Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for the Severn Barrage, 1849. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In recent decades the interest in renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has steadily increased. However, this interest in harnessing “mother nature’s” energy is not new. Over the past 160 years the Severn estuary has been the focus of numerous proposals to provide a transport route over the estuary, improve navigation and to exploit its large tidal range to generate electricity. As a potential source of predictable, renewable and carbon-free power with the potential to supply up to 5 per cent of current UK electricity needs, such interest is understandable. Despite its potential, the latest proposals, like all its predecessors in the past century and a half, have failed to secure government and public support to build a barrage in the Severn estuary.
How is it that a barrage still has not gone beyond the drawing board? And why are companies, scientists and politicians still willing to invest time, effort and money in further proposals? Alexander Portch, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Bristol University, investigates these two questions. Although the past 150 years is the main focus, Alexander also investigates earlier efforts to harness tidal power of the Severn and how the activities of people whose lives were bound up with the estuary’s daily tides have shaped the estuary and lands bordering it. This episode of the podcast features an interview with Alexander Portch and his work on the history of the Severn Estuary.
More than four years ago a remarkable thing happened along the course of the Elwha, a river on the northern edge of the Olympic National Park in Washington State, USA. In a nation renowned for the number of watercourses that have been heavily modified by the construction of dams – for irrigation, hydroelectricity and water supply – a complex operation began to remove the obstructions that had controlled and exploited the river’s flow since the early decades of the 20th century.[i] As the title of a recent publication by the Seattle Times journalist Lynda V. Mapes attests, the Elwha has now become “a river reborn;” although for better or worse is still the subject of some debate.[ii] For the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose claim to the river, its fisheries and surrounding lands, extends back thousands of years, the return to their ownership of sections of the river and the reappearance of the fish that had for so long been prevented from migrating to their natural spawning grounds is undoubtedly a reason to rejoice. Likewise, local recreational fishermen (and women), kayakers, and those appreciative of an apparently unspoilt, pristine riverscape are equally positive about the outcome. But for users of the former reservoir and visitors to camping grounds recently washed out by flooding, the benefits are perhaps less obvious.[iii]
The site of the Elwha Dam following its removal. The embankment in the middle distance is all that remains of the original structure. Photo: Alexander Portch.
I first became aware of the Elwha and its rich and complex history through the discovery of Mapes’ book while researching possible comparative studies to consider alongside the saga of the Severn Barrage. Although the dams may not have made use of the tides as their source of energy, I found the subject fascinating as an example of what can happen to a river when a dam is built and, more interesting still, what the implications are of its subsequent removal many years later. The question arose: if a Severn Barrage were to have been built, would there have ever come a time when a case would be made for its removal and, if successful, what would the outcome be of the river’s “rebirth?
To then have the opportunity to visit the Elwha and the site of one of its former dams (there were originally two – the Glines Canyon Dam in its upper reaches, and the Elwha Dam closer to its mouth) as part of the 2016 American Society for Environmental Historians (ASEH) conference in Seattle was an unexpected, but very welcome, pleasure. The conference – at which I presented a poster on my research – was an enjoyable, productive and intellectually stimulating event, with panels ranging from the application of GIS to the study of industrial London and its overseas trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, to “twentieth-century energy frontiers” and the challenges of doing premodern environmental history. However, the visit to the Olympic Peninsula, the Elwha, and particularly the point at which the river meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s reservation, was especially memorable.
The view of the Seattle skyline from the ferry crossing Puget Sound on the return journey from the Olympic National Park. Just visible in the far distance is Mount Rainier, an active volcano. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Since the removal of the dams a vast quantity of sediment, previously trapped many miles up-river, has been allowed to flow unobstructed to the sea, being deposited at its mouth. Local tribal members can now walk hundreds of metres out along this accumulated material; with Bald-Headed Eagles gliding majestically overhead, drawn by the return of salmon and other marine species. For me this sight was particularly striking as the Severn is also a river characterised by high volumes of sediment which, it has been suggested, would be trapped behind a barrage, potential blocking and damaging the turbines and requiring regular dredging to keep in check. I wonder what would happen following the removal of a barrage, and the release of all that aggregate?
