On a sunny spring morning, Deeping St Nicholas provides a perfect snapshot of English country life. The only buildings that break the flat horizon of the Lincolnshire fens are silver-grey church spires and neat red-brick farmhouses, around which are clustered barns and silos. A covey of wood pigeons clap their wings as they take off from the black, loamy, fertile soil striped with green lines of oilseed rape. And then you hear it. “Whoompf … whoompf … whoompf …”
Like the sound of an approaching train that never comes, the thumps that break the still air are not overpoweringly loud – at about 65 decibels, they’re the level of a lorry going by at 30 miles an hour 100 yards away.
But what is so menacing is the regularity and the scope of the noise, which feels like a giant heartbeat shaking the earth.
When you see the culprits – the eight mammoth wind turbines installed just outside Deeping St Nicholas last May – you’re actually surprised that the noise isn’t louder.
These aren’t the little propellers that David Cameron nails to his roof to warm his cocoa and heat his children’s baths. They’re veritable behemoths – 100 metres high, as tall as Big Ben’s tower.
The turbines hove into view from the Peterborough to Deeping St Nicholas road several miles before you reach the little village, and they dominate the skies from here to the North Sea, 15 miles away.
Five of these monsters are set in a straight line heading away from Deeping St Nicholas. And if you trace that line onwards for half-a-mile on the map, your finger slams slap-bang into the middle of Grays Farm.
And there, in the farmhouse sitting room, with its wood-burning stove and its bookshelves jammed with family photos, are Julian and Jane Davis – wan, sleepless and very angry indeed.
Three generations of the Davis family have farmed these 300 acres of tenanted land for wheat, sugarbeet, beans, oilseed rape and – ironically, given the green glow of windpower – the new generation of biofuel crops. Mr Davis’s elderly parents live in a bungalow a few yards away along a gravel track.
For the first time in a decade, agricultural prices are looking rosy – and so were the Davises’ finances, until recently. But now their chances of enjoying a comfortable future are in jeopardy because of the whirring brutes next door, erected on land owned by two neighbouring farmers.
The Davises’ three-bedroom house, valued at £170,000 before the turbines arrived, is now essentially worthless because no one will grant a mortgage on a house blighted by noise pollution.
Last year, the Davises planned an extension to their house, built in 1918 by Lincolnshire County Council to house soldiers returning from World War I. There’s no chance of that happening now.
An unused Rayburn and a set of bathroom fittings lie untouched in an outbuilding in the farmyard – testament to the thousands they have already spent to no purpose.
For the past eight months, the Davises have lain awake at night, staring at the ceiling, driven to distraction by the thump of the blades and feeling the whole house resonating around them.
During the odd moment of silence when the wind is in the right direction, they lie awake, still, dreading the inevitable return of the whoompfs.
Ever since the Davises were first woken from their sleep three days after the turbines were installed, they have kept a log of the noise. Of those 243 days, 231 have been disturbed.
Sometimes, the noise has been so bad that they have fled the house for friends’ sofas, and once for the comfort of the local Travelodge. It is on the busy Helpringham roundabout but, for the first time in weeks, they slept through until 7.20am.
Noise generated by a constant flow of traffic is easier to ignore than a repetitive thump that seems to go right through the body. “It’s just that little bit faster than the noise of a heartbeat,” says Mr Davis, aged 42. “So your body is constantly racing to catch up.”
As well as the thump-thumpthump – which makes the television flicker – there is a low-level hum from the electric motor housed in the turbines’ main shaft, which gets the blades going and controls the mechanism’s air-conditioning.
This noise often mutates into what the Davises call the WD-40 noise – a grating sound similar to that produced by an engine that needs oiling.
“It drives you mad,” says Mr Davis. “Your whole body becomes sensitive to it. It draws you to it. Your mind is constantly looking for the noise. I can be farming half-amile away or watching telly, and then suddenly you’ll hear it. It’s destroyed our lives.”
Things have now become so bad that the Davises have been forced to rent out what they call a “sleeping house” in the village for £600 a month.
Now, every night at around 10pm, they take a look at the weather and decide if they should abandon ship for the evening. The noise is particularly irksome if the wind comes from the south along the line of the turbines, whipping them up in unison, so their individual noises are harmonised and amplified.
As a result, the Davises have become obsessed with weather conditions, dreading the moment when the nacelles – the rudders at the back of the turbines, at right angles to the blades – turn in their direction, meaning that the noise is at an absolute maximum.
