What a week it’s been at the White Hart Hotel in Lewes, East Sussex.
Along with the usual ballroom dancing classes, book club meetings and mother-and-toddler groups, there have been placards, protests, an awful lot of operatics, a star turn by Sir David Attenborough, a good deal of “them and us” and a raft of angry ramblers – and that was just one day.
For several days now, barristers, solicitors, environmentalists, businessmen, councillors and conservationists – not forgetting 81-year-old Sir David – have been getting hot and bothered in the bowels of the hotel.
On one side of the dusty pink function suite are the owners of Glyndebourne – the uber-classy opera house, loved by the great, good and often very rich, who spend the summer powering down from London to swig champagne and nibble strawberries on the beautiful lawn and watch world-class opera of which Britain should be very proud.
On the other are a slew of representatives from Natural England, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), the Ramblers’ Association, South Downs Society and outraged residents concerned about what could be the view from their bedroom windows.
In the middle is a tired-looking planning inspector, who has spent the past few days listening to them with all the furrowed-brow attentiveness of a Wagner enthusiast in the front row for a particularly full-throated rendition of the Ring Cycle.
They are arguing about a wind turbine. A 70-metre-high wind turbine to be precise, which, if Gus Christie, the darkly handsome chairman of Glyndebourne Associations Ltd (the opera was founded by his grandfather, John Christie), has his way, will provide the opera house with more than 70 per cent of its electricity with zero emissions and be up and running by 2010.
“The turbine would send a very positive message to those who visited Glyndebourne,” he says.
“I think it is a symbol of the age we live in – a simple, elegant structure, not an industrial monster.”
Which is all admirable. It’s just, say opponents, that this “simple, elegant structure” will be bang in the middle of the South Downs, an area of outstanding natural beauty and National Park in waiting (the decision is just a few weeks away), on a ridge overlooking the nearby village of Ringmer.
And, at 70 metres (334 feet), it will stand as tall as a 24-storey building, or the Angel of the North, or Big Ben.
For their part, the villagers of Ringmer bare rather less excited about their proposed new monument.
“It’s all wrong,” says Professor Tony Parker, a member of CPRE and long-term Ringmer resident, who has spent 15 months fighting Glyndebourne’s planning application.
“This is a stunning area and a huge, thumping turbine will dominate thevillage and be completely alien to the landscape.”
So imagine their surprise when Sir David Attenborough turned up on Tuesday – along with hundreds of locals, autograph hunters and even a couple of TV crews – and in the soft, distinctive voice he uses to describe the plight of the lesser-spotted tree frog, or whisper us through the blue whale’s mating ritual, described the proposed turbine as “wholly admirable”.
Sir David, who has been a regular at Glyndebourne for half a century (but lives in Richmond, Surrey – a safe 56 miles away from the proposed turbine), said he had seen the effects of climate change elsewhere in the world at first hand.
He called the local residents Nimbys (campaigners who proclaim “Not In My Back Yard”) and was all ready to back a scheme which he said represented a British organisation doing its bit to counter the effects of global warming.
The conservationists were staggered.
“We couldn’t believe it,” says Tony Parker.
“Getting Sir David on their side was an absolute coup – a real joker card.
“Not that I agreed with what he said, but you can’t really heckle a national institution, can you?”
“Oh, but it was lovely to see him,” adds a lady to my left.
“And his voice … you could’ve heard a pin drop.
“He sounded just like he does on the telly. But he’s not going to have to look at it, like me, from his bedroom window every morning – though he’d be very welcome to pop round.”
It might have been all-singing and dancing when Sir David was here, but after a few days, the hearing had lost a bit of its pizzazz.
For starters, the room’s almost deserted – of the 150 faded pink velvet chairs set out for spectators, barely a dozen are taken, and those mostly by men with beards taking neat notes in spiral notebooks.
If this had been a Glyndebourne production, then the critics would be sharpening their pencils for the kill – that’s if they had managed to stay awake.
Trestle tables are covered in boxes of documents, a couple of workmen are banging about with a bit of scaffolding outside, and every so often David Smith QC, barrister for Natural England, pops out to the High Street for a quick fag.
Meanwhile, the opposition insist (very politely, of course) that Sir David has rather missed the point.
Yes, of course green energy is a super thing and Gus Christie (a former wildlife cameraman himself) is a first-rate fellow with a tremendous social conscience.
It’s just, say opponents, that there may be better ways of saving the environment than erecting an enormous whirring wind turbine in an area of staggering natural beauty.
Parker claims that, because all the energy it generates goes straight into the national grid, it would work just as well offshore – with a nice big Glyndebourne logo, if necessary – where it might even be a bit windier.
And, of course, the locals are quick to point out that come the four-month opera season that kicks off in May, the pretty country lanes will be rammed nose to tail with gas-guzzling 4x4s.
And that’s not to mention those who take up the option of arriving by helicopter – a helipad is available for “very influential people who come to Glyndebourne who don’t have the time to come by train or car”.
Indeed, there’s a touch of “them and us” to the whole row.
One lady from Ringmer was reportedly assured by Glyndebourne staff that they’d be planting a few trees, so she wouldn’t be able to see it from her home.
“A few trees? A few trees?” says Tony Parker.
“They’d have to be bloody big trees!
“This turbine is 334 feet high and as far as I know, there’s no such thing as a fast-growing South Downs Giant Redwood.”
“There’s more than a hint of ‘We know what’s good for you, so we’re going to put this massive great wind turbine up for you to look at’,” says Dr John Kay, another Ringmer resident.
And listen to – because although it will be visible from the hallowed picnic lawn, the noise – a whoomph, whoomph, whoomph, as it swoops round, cutting through 20,000 square feet of East Sussex sky – will be heard, claim the critics, by Ringmer residents and ramblers.
The outcome depends on the recommendation made by the planning inspector later in the year to Communities Secretary Hazel Blears.
But down in the Anchor pub in Ringmer, the locals are already resigning themselves to defeat.
“I’ve not met anyone who’s for the turbine,” says Jean, who’s lived in Ringmer for more than 20 years.
“But we all assume it’s just a done deal – done over our heads, if you know what I mean.
“The moment they brought out Sir David Attenborough, we knew it was over.”
Back in the function suite, progress is painfully slow as the barristers bicker over maps, plans and contour lines.
“Bloody hell, this is torture,” says the woman on my right, brandishing a packet of custard creams, and clearly hoping for something a bit more … well, operatic.
“It’s so boring, I’m amazed any of us are still awake.’
Alas, like the Ring Cycle, I fear there are many more hours to come before the curtain descends on this particular production.
Meanwhile, it is anticipated by aficionados that the opera this season at Glyndebourne will be better than ever.
By Jane Fryer
6 March 2008
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