The newly formed beach at the mouth of the Elwha River within the bounds of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribal reservation. Most of this material has been deposited within the past couple of years. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Equally interesting were the insights provided during a stop at the Elwha Dam removal site by one of the archaeologists from the National Park Service who was closely involved in the restoration project. As part of that process archaeological surveys were required, including excavations of prehistoric sites encountered in the vicinity of the dams themselves, and features that were revealed as the lake waters fell and the river resumed a more natural course. Alongside the remnants of early human activity, the dams too were recognised for their historical and archaeological significance. Having been constructed at such an early point in the development of hydroelectricity, and still retaining much of their original machinery, they had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, necessitating detailed historic building surveys prior to their removal. A Severn Barrage has frequently been cited as having an expected lifespan of up to 120 years. After that period had elapsed would it too be considered as an important part of the nation’s heritage; something requiring thorough recording and analysis before finally being retired from service? Or, conversely, would it be preserved as a monument and museum to 21st century innovation and ingenuity? One thing is for sure, at 18 kilometres (11 miles) in length it would keep archaeologists and historic building surveyors busy for a very long time!
N.B. Attendance at the ASEH conference was made possible by a travel grant from the University of Bristol’s Alumni Foundation.
Bald-headed eagles wait patiently at the mouth of the Elwha, perhaps for salmon returning to their spawning grounds in the now-accessible upper reaches. Photo: Alexander Portch.
After a week of continuous conference sessions, some fresh air and open space was greatly needed. Thankfully, the UNESCO world heritage city of Guimaraes is situated amongst a truly spectacular landscape; one that could be easily enjoyed thanks to a cable car running direct from the urban centre to the summit of the nearby Montahna da Penha. Photo: Alexander Portch
And so the conference season continues. Whilst a new experience for me personally, the extensive programme of talks and panels circulated in advance of the 2nd World Congress of Environmental History at the University of Minho in Guimaraes, Portugal, which took place between the 8th and 12th of July, provided an insight into what to expect from the one of the year’s most prestigious gatherings of environmental historians, and the subsequent event didn’t disappoint. With presentations and discussions covering a multitude of subject areas, geographic locations and sub-disciplines – from marine cultural environments to the intersections between environmental histories and visual culture; encompassing the Americas, Australasia, India, Africa, and even the comparatively humble Tyne valley in northern England; and drawing upon the work of historians, geographers, zoologists and artists – WCEH 2014 demonstrated quite clearly just how far the practice of environmental history has advanced since the early days of the mid-late 20th century. Nonetheless, despite being daily immersed in a wealth of world-class scholarship disseminated by some remarkably knowledgeable, outgoing and enthusiastic individuals, I still could not help but be distracted by further developments back home in my own area of interest: the Severn Estuary.
Alongside the excitement of meeting and engaging with students, academics and scholars from around the world; listening attentively to discussions on topics as relevant to my interests as the remaking of North American rivers through the construction of hydroelectric dams and as fascinating as the emergence of Earth Art in the 1960s; sampling the many delights of Portugese café culture; and witnessing the tidal wave of destruction that was Germany’s assault on an unsuspecting Brazil in their 7-1 semi-final victory earlier in the week; the news that the Crown Estate have recently agreed seabed rights for a host of new wave and tidal energy demonstration zones, in addition to five new wave and tidal current sites, at various locations around the British coast, couldn’t fail to attract my attention. This includes three sites to be operated by Cornwall-based company WaveHub, encompassing wave testing zones in North Cornwall and South Pembrokeshire and a tidal stream array off the north coast of Devon near Lynmouth. The latter has been announced as the test site for Pulse Tidal’s Pulse-Stream system, which employs an alternative approach to harnessing the power of tidal stream currents to that employed by the majority of developers. Rather than creating the equivalent of an undersea wind turbine, as has been the case for MCT Siemens with their SeaGen design and Open Hydro with their Open Centre technology, the pulse-system exhibits a vertical up-and-down motion akin to the flaps on an aircraft which enables it to be deployed in relatively shallow water.
