The last time tempers were this high around here was almost exactly 500 years ago at the Battle of Flodden – the biggest Anglo-Scottish punch-up in history. And not much has changed in this stunning corner of Northumberland since then.
The big house is still Ford Castle, where James IV of Scotland spent his last night alive, carousing on the eve of battle. A couple of miles down the road is Etal Castle, where the English army celebrated victory.
Going back further still, there are 60 sites of prehistoric interest in a three-mile radius – including the Geordie answer to Stonehenge.
The views are much the same, across to the Cheviots, the Scottish borders and what is now Northumberland National Park.
But, this week, all that has changed. The diggers and pile drivers have just arrived, along with a lot of heavies in hi-viz jackets.
By Christmas, a great swathe of this ancient and enchanting border country, including the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, will be overshadowed by the Barmoor Wind Farm – six wind turbines, each 360ft tall and with a blade span the size of a Boeing 747.
Thought we’d heard the last of the onshore wind farm? Remember last year’s ministerial pledges to ‘roll back’ those barmy green subsidies for landowners and companies which desecrate the countryside?
As this week’s scenes in wildest Northumberland testify, it’s business as usual.
This racket, which already adds £3billion a year to all our fuel bills, is as lucrative as ever. The planning applications are pouring in, even though Britain has comfortably met its wind energy targets for 2020.
Oh for the days when the worst to fear was a wall of leylandii. It’s a story familiar to rural communities all over Britain. And, with just six turbines, Barmoor is actually at the smaller end of the wind farm spectrum.
But it’s important for several reasons. First, it shows that nowhere, however beautiful, is safe from the predations of developers masquerading as environmentalists.
Second, even the energy company now building these things acknowledges that ‘amazing’ tactics were used to ram through this development in the face of overwhelming local opposition.
Third, the bulldozers have started tearing up the soil here in the very week that Britain’s only overtly anti-wind farm party – UKIP – has made giant strides across the political landscape.
Down on the edge of Brackenside Farm, I find a building site, a digger and several men in hi-viz jackets scratching their chins. It’s the new site for EDF Energy’s Barmoor sub-station. A security guard becomes rather aggressive the moment we start taking photographs, even when I point to the public footpath sign next to me.
‘It’s a hard-hat area and it’s dangerous,’ he shouts.
Three EDF officials appear and say the same, though two must be in mortal danger for they are without hard hats, too.
Eventually, they concede that they have no powers to shut down a public right of way and choose not to engage in further conversation. We go about our business.
A mile further on, I meet another digger ripping up a field to create a new access road from the B6525 to the wind turbines. The sight of our cameras prompts two men to jump in to a van and race over the field to confront us as we stand on the public road.
‘Can I help?’ asks one, in tones presaging the answer ‘no’. He marches off when I explain I am from a newspaper.
As soon as I start exploring the background to this project, I begin to understand why these EDF contractors are so jumpy.
It has taken 11 years of legal battles, bad blood and festering anger to create a hideous eyesore which will, ultimately, generate just 12 megawatts – on a windy day.
That’s enough electricity to power a few villages in the right weather. Yet, as I shall explain, it will pay out a £50 million jackpot over 20 years.
The Barmoor saga began when wind farm developers Force 9 Energy and Catamount persuaded three local farmers to sign up to a deal, which was all sorted before the public had any inkling of what was going on.
The locals, as locals do, formed an action group called Save Our Unspoiled Landscape (SOUL) and produced a few leaflets.
To their astonishment, Force 9 hired a swanky London PR firm and then made a formal complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority arguing that the locals had exaggerated the threat from the turbines.
Quite why it was the ASA’s business to adjudicate on a planning dispute is anyone’s guess, but the judges ruled in favour of the developer.
Meanwhile, the action group bought a bright orange helium-filled blimp which they tethered at the proposed site to show people across the region just how visible the turbines would be.
Soon after it was raised aloft, its moorings were mysteriously cut and the local authorities spent several days warning North Sea air traffic to be aware of a large orange UFO with ‘NO!’ written on it.
The local council threw out the project after receiving more objections to this plan than any it could recall.
But, shortly before the 2010 election, the Labour government ruled in favour of the development on the grounds that ‘it involved proposals of major significance for the delivery of the government’s climate change programme’.
Job done, Force 9/Catamount started looking for a buyer and sold the project for an undisclosed sum (thought to be around £10million), via Duke Energy, to EDF Energy Renewables in March. And now work begins.
Politicians love to bang on about ‘vibrant communities’, but this one has just been torn in half. How can the footling energy output from a minor get-rich-quick scheme justify the long-term pain felt by so many?
