Tuesday 30 April 2013
Day Four: Welcome To My Nuclear Family
The more I travelled up the Cumbrian coast, the more it became clear that this was England's dumping ground. It was where we hid all the unpleasant stuff we didn't really want to deal with. Barrow was there, building nuclear submarines we like to pretend we haven't really got. I boarded the train and went past fenced off industrial complexes, sewage farms, outfall pipes. Oh yes, look to your right as you travel north and you've got those fine Lake District vistas. From down here on the railway line, though, those fells became the barrier dividing "us" from "them". It was as though you could do anything you like so long as you stayed on the far side of the national park.
Take Drigg as a case in point. It's got a pretty unattractive name, I admit, but beyond that, it's just another small farming village. So you'd think.
During the war, Drigg's position in, to use a technical phrase, "the arse-end of nowhere", meant it was perfect for an ordnance factory. Then, when that was decommissioned, it was replaced by a "low level waste repository" - or, as it's more commonly known, a nuclear dump.
Yes, just beyond that charming pub is a vast acreage that's been filled with vats of radioactive waste for the last sixty years. It doesn't matter, though, because it's out here, on the edge of nowhere. I fled as quickly as possible, before my genitals fell off.
Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed a slight change in the weather since the previous day. A storm had swept in from the Atlantic, drowning the north west and battering the coast. Heavy rain pounded off the hood of my coat, a relentless percussive beat that was really quite annoying.
I pushed on, hardy soul that I am. Bedraggled livestock stared at me as I passed, clearly resentful of my waterproofs. I had to keep speeding up and slowing down so that I could get past large puddles before some oaf in a Lexus splashed me. It was miserable and grey everywhere I looked.
Then the sci-fi turrets of Sellafield emerged from behind a hill.
It's a disconcerting feeling, watching a nuclear power plant grow larger as you approach. I felt guilty for just looking at it, as though a bunch of MI5 agents were going to swoop in and interrogate me for carrying a camera within five miles of the reactor.
What a disappointing sign. I was hoping for "Welcome to Seascale: England's first glow in the dark village" or "Welcome to Seascale: home of the three headed labradoodle". Instead it just pretended to be a normal community, instead of the horrific radiation scarred nightmare I was convinced it would be.
As I advanced, it disappointed even further. There were no mutants roaming the streets, no shelters, no sirens mounted in high up places. There was a deserted children's playground, the swings moving of their own accord in the wind for that lazy post-apocalyptic symbolism, but I think that was more to do with the weather than parental terror over radiation burns.
It was all very ordinary. Not even ordinary: drab. The houses were cheap pebble dashed structures with double glazing and tarmac driveways. It was just another boring corner of the country. There was a minor point of interest: a flag flying at half mast.
It was the morning of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, and clearly one of the residents was paying his own tribute. I imagined a gruff Colonel Blimp type, sobbing over his Pye television in his front room; he'd retired to Seascale deliberately, as two fingers to all those nancy boy "scientists" who claimed that radiation was bad for you.
In some places, it was almost pretty - the desolate sands, the flowering dunes. Then I'd notice the long outflow pipes stretching to the water's edge and give up any notion of a quick paddle.
I'd reached the throbbing heart of the village - a little square with a row of houses on one side. Some of the houses had shops in their front - a butcher's, a coffee shop, a beauty salon. It never fails to surprise me that tanning salons appear in even the smallest, poorest communities. I have never had a tan that didn't come from the sun; I can't see the appeal in strapping myself into a dayglow coffin for five minutes so I can turn the colour of burnished teak. I certainly wouldn't pay for the privilege.
There was also a little playground, with a "fort" for the kids to clamber over. It featured the most inappropriate memorial I've seen in a good while. Remember a couple of years ago, when a taxi driver ran amok with a shotgun, killing indiscriminately? A tragedy that deserved to be memorialised, certainly. I'm just not sure that a plaque underneath a cannon is the best place to pay tribute to people who have been shot.
Moving on from this amazing display of insensitivity, I made my way up to the railway station on top of the viaduct. There wasn't a proper station sign that I could see; I only spotted it in the distance when I was about to board the train. So you'll have to make do with a platform sign.
It was very dark that day.
I boarded the train across from a couple of nice ladies chatting over the aisle. One had a security pass on a lanyard round her neck and was complaining about her morning off. "I just used up some time off, but you can't really do anything in a morning. You're just counting time until you head into work."