Equally distracting was the news that, despite the apparent finality of the UK government’s decision last year to reject proposals by Hafren Power for a tidal barrage along the Cardiff-Weston route (from Lavernock Point on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary to Brean Down on the English side), the newly formed Severn Tidal Energy have recently succeeded in negotiating up to £200m of investment for a renewed attempt at securing support for an identical scheme. The investor, who is reported to be experienced in funding global infrastructure projects, has yet to be formally identified; however, it seems evident that STE are intent on pursuing a similar strategy to that of Hafren Power who made it clear that their project would be dependent on significant financial support from a private investor.
The “Cardiff-Weston Line” with Weston to the left and the islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm marking the route to Lavernock Point on the Welsh coast near Cardiff. What will this view be like by the middle of the 21st Century? Very different if the newly-formed Severn Tidal Energy succeeds in its renewed attempt at securing permission for a Severn Estuary tidal barrage. Photo: Alexander Portch
As part of my work into the history of tidal energy and the exploitation and harnessing of the tides in the Severn Estuary and Inner Bristol Channel, it is my intention to employ the insights gained from my study of the past to enable the development of informed predictions and imaginings of future scenarios for such activity in the region. Could for example, the now derelict tide mill at Berkeley be resurrected as a small-scale hydro-electricity power station capable of servicing the local community? However, the activities of companies like WaveHub and organisations such as RegenSW serve as a reminder that such a future is already in the process of being envisioned. Perhaps, in place of older technologies such as tide mills or barrages, electricity will be generated through the widespread establishment of vast undersea tidal stream farms, supplemented in places by tidal lagoons such as that proposed for Swansea Bay. Alternatively, the recent establishment of Severn Tidal Energy and the renewed effort by its supporters to realise the potential for generating 5% of the UK’s electricity supply through construction of a single large-scale piece of infrastructure could still result in the designs from the past being made manifest in the future. Only time will tell, but whatever comes to pass, regardless of where I am in the world, at which conference I am presenting or which major sporting event is taking place, I will be sure to remain abreast of developments in the Severn Sea.
Sources/Relevant Website Links (all accessed on 14/07/14):
“This year came a great naval armament over hither south from the Lidwiccians… They went then west about, till they entered the mouth of the Severn; and plundered in North-Wales everywhere by the sea, where it then suited them… but the men of Hertford met them; and of Glocester, and of the nighest towns; and fought with them, and put them to flight… And they drove them into a park; and beset them there without, until they gave them hostages, that they would depart from the realm of King Edward. And the King had contrived that a guard should be set against them on the south side of Severnmouth… Nevertheless, they eluded them at night, by stealing up twice; at one time to the east of Watchet, and at another time at Porlock. There was great slaughter each time; so that few of them came away, except those only who swam out to the ships. Then sat they outward on an island, called the Flat-Holms…”
Extract from the The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year AD 918 (source:britannia.com)
And so, like the Viking raiders of more than a millennium before, three Bristol-based members of The Power and the Water Project Team set forth from the English mainland, and thence across the expanse of the Bristol Channel in search of the sanctuary and isolation of the island of Flat Holm. Situated approximately five miles out to sea from Cardiff and Barry on the south-eastern coast of Wales, Flat Holm is one of two small islands located along a line between the pronounced headland of Brean Down, near Weston-super-Mare, and Lavernock Point, a short distance along the coast from Cardiff. With the discovery in 1988 of a Bronze Age Axe, dating to c. 900 – 700 BC, indicating the presence of humans on the island more than 2000 years ago; records of regular visits during the late 6th century by the Welsh saint Cadoc; and physical and documentary evidence for continuous occupation throughout the past 800 years; this small (approx.. 500m across) expanse of land in the midst of the Severn Sea is of great historic interest. Combined with its important geological features and rich natural heritage, recognised through its status as a SSSI, Local Nature Reserve, and Geological Conservation Review Site (GCR), the island is more than worthy of a visit by anyone with even a passing interest in the Severn Estuary, wildlife, history or archaeology.
