Where to begin describing the commons at Hinkley Point? Perhaps by starting with the obvious – the presence of the existing nuclear reactor (the second) and the building site for the third, which I believe is the largest building site in Europe at present. There is nowhere on these fenland commons which are not dominated by British Nuclear Fuels; even tucked away on a long strip, nestled behind a slight incline of a uniformly growing green crop, the bulk of Hinkley B pokes its head over, steaming to itself, accompanied as if for mischief, by a couple of blue office buildings.
And then, of course, there are the gangs of pylons striding around like they own the place. And as this taste of the anthropocene, this creations of matter which remain lethally dangerous on a planetary scale long after we humans have exited the stage in several thousands of years, there are the elevated sea defences, guarding against the inexorable creep of rising sea levels.
And yet this feels ancient and timeless, but the kind of ancient and timeless you see specific to an era, like 70s folk, or Romantic paintings. And of course, ancient it is, and beyond the commons registration with its recollection of imagined pastoral utopias, there is a submarine forest out there somewhere on the mud flats (so the OS map tells me). I was happy wandering around here, and I was not alone. There were dog walkers, a busy car park, twitchers enjoying the extreme low tide, a runner who enthusiastically told me how to find Wick Moor across a girder, an old couple who’d just parked up close to the power station to sit in their deck chairs and sip from their thermos. I heard larks, buzzards, saw a pair of deer in the distance, and then a lone deer no more than fifty yards away amongst the scrubby woodland beyond the Nuclear Power fencing. And, wonderfully, though not actually on the commons, a pair of weasels crossed the road right in front of me, one darting to the other side, the other, behind it, stuck indecisively, making up its mind whether to dart after its mate or dart back where it had come from. It decided, ultimately, on the latter, but while it made its mind up, gave me the opportunity to look at its polished obsidian eyes and gloriously orange coat.
They ARE commons. Not only do they show as access land, but the commons register tells me as much. And in fact, there was evidence of their status on signage dotted around, for the National Grid are about to claim possession of a fair chunk of the commons (they are a network, though contiguous) so they can renew the pylons to take the increased nuclear-derived power. These notices address both landowners and commoners, and a look at the commons register tells me that each common has different rights attached to it, some for sheep and bullocks, others for horses, others for beasts (cattle) – it really says this. (As a side note, I do find nuclear power rather antique too, if I’m honest. The fuel might be relatively recent, but the idea of heating steam to power a turbine is essentially Victorian technology.) Looking back at the register, I can see that I didn’t, in fact, visit all the commons, as one stretch, Catsford Common, lies right on the coast (not behind the defences) and is below the high water margin.
One little bit that I didn’t explore is across the busy Wick Moor Drove which leads up to the plants, just a little, rather sad patch of grass, pecked away at by barbed wire fences and pristine barriers and embankments, the edge of the building site, beyond which tower a cityscape of cranes. The grass goes about its business, unloved and unwanted by ruminants, and the hedgerow reaches out in all directions like a lockdown haircut. Classic edgeland, and it’ll be interesting to watch what happens to this place, especially now the South West Coast path is rerouted through it, taking the patch inland around the power plant. Not that you’d know, not that anyone cares enough to put in signage. I guess the assumption is no-one is going to be stampeding to do the path in the time of Covid. Any more than they are going to be filling the sinister white, logoless coaches which parade up and down Wick Moor Drove, heading up to the site from the Cannington Park and Ride and Bridgewater. They’re mostly empty to be Covid secure, and that means there are four times the amount there should be. There’s not a moment when you can’t see one. It’s like they’re patrolling, like the ice cream van in the 80s horror Maximum Overdrive.
I must find out about the building of Hinkley. I wonder if the land was enclosed for its construction. Interestingly, there is a tumulus on land annexed for the site – Pixie Mound. It’s in a little field and though there’s a sign telling you you’re not welcome, there’s also a style suggesting otherwise. Well, that and a handwritten sign telling you ‘Welcome to Pixie Mound’. I liked the juxtaposition of all this power, play and time so much, I messaged it to Nick Hayes and we chatted a bit over Instagram.
There’s so much to say about this place. And it’s fascinating that it’s in the process of change, albeit temporarily, and that the commoners had to be told specifically. (It’s recently come to my attention that the commoners and the conservationists are not getting on so well on Dartmoor, and that the conservatism of the commoners is an obstacle to helping the terribly scarred land recover and play its part in mitigating the climate emergency – another tale to explore). The Hinkley Point commons connect with so many different trajectories. There are so many power plays, so many time scales. It’s a weird place, but also beautiful, and big enough to be worth exploring, but not so big as to be unknowable. In other words: I’ll be back. Soon.