded marshes, also a more general counterbalance to the embankments of much of the surrounding coastline, will act as a natural buffer against rising sea levels. It’s also possible to highlight the potential role of the marshes in protecting Hinkley’s power transmission network; the viability of the pylon transmission route from Hinkley was one of the features of the original case made for a nuclear power station here.

Half a century after Hinkley began operations, the Hinkley compound remains resolutely distinct from its surroundings. The Steart Marshes will, however, become visibly naturalised. The tides and the seasons will do their work, and the current construction scars will be eroded by time and new plantlife.

What is interesting here is how natural-looking but nonetheless ‘engineered’ landscapes tend, especially in the longer term, to go less remarked upon. They come to be viewed, particularly as firsthand memories of original construction works fade, as rather different entities to their more overtly artificial counterparts. Do we chew over degrees, aspects and meanings of natural-ness here? Or do we take this as another reminder of the power of visual impact in shaping our responses to human-induced environmental change?



  • Leona Skelton

    Excellent comparison Jill, between two man-made additions to the ‘natural’ landscape. I bet if you did a questionnaire, most people would say they prefer the Steart Marshes because they look more ‘natural’. This is an important issue, which we, as environmental historians, are right to interrogate. This came up time and again during my Kielder research, as the people who have moved there since the construction of the dam in 1982 insist that the landscape looks natural, and even that it is natural, but those who have lived there since before 1982 are explicitly aware that the landscape, however much they admire it personally, is ultimately man-made. When I was in Lisbon, I went to see nearby Sintra’s Pena Palace, a Gothic design, painted in fantastically clashing, and in my opinion tasteless and chaotic, colour combinations, complete with purely decorative embellishments resembling mock defences (http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/parks-and-monuments/park-and-national-palace-of-pena/). It’s protected as an important, historical building, but I doubt if anyone could obtain planning permission for it in the UK today. Will people in 200 years’ time appreciate and fight to protect and save the big, bold, animated hotels of the Vegas Strip, which we might consider today as relatively ephemeral buildings in comparison to big-budget architectural projects such as London’s Shard? Will our future descendants fight to save Hinkley B itself? What about the 1970s skate park (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-29814821) in Essex, which has recently been Grade II listed? Are we as impressed by a skate park as we are by eighteenth-century stately homes, follies and landscaped gardens?

    Who decides what is worth protecting, what is brutal and what is natural; what is welcome and what is unwelcome? I guess it’s our job to challenge the substance of such definitions and labels, and track how they have evolved and changed over time according to a particular political context, national economic circumstances and perhaps even the fashion taste or the particular meaning a building or engineered landscape has in a generation’s psyche. Jill raises a very important point, which we can all pursue in our respective case studies.

  • Peter Coates

    After our tour of Hinkley B on 12 September, a group of us visited the Steart Marshes before heading back to Bristol (en route to Steart, we stopped off in Stolford at the fish shack operated by Brendan Sellick and his son, Adrian, the last of the mud-horse fishermen of Bridgwater Bay, to buy brown shrimp and an eel – but that’s another story). Our impression was also that of a construction site rather than a nature reserve: the pathways, benches and wildlife watching hides are newly installed, the immaculate car parks have just opened and I felt as if I was the first person to use the gleaming, pristine toilet facilities. But the re-naturalization process at Steart has already begun: otters have been caught on camera near the holt (den) that local residents have built.
    Jill labels her picture of the freshly engineered wetlands ‘new natural?’ This brings to mind the Dutch notion of ‘new nature’ – to ‘give back to nature’ superfluous agricultural lands to compensate for the loss of ‘old nature’ elsewhere [1] – as exemplified by Oostvaardersplassen. Jill also invites us to think about the emergence of a sense of natural-ness, ‘as firsthand memories of original construction works fade’. Posted on the website of Steart Marshes (managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in partnership with the Environment Agency) is a 3-minute film accompanied by tranquil, eminently pastoral piano music, that provides a bird’s-eye view of the site and its environs; as we fly westwards, towards the end, Hinkley Point makes a relatively unobtrusive appearance, evoking Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast rather than a nuclear power station (definitely ‘reactor pastoral’, Jill). (‘Creating Steart Marshes – the story so far’, at http://steart.wwt.org.uk/)
    But the feature of the site that left a bigger impression on me is the item (under ‘News’, 17 June 2014) that documents the installation of the wildlife watching hides (recycled shipping containers, clad in locally sourced wood), replete with images of flatbed lorry, heavy lifting equipment and construction workers (http://steart.wwt.org.uk/2014/06/construction/new-hides-going-in/). Having been present at the creation (so to speak), these are the sort of images that will probably colour indelibly my perspective on one of Britain’s largest wetland creation schemes.
    [1] Hein-Anton Van Der Heijden, ‘Ecological Restoration, Environmentalism and the Dutch politics of “New Nature”’, Environmental Values, 14/4 (November 2005): 427-46.

  • Erin Gill

    The passing of time – and the familiarity that time brings – seems to be a primary factor in people’s acceptance of anything in their local environment as ‘natural’, ‘acceptable’ or even ‘beautiful’. As Jill points out, a highly-engineered nature reserve such as Steart Marshes will be described increasingly as ‘natural’ as the scars of its creation fade. Clearly, ‘naturalness’ can’t be used to determine what should stay or go in our environment. It’s too subjective. Are criteria such as ‘harm’ and ‘hazard’ more useful’? They seem to be more powerful, these days, in influencing decisions about what stays and what goes in our local environments. The hulking cooling towers of Didcot A coal-fired power station were such a familiar sight to me on train journeys to and from the Midlands that it has felt slightly ‘unnatural’ to pass by their former location and not see them (1). Their demise was prompted not by a discussion around whether they were ‘natural vs unnatural’ but, ultimately, about the environmental harm of their polluting emissions and the excessive costs that would have been incurred with retrofitting systems to reduce those emissions.

    (1) Video footage of cooling tower demolition: http://www.theguardian.com/business/video/2014/jul/27/didcot-power-station-cooling-towers-demolished-video

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