The islands of Flat Holm (in the foreground) and Steep Holm (beyond) line up as the cross-estuary ferry “Westward Ho” passes by to the north. Photo: Alexander Portch.
The fact, however, that it also lies along the line of the frequently postulated Cardiff-Weston route for a Severn Barrage, makes it especially significant for this writer. When viewed from afar Flat Holm, with its renowned population of Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) (approx.. 4000 pairs), a stronghold of the Wild Leek, and historic value as the place where, in May 1897, Guglielmo Marconi first successfully transmitted a message across the open water using his wireless telegraphy system, would appear to be particularly vulnerable to the potential negative impacts associated with the erection nearby of a vast wall of rock, steel and concrete, complete with shipping locks and potentially even a road, railway and series of wind turbines. Despite the obvious presence of humans throughout much of the past 2500 years, demonstrated most tangibly by the remains of defensive fortifications dating to the mid-19th century, further military structures from the Second World war, the ruins of a farmhouse, and a lighthouse; the island still seems, even upon close inspection, like a wild and windswept place, where humans are an invasive species – disturbers of the peace enjoyed by the gulls, rabbits, lizards and sheep. From such a perspective, opposition to a barrage could be seen as wholly understandable and indeed a worthy cause.
Flat Holm lighthouse, located at the southern end of the island. The light is now fully automated and has been powered by solar panels since 1997. Photo: Alexander Portch.
It was, perhaps, with such views in mind that on Wednesday April 16th 2014 project members Peter Coates, Jill Payne Payne and I arrived on “Coal Beach,” at the north-eastern end of the island having traversed the full width of the Channel between Weston-Super-Mare and Cardiff aboard the bow-loading, Island Class Passenger Vessel “Westward Ho”; a rather small yet accommodating ferry which operates between Cardiff, Weston and Flat Holm throughout much of the Spring and Summer months (http://mwmarine.org/index.php/notable-vessels). This included a brief stop-over in Cardiff Bay; an area of water impounded behind a fixed barrier which, since its construction in 1999, has completely transformed the industrial maritime landscape of disused dockside facilities and intertidal mudflats into the social, cultural and recreational hub of modern Cardiff, replete with an opera house, shopping centre and the iconic copper-plated structure of the Senedd, which houses the National Assembly of Wales (see http://cardiffbay.co.uk/index.php/history). When first postulated the Cardiff Bay Barrage, much like its bigger estuarine cousin, met with fierce objection, including from those who feared the loss of important wetland habitats for birds, flora and other coastal wildlife. In many respects their concerns were well-founded, as such resources have indeed been lost; however, it is difficult to overlook the vibrant atmosphere of the area today, nor the smart-looking yachts and well-tended blocks of flats; their balconies overlooking the comings and goings of vessels navigating their way through the three locks which connect the Bay with the wider tidal estuary. For me at least, the experience of being conveyed through a large shipping lock was a first, and one which proved to be an unexpected, yet most welcome, highlight of the expedition. Whilst the locks that would be incorporated into a Cardiff-Weston barrage would be significantly larger, it was still possible to gain a sense of what entering the Severn Estuary Lake from the tidal Bristol Channel might be like for incoming container ships if a Severn Barrage were ever to be built.
