Essay | Brighton Offshore by Shaun Traynor

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Shaun Traynor


Brighton offshore

Nine miles out from land but clearly visible, Brighton now has its own extensive windfarm. No matter where you live or work, in a strange way, it is always in front of you. Working at full capacity it can serve up enough electricity to light 350,000 homes and has become an established feature of the landscape.

The first problem is that this new skyline was forced upon us. All of us, I believe, have a right to a view of the horizon, but that has been taken away. Someone we don’t know, has stuck something right in front of us, an in-yer-face obstacle just off the coast, a monument to the effort for cleaner, greener energy, and the compromises made to achieve it.

One friend described to me how he grew up on the Estuary, Southend-on-Sea. His childhood horizon was bookended by a power station on the Isle of Grain at one extreme and an oil refinery on Canvey Island at the other. When he came to live in Brighton, he was happy for an unspoilt coastal view. Now this too is gone. Another friend, saddened by the loss of the horizon, expressed anger; not least because she took out a mortgage on a house with a view.

For years I enjoyed an unspoilt view of the ocean. Travelling from London, and walking downhill from the station, I would feel a child-like excitement at my first glimpse of sea – its expanding horizon afforded me such joy and space for imagination! I imagined how mariners of old would have thought of the horizon as the edge of the world, and beyond it – falling off into the unknown.

Now a windfarm! In the misty light, or even in plain sunlight, it still is very beautiful, but my mind is full of very different images; so that when I arrive in Brighton, I seek out with curiosity and with mixed emotions the host of turbines with its reaching petals. Do they droop in the doldrums? Are they listless and useless? Or are they at rest from aero-synthesising, their potential waiting to be unleashed?

Often the blades hang listlessly, as though from the heads of dying daffodils, in some way ashamed, abashed. One day I resolved to hire a boat and to go out there and see them up close. The skipper of the catamaran was a sea-worthy fisherman, an experienced local. He became my guide and relayed information in the most matter-of-fact way. I listened intently and allowed his observations to bed in my mind. We stood in quiet. The captain broke the silence and gestured to the turbines.

The turbines had been built and funded by a conglomerate, the German company E.ON, a major player dealing under the local business name of Rampion. Rampion is, of course, the county flower of Sussex, also called the Pride of Sussex.

Each turbine consists of an 80-metre tower, weighing approximately 200 tonnes, which has been lifted and positioned into the seabed; a nacelle, fitted to the top of each tower, houses the generator and gearbox; and three blades, each measuring 55 metres in length, which have been hoisted and connected one at a time. One gyration can light a four-bedroomed house for 24 hours.

Then there were the boulders. Because the seabed shifts, the mighty poles driven into the seabed rocked and were unstable, so great boulders were transported from Norway to bed them up, stabilise them.

The transportation, the careful placement – I thought of standing stones, of Stonehenge.

I asked the captain how the electricity actually got to shore. He explained that the electricity is transported by cable, beneath the seabed, to Worthing, then overland to the UK’s central supply, where it is sold to the national grid – nothing local.

Sitting in the catamaran, we drew alongside the mighty perpendiculars. There was nothing to the north, south, east nor west, other than great metal shafts and heavy-hanging blades like the propellers of an obsolete, Word War Two aircraft, now immobile. I was struck by something very modern, a strong sense of structural and functional beauty, but also of something not belonging to our time.

I wondered how all of this work might have affected the native population, the fish, the sea life. I was told by the captain that there was no cause for concern. He explained that because of the on-going construction, trawler boats and their nets cannot enter the area, so for a time the fish can enjoy this stretch of ocean undisturbed.

Before building began, the fish native to these waters were plentiful: sea bass, plaice, turbot, bream, cod, pollock, whiting, tope and cuttlefish. It is assuring to hear that a baseline investigation of the seabed conducted before Rampion’s arrival will be revisited after the project is in place.

Wavelets lapped about the catamaran as the captain switched off the engine and allowed us to drift among these new-world spires. All else was still, the great blades motionless in the still air. We sat for a good hour of contemplation, and then a strange sound – at first a tinkling as from a xylophone, then stronger and more persistent – growing to a chorus of windchimes or bells. A boat emerged from the grey morning mist. Its passengers, bell ringers, leant over the side to ring a message of love and rejoicing.

Then the trip back to shore. This was the first time I had been looking inland toward Brighton and its coastline rather than outwards from it. The broad white cliffs and the semi-circular shore expanded from Worthing and Shoreham, Hove and Brighton, along to Rodean.

We travelled at speed, and I paused to consider the journey. All was in front of me, and I nursed the unusual memory. We disembarked and I walked – thoughts drifting like spume – from the Marina back to my hotel, The Old Ship.

At the hotel, I prepared to pack. I glanced out of my now-darkening window. A young couple who nightly sleep in the shelter opposite are already fast asleep, oblivious to the revolution.

By Shaun Traynor.

My thanks to Steve Johnson, Channel Diver and to The Francis W Reckitt Arts Trust, which helped support my research for this article.


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