Jane Davis’s 17-year-old daughter, Emily, recently had a sleepover destroyed by the turbines. Her friends, bedding down in her room, couldn’t get to sleep because of the constant vibrations thrumming through the floorboards.
The list of disasters goes on and on, all recorded in the Davises’ scrupulously kept logbook. Last July, reads the book, “we tried to have a BBQ and had to go inside due to noise and vibration – felt by guests also. Difficult to get to sleep. Wind SSE, SSW.
“Whoosh – yes. Pulse – yes. Hum – yes. We are so tired today that the simplest things – following a recipe, assembling a cupboard – seem impossible. Everyone very tired and totally exhausted. This is not living any more.”
Even the moles who had plagued the Davises’ lawn for 25 years have scarpered. “We used to shovel off tons of earth from molehills, but now they don’t come within 25 yards of the house because it’s vibrating so much,” says Jane, a former nurse who is training to become a reflexologist. “They couldn’t take the noise.”
As the toll of broken nights has mounted, the Davises have grown increasingly emotional. In one logbook entry, Jane wrote: “Woken at 04.37, ears pulsing, whoosh, throb and house humming. I cried.
Eventually got back to sleep by putting fan on facing wall.”
The fan is just one of the devices the couple have used to try to drown out the noise. Ear plugs, sleeping pills, turning on the radio – “or a bottle of red wine,” says Jane, half-smiling.
They might all work for a bit, sending them briefly to sleep – but the Davises always wake up at what they call “stupid o’clock”.
“You wake with a start and then you listen for it,” says Jane. “I started to wonder if I was hallucinating. Can I hear it? Can’t I hear it? One night, I went out into the farmyard at 3am in my pyjamas just to check that I wasn’t making it up. And there they were, whooshing away.”
And things are only going to get worse. Another 16 of the noisy leviathans are being planned for the site, and the Davises are pessimistic about their chances of stopping them being put up.
First time around, they were aware of the planning application for the eight turbines but, having researched windfarms on the internet, they wrongly concluded they couldn’t be too objectionable.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t have made much difference if they had objected. The initial application was turned down by the local council, only to be reinstated by John Prescott’s office.
The Davises have spent £4,000 on solicitors’ fees to see if they can take on Powergen, which operates the wind turbines through its more cuddly-sounding subsidiary Fenland Windfarms. The company did at least cooperate with them by offering to install recording equipment at the farm to measure the amount of noise. This was done last October.
“They measure out the sound as an average over ten minutes,” says Julian. “You can stop a dog barking or a noisy neighbour, but you can’t stop the turbines because they make an intermittent noise and don’t break the guidelines.”
As the law stands, the Davises have no chance of ever stopping the noise or of obtaining compensation. Nor does it help that the Government’s guidelines for turbine construction near private houses were written in 1996, when the typical blade swung round in a circle a tenth of the size of the ones in Deeping St Nicholas.
The Government has repeatedly promised to review the rules, but has ended up doing nothing. In the meantime, it has given enthusiastic backing for new turbines, following the fashion for all things green. And the Stern Review, published last October, is pushing for more windfarms as a solution to global warming.
This trend is mirrored across Europe, though the restrictions abroad are much tighter – in France, for example, you can’t build a turbine within two kilometres of a private residence. In Britain, the limit is just 500 metres.
At the moment, there are more than 120 applications pending all over the country to erect windfarms close to houses – ranging from plans for just a pair of turbines to great clumps of 80 whirring away on the Humberhead Levels in Yorkshire.
If these applications go through, the number of windfarms in the country will double – even though the jury is still out on the effectiveness of windpower, which is completely dependent on the whim of the weather.
Meanwhile, the complaints keep pouring in, particularly from rural beauty spots: from Bears Down in North Cornwall to Askham in Cumbria, prospective neighbours of mega-turbines are up in arms.
Of the 126 windfarms erected in Britain so far – most of which are far from human habitation – 5 per cent have engendered complaints about the overwhelming noise.
The next tranche of building is likely to attract far more outrage because the power companies are simply running out of wilderness.
As for the Davises, they don’t even have the consolation that the turbines are providing power for their own home.
“They’re making electricity for other people,” says Jane. “One night, our power was hit by a lightning strike. So we had the worst of both worlds – nothing working inside the house, and then that noise going on and on outside. Whoompf … whoompf … whoompf.”
By Harry Mount
10 March 2007