Peter Coates watches with interest as one of the three locks connecting the freshwater lagoon of Cardiff Bay with the tidal waters of the Bristol Channel begins to fill with water. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Much as the tide is the key factor motivating the proposals for building a barrage, it is also a conspicuous force influencing the ways in which people, both now and in the past, interact with the island of Flat Holm. Arrival and departure times are wholly subject to the operation of the tides, with boats arriving on the pebble-strewn beaches at high tide, disembarking their cargoes of goods and passengers, then either leaving straight away on the falling tide or, as in the case of our own mode of transport, being left high and dry for up to six hours until the water level once again reaches a height sufficient to float the vessel free. It was perhaps such a characteristic of the two “holms” (a Scandinavian term for a river island) that attracted religious communities during the middle centuries of the 1st millennium AD. On the nearby Steep Holm the ruins of a medieval chapel attest to their presence, whilst on Flat Holm little physical evidence remains for the existence of such a community, with the exception of a cross-inscribed slab found incorporated into the base of the garden wall of the island’s farmhouse. Medieval burials and a curving enclosure ditch, excavated in 1979, may also hint at the whereabouts of some of the island’s earliest structures. With access to the island being governed by the movement of the Channel’s waters and facilitating landings only with great skill and much danger, particularly during inclement weather, the early Christian inhabitants must have found it the ideal place to pray, meditate and practice their distinctive eremitic lifestyle. The workings of the tide may also have played a key role in the island’s infamous history as a haunt for smugglers throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries. In full view of the local authorities in Cardiff, smugglers were known to convey goods to caves in the cliffs on the eastern side of the island in broad daylight, with little apparent concern about the risk of being caught. Such activity was greatly aided by the fact that the authorities lacked a suitable vessel with which to pursue the smugglers; however, even if such a craft had been within their means, their passage out from the mainland would still have been dependent on the timing of the flood and subsequent ebb tides, with any delay providing the perfect opportunity for those engaged in illicit activities to slip away to safety.
The bow-loading Island Class Passenger Vessel “Westward Ho” sitting high and dry as it awaits the incoming tide to free it from its berth on the pebbly shores of Flat Holm Island. From this point it took little more than 15 – 20 minutes before it was ready to depart – a clear demonstration of the speed with which the tide ebbs and flows around the coastline of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. Photo: Alexander Portch.
It is apparent, therefore, that for as long as humans have interacted with the islands of the Bristol Channel they have, in so doing, interacted with non-human nature. Through knowledge of the tidal cycle people have gained access to Flat Holm, and through exploitation of its mineral resources and agricultural potential they have derived wealth and sustenance. In many respects Flat Holm is an excellent example of how closely human activity can be integrated with the functioning of the “natural” world, as the characteristics that presently justify the island’s status as a SSSI, almost without exception, are the product of anthropogenic influence. The Wild Leeks, for example, are believed to have originally been brought over by the monks who cultivated them on neighbouring Steep Holm, whilst the rabbits were intentionally introduced in the 12th Century. The present plant communities that dominate much of the island’s open landscape, including various grasses, nettles and ground ivy are most likely the result of the rich soils that have built up in response to years of pastoral activity, including manuring by cows, sheep and goats. The Wild Peony was also introduced from Steep Holm, although at a later date, during the Second World War; whilst the thousands of Lesser Black-backed Gulls that call the island their home, and in turn create such a feeling of wildness despite the obvious human presence, only arrived during the 1950s as a result of the abandonment of the military facilities by the 350 soldiers who had been stationed there.
This close ties between human and natural history of the island was further propounded, much to the shock of the project team members, upon conversing with the knowledgeable and welcoming wardens and volunteers of the Flat Holm Project, who have managed and operated the island since 1982 (http://www.flatholmisland.com/). It was initially felt that somehow the gulls of Flat Holm gave the appearance of being somewhat healthier and more “natural” in such a wild and rural setting than their comparatively unkempt urban relatives in towns and cities like Bristol. To be informed, therefore, that the principal food supply for the Flat Holm population comprises the nearby Cardiff City landfill came as quite a surprise. It was also explained that the numerous small bones found scattered across the island were not in fact the remains of predated rabbits, but were predominantly chicken bones; the leftovers from the seagull equivalent of a trip to the local Chinese takeaway. Similarly, pieces of plastic, fragments of children’s toys and plastic balls were also found to represent the colourful trinkets picked up by the birds in their enthusiasm as they scour the dump in search of a chicken drumstick or juicy spare rib. As such, the great majority of litter scattered about the island isn’t the direct result of human carelessness, but is the work of supposedly wild creatures exploiting the products of our own throwaway culture. The fault could thus still be perceived as ours; if perhaps an unexpected and unintentional consequence of our actions. It is also clear, however, that the remarkable number of Black-backed Gulls on Flat Holm are almost wholly reliant on the waste products of human society for their survival and it is believed that their initial arrival and subsequent explosion in numbers could be directly attributable to such a rich and easy source of sustenance. The current population is in fact almost half that which existed earlier in the 20th century, a product of a careful programme of management intended to conserve a maritime grassland habitat across the northern end of the island: yet another example of human involvement in the development and proliferation of nature on this small outcrop of limestone cast adrift in the middle of the Severn Sea.
Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus) perched on the cliffs at the southern end of Flat Holm. With approximately 4000 pairs, it is very much their island! Photo: Alexander Portch.
If humans have been so pivotal in the development of wildness on Flat Holm, therefore, could it not be argued that further human involvement in the region, even in the form of a barrage, is a continuation of that activity? A central concept in the discipline of environmental history is the idea that throughout much of their existence humans have exerted a profound influence upon non-human nature and, in turn, non-human nature has been a key factor in shaping human history. Indeed for many scholars, humans and nature are indivisible: humans are a part of nature and thus their activities are wholly natural. It is almost certain that a barrage would lead to significant change on Flat Holm, and could result in the loss of many of the species and habitats for which it is presently renowned. But filling the void left by their demise would be a host of new plants and animals that would greatly benefit from the altered tidal regime, the modified air currents (particularly if wind turbines were also constructed) and the varying levels of pollution, both during and after construction Nonetheless, even if the natural world is seen to benefit, there is no escaping the fact that the visual aesthetics of the estuarine landscape, and the feeling of remoteness which so vividly evokes the isolation that must have been appreciated by the early Christian inhabitants, will be irrevocably transformed and perhaps even lost entirely.
Farewell to Flat Holm. Silhouetted against the clear blue sky can be seen a wind turbine, and the foghorn which remained in operation until 1988. In addition to wind power, the island benefits from solar panel arrays and a biomass boiler. Alongside a large Victorian aquifer for storing collected rainwater, it can boast a remarkably high level of self-sufficiency. Photo: Alexander Portch.
Nonetheless, as the ferry departed Flat Holm, Ynys Echni in Welsh, leaving behind the ghosts of Bronze Age explorers, early Medieval monks, Viking raiders and the scores of mariners shipwrecked around its treacherous shores, it wasn’t the inter-connectedness of humans and their environment, or the comparative benefits of barrages and tidal stream turbines that were foremost in my thoughts. Instead, as the first time I had viewed what had always seemed a familiar land/seascape from such a different perspective, I could do little but gaze upon the holms in wonderment at their beauty as they faded in the half light of the setting sun.
Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous 1922 novel about George F. Babbitt, the peppiest realtor in the burgeoning Midwestern US city of Zenith, is often credited with popularizing the term ‘booster’. On their lapels, he and zealous fellow members of the Zenith branch of the Boosters’ Club wear buttons that read ‘Boosters – Pep’. Whether you’re mixing a cocktail or pursuing a business opportunity, it’s all about putting some pep into it.
In a large lecture theatre in Bristol University’s Department of Engineering, one recent evening (18 February 2014), Professor Roger Falconer certainly put plenty of pep into a well-attended talk on the Severn barrage. Professor of Water Management and the Director of Hydro-environmental Research Centre at Cardiff University, Falconer is a leading expert on Severn tidal power and prominent advocate of a Severn Barrage – the subject of project student Alexander Portch’s research – the most recent proposal for which (Hafren Power) was turned down in June 2013 by the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee.