People who wouldn’t get planning permission for a garage extension must now see their views desecrated and the value of their homes slashed in order to enrich a handful of their neighbours.
Based on the projected output of the plant, the highly respected think tank, the Renewable Energy Foundation, expects the wind plant (how can anyone call this thing a ‘farm’?) to receive a £1.15million annual subsidy on top of £1.4million a year for electricity generated over a 20-year contract.
How is it shared out? The terms are always confidential, but the going rate for a landowner in this situation is £10,000-£20,000 per turbine per year, plus a slice of the pie every time the site is resold.
The locals now realise that there is nothing more they can do.
Nick Maycock smiles grimly outside his comfortable guest house, the Friendly Hound, which overlooks the site. He doesn’t even want to contemplate the effect on his trade.
‘Those farmers have been offered a goldmine. How can they turn it down?’ he asks.
I find only one of the farmers today. Sandy Rievely will have two turbines on his land, but will only say he is not allowed to discuss it under the terms of the contract. So what do his neighbours think?
‘I’d prefer not to say,’ replies Dr John Ferguson, 73, a former GP whose retirement has been consumed by the 11-year battle to stop his cottage being dwarfed by these monstrosities.
‘Well, I will then,’ says his wife, Ann. ‘It’s just completely wrong that a handful of landowners can do this to all their neighbours. I avoid even talking to them now because I’ll lose my temper . . .’
Her voice cracks, the conversation halts and we all look awkwardly out of the kitchen window across the sheep and the fields to the distant treeline. In a matter of months, six giant fans on six masts many times the height of the trees, will look back at her.
Now is probably not the moment to remind Ann of the immortal words of the former Energy Secretary who inflicted much of this unhappiness on the countryside in the name of fluffy Polar bears and saving the planet. ‘It is socially unacceptable to be against wind turbines in your area,’ declared Ed Miliband the last time Labour was in power, ‘like not wearing your seat belt.’
The very man who now attacks grasping energy bosses for fleecing the poor is none other than the Minister who thought it would be a wise and noble idea to make the rest of us pay dukes and developers an overall £200,000 annual bonus for every single skyscraper-sized windmill they planted in the middle of the countryside.
For these things really are the size of skyscrapers. Each one of the wind turbines going up by the Fergusons’ home near Flodden Field is going to be the height of a 30-storey office block – taller indeed than anything in, say, Edinburgh.
If they were buildings, they would automatically enter the list of Britain’s top 50 highest.
After more than a decade of sleepless nights and legal battles costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, the residents are well-used to the arguments: that they are simply Nimbys, that it is our duty as human beings to place the greater needs of the environment ahead of selfish local considerations.
They’ve heard all this stuff. And they know it’s tosh. These landowners and EDF wouldn’t be doing any of this if it wasn’t for the staggering inducements.
I go for a drive with local farmer Andrew Joicey, 58, whose elder brother runs the family estate covering 15,000 acres in this area, including mighty Ford Castle (now leased to the local council).
He points out that the estate was offered the usual big bucks to sign up for the scheme, but rejected it. And Andrew has devoted a large part of the past 11 years to fighting local wind farm proposals, seeing off three others – but not this one.
‘What is particularly galling is the way these things are just bought and sold without any regard for local feelings,’ he tells me.
Just this week, he had a long meeting with a senior EDF ‘director of construction’ as part of the company policy of ‘engaging’ with the community.
To his astonishment, the executive admitted that he had heard how the developers had persuaded local farm workers to sign meaningless contracts for a few hundred pounds (wind farm noise restrictions do not apply to people deemed to be ‘financially involved’). Force 9/Catamount was unavailable for comment yesterday.
The EDF executive also agreed that it was ‘incredible’ that the local action group had been reported to the ASA.
As for the Government’s claim that this 12 megawatt site was of ‘major significance’ to Britain’s climate change programme, he shook his head and admitted: ‘It doesn’t even feature.’
So there we have it. Lives and livelihoods are being blighted by a project which even the owners concede is of little consequence.
An EDF spokesman points out that it will give £60,000-a-year to community schemes as a gesture of goodwill.
But it’s a gesture which impresses no one, any more than the latest Tory promise, four weeks ago, to cut wind subsidies after the next election.
For these locals are already having to fund yet another legal battle to stop yet another wind project. In January, a government inspector approved a scheme to put a turbine in front of Northumberland’s ancient Duddo Stone Circle.
Next month, they are taking the Government and the farmer concerned to the High Court in a bid to overturn the decision.
As UKIP – with its clear anti-wind farm agenda – toasts its council successes and looks forward to tomorrow’s Euro election results, there is a clear message here for the eco-zealots in all the main parties.
But is anyone listening?
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