Tag Archives: Jill Payne

Somerset, a ‘green and pleasant’ energy landscape?

Hinkley A

The decommissioned Hinkley Point A nuclear power station in its rural Somerset setting.
Image: Adrian Flint

With its agro-pastoral landscape of hedgerows, fields, and rolling hills and levels, often-sleepy Somerset may be the very picture of rural England – the quintessential ‘green and pleasant land’. To reinforce this, the area gained a variety of landscape and environmental designations over the course of the twentieth century, including Exmoor National Park and the Quantock, Mendip and Blackdown Hills Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

At the same time the Somerset region is a twenty-first-century hub of energy production that faces further intense energy development, both renewable and non-renewable. It is the site of the Hinkley Point nuclear power stations A and B, and, potentially C, as well as new supersized transmitter pylons. It is also increasingly – often controversially – dotted with wind- and solar-power projects.

To what extent are the two faces of Somerset in conflict with one another? After all, Somerset has a long, proud record of historical energy provision, if its coal mining and other industrial activities are taken into account. How is it that inconsistencies between public expectations of landscape beauty and energy security have developed?

As a historian of the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge, Jill Payne has worked on the historical dichotomy between energy provision and the aesthetics of landscape and environmental protection in South West England. In this episode of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast series, Jill explores what people have come to expect in terms of energy security and how this squares with the issues involved in the desire to protect and preserve landscape and environment in ‘green and pleasant’ England.

Further reading and resources

Jill Paynes blog posts on the Power and the Water website.

Quantock Hills blog posts on the Histories of Environmental Change website.

Luckin, Bill, Questions of Power: Electricity and Environment in Inter-War Britain (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 1990).

Nye, David E, American Technological Sublime (MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1994).

Williams-Ellis, Clough, England and the Octopus (Geoffrey Bles: London, 1928).


Music credits

Marcos Theme” by Loveshadow, available from ccMixter

Out in the rain” by offlinebouncer, available from ccMixter
Exploring environmental History podcast


This podcast was simultaneously published on the Environmental History Resources website as part of the Exploring Environmental History podcast series.

Stories of Consumption, Waste and Community in Bristol – European Green Capital 2015

By Jill Payne

‘The Power and The Water’ Project’s focus (read Marianna Dudley’s recent blog on this) at the Bristol Festival of Nature, 12-14 June, currently the largest free event of its kind in the UK, highlights the power of place as a platform for historical and political environmental debate. At our stand, the general Festival theme of all things ‘nature’ had a Bristol slant: hidden histories of Bristol’s rivers. Festival-goers interested in Bristol (mainly local, but also from up and down the country) came to talk to us about Bristol issues, and to compare these with issues elsewhere.

Aspects of local history depicted on our posters brought visitors over to share folk memories and childhood reminiscences with us: the River Avon as a busy shipping route; the whale that washed up on the banks of the River Severn in 1885; the traditional traps or ‘putchers’ used in the Severnside salmon-fishing industry. These opened the way for more contemporary topics: water quality and riverine/marine litter, especially non-biodegradable plastics waste, and possible solutions to this problem, about which there is considerable community feeling. Many people, it seems, regularly undertake their own private litter-picks along the river banks and other green spaces where they like to walk – and also feel strongly that the issue is as much one of plastics ubiquity as it is about responsible waste disposal.

Of course, many aspects of local waste management and water quality have improved significantly since the days when, as our posters showed, the River Frome became so polluted on its way through Bristol that the nineteenth-century solution was to culvert it. However, we can also look back to the era when Bristol water was an industry in itself, rather than a conduit for industrial and domestic waste. In the eighteenth century, bottled water from Hotwells on the banks of the Avon, then just downstream of the city and a famous spa destination, was exported as an elixir of health[1] – with the consequent rise in demand for glass bottles providing impetus for the Bristol glass industry.[2] Those eighteenth-century glass bottles can be seen as part of a cycle of bottled-water consumption extending forward to today’s plastic riverbank detritus, and, hopefully, towards future strategies for dealing with this and other products of the petrochemical age.

Team members at Avon

‘The Power & The Water’ Project team members and associates on the River Avon tidal floodplain at Sea Mills with plastics waste for the Festival of Nature stand, May 2015. Photo: J Payne.