Falconer’s lecture (‘Recent Considerations for a Severn Barrage’) was eagerly anticipated by Bristol-based project team members (three of us had just returned from an outing related to Jill Payne’s project on Somerset’s energy landscapes, which included a visit to the showroom in Bridgwater of EDF Energy, the company building two new reactors at Hinkley Point). We were not disappointed, and those seeking a lively and accessible introduction to the barrage controversy could not have asked for more.
Falconer firmly believes that the Severn estuary offers the ideal UK site for the large scale harnessing of tidal energy. His support for a two-way power generation proposal (as distinct from ebb tide generation only) was broadly contextualized within remorselessly rising global energy demand, the imperative to ditch dependence on fossil fuel, and with reference to ambitious EU targets for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (by 80% by 2050) . He then ran through alternative options for harvesting the Severn’s prodigious tidal power, such as a series of tidal lagoons, all of which he found wanting (alternative estuarine sites, such as the Mersey and Humber, also fall well short in his view). Not least, as a Welshman speaking in Bristol, he spoke to how a barrage would act as a magnet for regional economic growth, encouraging a westward shift of population from the overcrowded, water-stressed southeast.
Without mentioning salmon by name, Falconer admitted that the impact of a barrage on fish, especially migratory species, remained a major unresolved problem. And he quashed hopes that barrage construction would provide a magic bullet to keep at bay future inundation of the nearby Somerset Levels. Toward the end of his lecture, he conceded that he may not see a barrage built in his lifetime (he’s in his early sixties). But he feels that the time and energy he has devoted to boosting the project (most recently as a member of Hafren Power’s regional board and expert panel) will all have been worthwhile if he has managed to bring the project a bit closer to reality.
Artist’s impression of a Severn barrage (2008). Courtesy of Ecotricity
Falconer wrapped up his presentation with some footage of a bit of barrage promotion by the prominent environmentalist and writer, Jonathon Porritt. The former chair of the UK Ecology Party (forerunner of today’s Green Party) and former director of Friends of the Earth UK is a staunch booster of renewable energy development. Perched on a rock at what looked like the northern, Welsh terminus (Lavernock Point, south of Cardiff) of many recent barrage proposals, Porritt argues that, in a world of climate change that must rapidly decarbonize its energy supply, the benefits of a barrage outweigh its costs. (I’ve not been able to establish the exact source of the footage, but it could have been taken from a 30-minute programme Porritt presented on proposals to barrage the Severn that aired on BBC Wales’ ‘Week In, Week Out’ programme in October 2008, a time when he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, a government advisory body.) Porritt’s support for a barrage also meshes with his criticism of nuclear power: one of the statistics Falconer cited was that a barrage could generate power equivalent to the output of four nuclear power stations.
As you can imagine, a forest of hands went up at the start of the question and answer session. Project team member Marianna Dudley got hers up early and asked about the fate of the charismatic Severn Bore. Falconer readily concurred that the Bore would effectively disappear if a barrage was built. I got mine up a bit too late and just missed out on being called on to pose the final question. What I had wanted to ask about was how, precisely, the barrage would create the fresh recreational and tourist opportunities he’d touted. What was going to compensate for the loss of the recreational and tourist resource represented by the Bore and the sport fisheries of the Severn and its tributaries, the Usk and Wye? Luxury hotels on the banks of a placid, pellucid, lake-like inner estuary?
Though he opened his lecture by stressing that the beauty of tidal energy from an engineering standpoint was its complete and utter predictability, one area of barrage debate that Falconer’s lecture did not address was aesthetics. Babbitt opens with a paean to the ‘towers of Zenith’, which ‘aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods. They were neither citadels nor churches, but frankly and beautifully office-buildings’. The breath-taking ‘high modernist’ aesthetic of dams, visible in places such as the Elan Valley of mid-Wales, Kielder in Northumberland and Hoover Dam on the border between Arizona and Nevada, can also be detected in artists’ impressions of the barrage. Whether an appeal to the technological sublime in future barrage advocacy will win over sceptical hearts and minds remains to be seen.
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?