Long life

Long life

10 March 2012

10 March 2012

To say that you live in south Northamptonshire doesn’t usually inspire much envy. Not many people dream of living between Northampton and Milton Keynes. But from where I’m sitting at my kitchen table I have a peaceful view over the wide and shallow valley of the river Tove, dominated on the horizon by the handsome tower of the church of St Mary the Virgin in the village of Grafton Regis, where Henry VIII used to stay when he went deer-hunting with Anne Boleyn. The former deer park in which the royal couple did their hunting remained the property of the crown until King Charles I gave 400 acres of it to Sir Francis Crane, a courtier, entrepreneur and founder of the Mortlake tapestry works in London, in settlement (it is sometimes claimed) of an enormous bill for two suits woven from cloth of gold.

A small piece of the land that Crane was given at Stoke Park now belongs to a family trust of which I am the beneficiary. The big house he built here burnt down in the 1880s. Two Italianate neoclassical pavilions, built in 1630 as a chapel and a library, and attributed to Crane’s friend and fellow courtier, the architect Inigo Jones, do however survive; and I sit here in a late-Victorian house built after the fire, gazing in melancholy fashion between these architectural gems at the above-mentioned view. I might be feeling a little less melancholy if one of my six ducks (a Khaki Campbell) hadn’t had its head bitten off this morning by a visiting terrier, and if a Spanish energy company called Gamesa wasn’t planning to build a windfarm along the length of the Tove Valley, running for about three miles from where I am living to the racecourse at Towcester (often described by the late Jeffrey Bernard, this magazine’s original ‘Low life’ columnist, as the prettiest racecourse in England).

This proposed windfarm is called a ‘park’. The word ‘park’ used to denote something pleasant, but now it more often means something nasty: an ‘amusement’ park, a ‘business’ park, an ‘industrial’ park, or an ‘energy’ park. I am talking in this instance about a project that goes under the name of ‘The Tove Renewable Energy Park’. The current proposal is for ten gigantic turbines to run along this quiet, unspoilt valley, generating almost no electricity (or, at any rate, not nearly enough to have even the smallest impact on carbon emissions) but greatly enriching an already quite-rich-enough farmer with subsidies paid for by the rest of us with higher electricity bills.

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I cannot tell you what joy was generated in Northamptonshire by Matt Ridley’s splendid cover story last week about the futility and iniquity of windfarms. He put the case so well that little more needs to be said, except perhaps that a phenomenon known as ‘shadow flicker’, caused by the rotating blades of wind turbines, may ruin the racing at Towcester by driving the horses mad. I might also add that The Spectator’s cover illustration for this story, depicting an imaginary anti-windfarm protest in which three people appeared to be uprooting a wind turbine by pulling on it with pieces of string, did little justice to the grandeur of these constructions. The turbines planned for the Tove Valley would each be taller than Big Ben, or two and a half times the height of Nelson’s Column, and would require a huge explosive charge to shift them at all. The Tove Action Group, the campaigning group of which I have the honour to be president, flew a blimp at the latest Towcester race meeting to show racegoers how high the turbines would be, and few among them could believe it.

I am sure Ridley’s article caused joy not only in Northamptonshire but also throughout the land. This county, though, is the one most threatened with desecration by windfarms. In a pamphlet entitled ‘Is Northamptonshire the windfarm capital of England?’ the local branch of the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) points out that, as national planning inspectors habitually overturn local council decisions to reject windfarms, the county faces the prospect of having 24 windfarms, with a total of 121 turbines, within its territory. No other English county can compete with this.

This is not because Northamptonshire is an especially windy county — on the contrary, it has less wind than almost any other — but because, as the CPRE says, ‘it has no national parks, Areas of Outstanding Beauty, green belts or airport exclusion zones, which would get in the way of turbines 125 metres high’. It is, in other words, the victim of its ordinariness, but it is this ordinariness that makes it special.

The ‘Long life’ column will appear every fortnight.

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