The south of England’s “Jurassic Coast” has inspired countless school geography trips and novelists such as Jane Austen, Ian McEwan and John Fowles, whose French Lieutenant’s Woman famously stood on Lyme Regis harbour “motionless, staring, staring out to sea”.
But whereas the fictional Sarah Woodruff’s view, framed by the Isle of Wight to the left and Old Harry Rocks to the right, would have been largely free of humans’ influence, proposals to build a giant offshore windfarm would fill the vista, threatening the coast’s status as England’s only natural Unesco world heritage site in the process.
MPs, locals and naturalists have banded together to fight plans by EDF Energy, the French owner of the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, to build one of the world’s largest windfarms. The £3bn project involves installing 194 turbines, of up to 650ft high, nine miles off the coast of Dorset and East Devon. Opponents say the development would spoil an area whose identity and economy is built upon a unique and breathtakingly beautiful 96-mile stretch of coast that includes landmarks such as Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door, Chesil Beach and Ladram Bay.
“To have a big windfarm off the coast of Dorset where you’ve got miles of holidaymakers and locals coming to enjoy the area, I think would be the equivalent of ripping the cathedral down in Salisbury, or tearing down Westminster Abbey brick by brick or taking bulldozers to Buckingham Palace,” said Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West, Alderney and Branksome East. He surveyed 3,000 of his constituents and found 87 per cent opposed the development.
Unesco has also criticised the proposals, telling the Government in a letter that the development, known as Navitus Bay, would “adversely impact” the view and raising the prospect that its World Heritage status could be removed.
Geologists say the coastline is unique because the dramatic cliffs and secluded coves are document to 185 million years of the evolution of the Earth, taking in the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
Peter Fanning, 76, a retired geologist who lives in Christchurch, has explored the coast countless times.
“The coast is a unique piece of geology. If you start in the west and move eastwards you are stepping further and further into the past as you encounter older and older rocks. There’s shale, sandstone, limestone. It’s breathtaking,” he said. “There’s a certain uniqueness. When you go there you feel it. It’s hard to describe in scientific terms, but it gels, it fits together. If you introduce an industrial zone, which is what the windfarm would be, you spoil the setting completely.”
The coast also has a rich literary history. Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, the newlyweds in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, spend their honeymoon there and Louisa Musgrove falls into the sea in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Bill Bryson simply loves the place. “The world, or at least this little corner of it, seemed a good and peaceful place, and I was immensely glad to be there,” he wrote in his UK travelogue, Notes from a Small Island.
But the proposed windfarm endangers much more than the ambience, opponents say. Mark Smith, Bournemouth’s director of tourism, said the view and the local economy are interlinked. “The main asset this area sells itself on is the beautiful view. The whole origin of Bournemouth was based on that view, so it’s pretty fundamental to the area that the view is looked after. The windfarm could have a devastating impact on the economy,” he said.
Andrew Langley, an engineer who heads the Challenge Navitas opposition group and lives on the Isle of Purbeck, added: “This would change the character of something I love, from being relatively pristine and beautiful to something fairly manmade and intrusive.” The Government is considering the proposal and is expected to decide in the autumn.
Mike Unsworth, project director of Navitus Bay, said the development has the potential to contribute about £1.6bn to the economy and create at least 1,700 jobs. “We believe fully in the Navitus Bay scheme and the very real benefits it can bring,” he said.
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