"Work" was, of course, Sellafield: the dirtiest of all the secrets along the coast. At first everything was normal, but slowly I began to notice the changes in the landscape. The fences became taller, harsher; they acquired a second run a metre behind the first. They rose up on artificial embankments, like the bailey of an ancient castle. Its purpose was much the same, to protect the valuables within from attack, but instead of jewels, it was shielding uranium cores.
I have a complex relationship with nuclear power. On the one hand, I am anxious about anything that can obliterate thousands of people within moments, and then scar the landscape for decades afterwards: I was nine at the time of Chernobyl, after all. It would be a lot nicer for all of us if we could get our power from solar panels, or wind turbines, or magic buttons.
However, we do need all that power, and we need more of it every day. In the absence of dilitihium crystals, nuclear power seems the cleanest, easiest way to generate a hell of a lot of power with as little pollution as possible. Yes, we're going to have to shove all those old plutonium rods somewhere, but that's what Drigg is for. Besides, I don't have any kids - stuff the future generations. (This is the point where I dearly hope there's no such thing as reincarnation). They're all going to burn up thanks to global warming anyway so we may as well let them charge their iPods while they wait.
Also, and I realise this is appalling, but fifty years of Bond films have made me regard nuclear power as a little bit sexy and glamorous. Thunderball wouldn't be half as interesting if Largo had stolen a boring old regular missile, and the climax of The World is Not Enough would probably have been quite dull if 007 and Renard were battling over a wind turbine instead of inside the reactor room of a Russian submarine. Never forget: if it wasn't for nuclear power, we wouldn't have had Denise Richards as Dr Christmas Jones, saying "up here we've got hydrogen bombs your lab built leaking tritium" as though she knew what she was talking about. I couldn't live in a world without Christmas.
In short: I am wobbly on the subject, in a very English, very woolly liberal way. I'd really rather someone else made the decision about it frankly.
I could tell Sellafield station was getting close from the sidings - row after row of tracks with empty wagons marked BNFL. Sellafield's presence kept this line going; the tracks were needed to ship nuclear materials back and forth, while the plant's workers commuted here from homes further along the coast. So I guess it's sort of a good thing?
Oh I don't know. Here's a picture of the station.
I waited for the click of a rifle, the approach of heavy footsteps, my camera snatched from my hand. I had genuinely worried about what I would say to the nuclear police if they objected to me taking photos of the station. I prayed they wouldn't take my memory card off me, rendering the whole trip a waste of time; equally, if they made me just delete any pics of Sellafield, I'd have a hole in the project I could never fill.
Nothing happened. No police, no security, not even the gentle whirr of a CCTV camera turning to eyeball me. I just left the uninspiring station behind and walked outside.
That police notice is a bit sinister though.
The plan now was a walk across country to the distant town of St Bees, a walk of several miles that would take me about three hours. I didn't do this. Instead, I got a lift.
The night before, the BF had unexpectedly turned up at the hotel with a bottle of wine. Being unable to resist alcohol, I let him in, and decided to take advantage of his good nature. The walk from Sellafield to St Bees was a long, tortuous one, and I had a real deadline. I absolutely, positively, had to be at St Bees station by midday. That was the only southbound train that stopped at Braystones. I calculated it, and it looked like it was just about feasible, but after the day before's troubles, I was anxious. If I'd miscalculated again, I didn't have another chance to collect Braystones and its neighbour, Nethertown. Their service was so irregular that I wouldn't be able to revisit them any other way.
The BF, and his Prius, was the solution. He waited for me in the station car park and whisked me to St Bees in ten minutes.
You might think this is cheating. I don't. This is taking advantage of the resources available to me. If I'd taken a bus, you wouldn't be complaining, would you? Since I used the railway to arrive or depart from all the stations on the line, it all counts, and one little car journey doesn't invalidate anything as far as I'm concerned.
It meant that I missed out on the delights of St Bees, but from what I saw, that wasn't much of a loss. The town looked grim faced under the wintry skies, huddled away from the sea and guarded. A large public school sat up on the hill, the windows lit up against the storm even though it was theoretically mid-April. I nipped to a public toilet on the front for a pee, and found a group of hikers hovering in the porch: "We're just trying to decide how mad we really are." St Bees is the start of Wainwright's coast to coast walk, and their packs and thick socks indicated they were going to have a stab; their cowardice at a bit of rain made me think they probably wouldn't get all the way to Robin Hood's Bay.
The rain was getting worse. I was only going to get wetter and colder. There was a part of me that secretly hoped the BF would say "never mind all this. Come back to Birkenhead with me and we'll have beer and pizza for dinner in our nice warm flat."
He drove away without even looking back. Bastard.