It was, as my neighbours pointed out, a choice between shooting or hanging. When a letter from National Grid arrived through my postbox, it gave me the chance to have a highway of 164ft-tall 400kV (400,000 volt) super pylons on one side of my house. Or on the other.
More discreet solutions – to bury the power lines under the wheat fields and riverbank willows of south Suffolk, or to route them offshore, beneath the chill grey waters of the North Sea –were not on offer.
Yet this is the Stour Valley, where rolling lowlands inspired two of Britain’s greatest landscape artists, Thomas Gainsborough who was born in Sudbury, my local town, and John Constable, who lived in the beautiful Dedham Vale.
From my office window, I gaze up towards Cornard Wood, the subject of Gainsborough’s 1748 masterpiece of the same name. To the west, I watch the sun set over the fabled spire (much loved by woodpeckers) of St Mary’s Church in Great Henny, also rendered on canvas by Gainsborough.
This will become the hinterland of East Anglia’s new 17-mile pylon highway, which will transmit power from a sub- station in the Domesday Book village of Bramford, near Ipswich, to an electricity junction by the Essex village of Twinstead. It will have the capacity to carry one fifth of Britain’s power needs, say campaigners.
It also nods towards a low-carbon future in which National Grid may one day import and export green electricity from Ireland and the UK to the Continent and beyond.
And so another corner of England is condemned by an energy policy which is both controversial, in the case of nuclear power, and incoherent, in the case of wind farms.
The Stour Valley is the collateral damage in the race for renewables and cleaner energy. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more pylons are heading for the Somerset Levels – where the MP, Defence Secretary Liam Fox, has broken ranks by demanding the cables be buried – for the Scottish Highlands and over some of the wondrously lost parts of Wales.
Buried deep in the spreadsheets of National Grid’s seven-year plan lie threats to Kent, the Lake District, the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire and, closer to my home, the Waveney Valley on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England suggests there will be 300 miles of new power lines and at least 1,000 pylons over the next ten years. This doesn’t include the Scottish project, which is 137 miles and about 400 pylons long.
The first question is why? Britain’s pylon network was configured in the Twenties when power was generated in the industrial heartlands. But a low-carbon future will be powered by wind, waves and nuclear plants located offshore, on the coast or in open country. Many of our existing pylons are in the wrong place.
The second question is more complex. Are pylons still the best way to transmit electricity in the 21st Century?
They are undeniably ugly; they wipe up to 40 per cent of the value from an average home; there are concerns about their effect on health, such as incidences of childhood leukemia; they are vulnerable to high winds and storms, and they are undefended from terrorist attack.
All of which raises a third question: why can’t we bury them, as the Germans and the Danes frequently do? What this country needs, say campaigners, is a network of cut-and-cover tunnels which are environmentally friendly, pose no health risks and permit increased capacity.
In the hope of this for Suffolk, roads are peppered with ‘Bury not blight’ placards and local campaign groups have forged links with others around the UK, hoping to generate national support.
There is no firm evidence as to the cost of running cables underground but National Grid clings to statistics dating from the Nineties which say it costs between ten and 12 times more to bury cables than to string up a pylon line. Campaigners claim the true figure is only three times as much.
Neither side is willing to back down. But if local campaigners are correct, the cost to every British household of burying all the pylons currently planned would be only a few pounds on quarterly bills.
This is not nimbyism. The question is not why electricity should come across Suffolk, but why it has to desecrate land so lovely when it could potentially be hidden.
Sadly, my valley is already spoiled by a line of 400kV pylons and a mini-line of 132kV pylons. They pass 320 yards from my home and, like most people who live within sight of them, I ignore the metal towers.
I imagined one day, at the end of their natural life, new power lines would be laid underground. Happy that they posed no health concerns at that distance, I could wait.
What I hadn’t expected was many more carrying a greater voltage, and perhaps even closer to my property. Like thousands of alarmed householders, I went to a Community Forum where staff gave me a tour of National Grid’s plans. I was heavily pregnant and had my three-year-old with me. ‘So what,’ I asked, ‘is the legal minimum distance you can put a new pylon from my house?’
‘Oh, there isn’t one,’ replied the PR lady. ‘We could build right over the top of you if we wanted to. Not that we would, of course,’ she added with a smile.
That’s not, as it turns out, strictly true, but the sense of David and Goliath remains.
For the Community Forum was part of a faux consultation. Option Two, revealed in July as the popular vote-winner, was always the least worst, the others presumably drawn up to give the illusion of choice.
It involves replacing the 132kV line with another line of 400kV towers, and restringing the existing line to increase capacity. That means I will have a twin highway of monster pylons running past my back garden.
Unlike other major infrastructure projects –- airport extensions, say, or high-speed rail links – there is no financial compensation.
Britain’s first pylon, erected in July 1928 near Edinburgh, was designed by architectural luminary Sir Reginald Blomfield, inspired by the Greek root of the word ‘pylon’ (meaning gateway of an Egyptian temple).
The campaign against them – they were unloved even then – was run by Rudyard Kipling, John Maynard Keynes and Hilaire Belloc.
Five years later, the biggest peacetime construction project seen in Britain, the connection of 122 power stations by 4,000 miles of cable, was completed. It marked the birth of the National Grid and was a major stoking of the nation’s industrial engine and a vital asset during the Second World War.
It was daring, it was radical and it was a moment of technological genius. So why, as we embrace a low-carbon future, can’t we make a similar leap of faith today, and put our electricity underground?
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