The power of place in stimulating environmental debate also underpins the European Commission’s Green Capital initiative, which supports and encourages European urban authorities in their environmental commitments and achievements. Next week, Bristol will be halfway through its year as European Green Capital. Before it hands over the title to Slovenia’s Ljubljana in 2016, Bristol’s environmental provisioning will be given a global showcasing at the UN’s 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December.

Bristol’s presentation at the Paris Conference must necessarily focus on the future; viable strategizing for the environmental scenarios that may lie ahead will, however, be enhanced by further understanding of past as well as current and future issues, and the relationships that bind them.


[1] See for example ‘The Bills of Lading of Noblet Ruddock & Co, 1720’ in WE Minchinton, ed, The Trade of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century (Bristol Record Society, 1957), pp. 78; 80.

[2] William Matthews, The New History, Survey and Description of the City and Suburbs of Bristol (W Matthews, 1794), p. 40.

Jill Payne collaborates with artist Eloise Govier for Bristol Bright Night

On 26 September, project team member Jill Payne collaborated with the Bath-based contemporary fine artist Eloise Govier in the creation of a large-scale public art installation in the water spaces of Bristol’s Millennium Square. The installation, Ticker-Tape: Waterscape, formed part of the Bristol Bright Night event hosted by the At-Bristol Science Centre and was designed to challenge viewers’ perceptions of energy production in the landscape. Visitors were encouraged to walk around the artwork, a floating sculpture of 500 fluorescent bricks accompanied by a 5-minute visual soundscape broadcast on the BBC Big Screen overhead, and discuss their perspectives on art and energy landscapes with Eloise and Jill. Jill also provided an accompanying public lecture at the nearby Watershed.

Ticker-Tape: Waterscape is part of a series of Ticker-Tape installations created by Eloise Govier to spotlight and generate discussion on areas of contention in the public domain. Ticker-Tape was launched in April 2013 and has been executed in various sites across Europe, ranging from the Welsh/English border to a UNESCO-protected modernist housing estate in what was formerly East Berlin.

Bristol Bright Night is part of the annual ‘Researchers’ Night’ programme, an EU Commission-funded project that aims to engage publics across Europe in celebrating the latest and most stimulating research at a local and international level.

Art Installation

Ticker-Tape: Waterscape, Bristol’s Millennium Square (photo: Alex Dowson/Eloise Govier)

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?


Dunston Staiths: Industry as Art in the Landscape of the Tyne

By Jill Payne

As part of their Newcastle trip in June, the Power and Water team walked through Riverside Park to Dunston Staiths with Dr Angela Connelly from the Jetty Project and David Fraser, industrial heritage researcher.

Does energy infrastructure have to be redundant before it can be accepted as integral to the landscape?

Dunston Staiths is an iconic window into the age when coal was king on Tyneside. Built in the 1890s and finally closed in 1980, it’s a towering wooden structure that facilitated faster coal loading onto the ships that lined the Tyne at Gateshead before hurrying their cargoes to London and other industrialising centres hungry for fuel. In 2013, the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded nearly £420,000 to the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust as part of an ongoing restoration plan for the Staiths that includes improved public access and enhanced engagement with Newcastle’s coal heritage. The funding also envisions the ‘reconnection of the Staiths with the surrounding saltmarsh and wider natural heritage’.

Dunston Staiths at low tide. Photo: Jill Payne

Dunston Staiths at low tide. Photo: Jill Payne

The Staiths, of course, has been connected to the riverscape that it looms over ever since its construction; it’s us onlookers who need to be shown how to see it that way. On the whole, energy infrastructure tends to be too large-scale and, well, industrial, for many of us to view it as anything more than non-natural and detached from nature – and quite often, nowadays, detached from people and communities too.

Dunston Staiths, now a scheduled monument and Grade II-listed building, reminds us that today’s ‘eyesore’ energy infrastructure may be tomorrow’s cultural heritage site. Some 35 years after the Staiths’ working life ended, it’s not difficult to view it as a grand addition to the public art dotting Riverside Park as it spools out from the centre of Newcastle. Here, works like Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010) – giant rivets strewn alongside the path – anticipate the Staiths further upriver and remind us that people were working the riverbank long before we relaxed along it.

Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010). Photo: Jill Payne

Andrew McKeown’s ‘Riverside Rivets’ (2010). Photo: Jill Payne

As energy production methods change, the redundant infrastructure of past technologies – so often super-sized and out of scale – builds up around us. The more structurally viable of these constructions can be reinterpreted to excellent effect: viz the stunning spaces of Tate Modern, formerly London’s oil-fired Bankside Power Station. Others are more challenging: the cooling towers of Richborough Power Station in Kent were demolished in 2012, although not without debate and commemoration.

As heritage technology, we can deal with energy infrastructure – celebrate it, even. If it must be demolished, there is likely to be at least some concern expressed for the loss of landmarks and historical markers. Over the years, layers of meaning can be attached to any physical presence; time and socio-cultural associations can help us to smooth over the disconnection between us and the energy structures that have sustained us. However, over and above the comfort engendered by familiarity, it seems that we may be more accepting of energy structures as integral to our communities and our landscapes once they are no longer fit for their original purpose. Are we better able to appreciate them once they are presented to us outside of their original, workaday context? What, then, does this say about our responses to the infrastructure that currently supports us – solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors – or, like fracking mechanism – may do so in the future?

More about Dr Angela Connelly’s Riverside Art Walk with the Power and Water team and David Fraser here.


The Severn Bore, Minsterworth, Gloucestershire, 6 December 2013

Project strand 1 (Bristol) excursion: Peter Coates, Alexander Portch and Jill Payne

By Jill Payne

Severn Bore

Severn Bore near Over Bridge, Gloucestershire.
Source: Wikipedia

On 6 December, the Severn bore (the regular tidal surge that sweeps up the River Severn) made its way past Minsterworth as a relatively benign, if inexorable, swell of a few feet high. Without a crest, and moving at no more than a stately speed, its surge hauled upstream a procession of substantial logs and branches interspersed with a surprisingly limited amount of visible plastic.

As the Severn bore goes, this was unexceptional, the river acknowledging neither the previous night’s destructive storm and tidal surge to the east nor the passing of Nelson Mandela thousands of miles to the south.

It can be a capricious thing, the Severn bore. At times ‘heralded by a reverberating roar’, it has been described as a ‘huge foam-crested wave’ (The Times, 30 October, 1924) and a ‘great river monster’ (The Times, 12 April, 1927). In March 1934, spectators at Stone Bench were rewarded with a ‘wall of water…fully 12ft in height’ that flooded the river banks, but the even more noteworthy bore predicted for the following day failed to meet expectations (The Times, 19 March, 1934).

In the course of efforts to pin down the bore, it has been analysed, compared and predicted to within an inch of its life. Like bed and breakfasts, there is a rating system for bores. 6 December was predicted to be a medium or ‘two star’ affair. Next 2 February may, with the right conditions, bring a very large or ‘five star’ event. However, while science and twitter feeds do their best to provide advance knowledge, down on the river bank we are simply one more set of creatures watching to see what nature presents us with. Stand too far down the bank and we are liable to be swept off our feet to join the driftwood convoy. In September 1954, the poet and politician Lord Rufus Noel-Buxton, known for fording the Thames and the Humber, almost failed in his crossing of what he believed to be the Roman ford across the Severn between Alvington and Sheperdine when he missed his footing near the far bank just as the bore reached him (The Times, September 16, 1954).

While there is a degree of localised/specialised interest in the Severn bore, alongside a measure of media coverage, it has had a reasonably minor role in the construction of the identity of the regions that surround it. This in spite of the extent to which the Severn, estuary and river, has always been the watery jugular of the nearby parts of England and Wales; together with the upper reaches of the Bristol Channel, its influence is of course even more far-reaching.

Proponents of the much-disputed Severn Barrage envisage a further critical – but boreless – role for the Severn, harnessed and, arguably, producing as much tidal energy as several nuclear power plants.

Faced with the uncertainties of fracking, and further nuclear energy development just a few miles down the coast at Hinkley Point, we may have much to gain from making the Severn a more manageable and energy-productive creature – but (other environmental implications aside) will our farmed river compensate us for the flat-lining of yet another sliver of natural unpredictability?