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Wednesday 22nd May 2019
Route: Didcot Parkway, Wittenham Clumps, Little Wittenham, Day's Lock, River Thames, Clifton Hampden, UKAEA Culham, Culham Lock, Sutton Courtenay, Appleford Crossing, Didcot
Distance: 27km/16¾ miles, 7½ hours
Ascension: 165 metres/540 feet
Six months ago today my eye fell apart; I’m having a ‘day off’ to celebrate. There’s a walk I’ve wanted to do for ages, revisiting sites I frequented thirty years ago, but which I kept putting off because of work. With June fast approaching I decide that it’s high time I did it, and go in search of “the last man in Europe” – or at least, his creator.
The first off-peak train south via Oxford runs direct to Didcot. After arriving I unpack my camera and maps on the platform and then walk quickly off through Ladygrove; the large new housing estate built to the north of the railway line. It’s going to be hot today, and I’m going a long way. I’ve dropped a kilo from my pack (still 13.5kg despite this) and swapped my wet gear for some extra water. Very soon I leave the noise of Didcot behind me (much less since the closure of Didcot-A power station) and head off into the fields.
During the 1980s I came down this end of the county quite a lot. Though it received little publicity this was the centre of ‘the future’ of the nuclear industry.
The Atomic Energy Research Establishment – a.k.a Harwell Laboratory – was the centre for nuclear energy research in Britain, with laboratories and (at that time) three operational nuclear research reactors. Much of the nuclear-fission side of Harwell closed during the 1990s. Instead they entered the new dynamic world of 'contaminated land remediation', as they learned so much cleaning up their own mess. And with a little help from me their nuclear reactors (see picture, right) had all closed by 1991 – though the site still houses an extensive collection of nuclear waste.
Across the valley, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy housed the European nuclear fusion research project. Culham is now winding down as the next-generation fusion research project, ITER, is being built in France.
Consequently, since the beginning of the 1990s when I moved onto other things, I haven’t got down here as much as I used to. That's partly why it's high time I came back again today – just to check up on progress.
The first thing that strikes me walking out from Didcot is how dry it is down here. The dark gault clays in the valley bottom are dry and cracked. Climbing out of the floodplain onto the chalky-grey greensand silts the ground is rock hard and deeply fissured.
Very quickly I snake through the Earth Trust's centre and get to the foot of Wittenham Clumps. I climb to the ramparts of the fort on Castle Hill and take the long-way round the back, taking in the views over the Chilterns escarpment:
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I climb to the top of Castle Hill and sit on the bench at the top. Lunchtime!
Castle Hill is a late Bronze Age/early Iron Age settlement, later occupied by the Romans. Off to my right is Brightwell Hill, the trees on top marking the site of Brightwell Barrow – a bowl barrow that’s contemporaneous to Castle Hill’s earthworks.
Along the horizon the Chilterns are visible from Whiteleaf Hill all the way down to Goring. There they transform into the Lambourn Downs, which extend west to (as far as you can see from here) Whitehorse Hill.
Lunch over, and having cooled down, I pull my pack back on and head to the other clump, which gives better views to the north and east. The Thames winds across the valley in the foreground, and beyond the tree-covered ground rises to Boar’s Hill, Forest Hill and Beckley near Oxford, and to the north east Muswell Hill and Brill Hill near Bicester. Though hazy, I can just make out Ashenden Hill and Quainton Hill near Aylesbury:
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I quickly descend into Little Wittenham and cross The Thames. I’m off to see the Dyke Hills, a straight wall that cuts off a meander of The Thames, and the confluence of the River Thame on the far side. You get a better idea of the layout from the hills above; down here it’s just a linear earthwork, breached in places by later agricultural operations.
This promentary in The Thames has a long history of settlement. Dyke Hills was an extensive ancient settlement. Just to the north, destroyed by gravel extraction in the 1950s, was Dorchester henge, a Neolithic site. Dorchester was a Roman town on the crossing point of river. Just a couple of fields away from the earthwork is Dorchester Abbey, initially a Saxon cathedral, rebuilt by the Normans a century after the Conquest.
I wander back over Day's Lock, taking in the scene while I have to wait for boats to pass out and into the lock, and then carry on along the banks of The Thames upstream.
The Thames isn’t really a river; at least, not downstream of Cricklade or Lechlade. It’s a glorified canal, engineered over the last three hundred years to manage the water levels to allow boats to pass. Today the computer-controlled weir gates, operated from the Environment Agency’s control rooms, manage the flow of water to keep it just right for navigation. For example, there’s about a half-a-metre difference between the river level and the fields here. Contrast that to the River Severn where the drop-off from the bank is often a metre to, in places, three metres due to the less managed nature of that river.
What the banks of The Thames have though is water; and a high water table deters intensive farming, which means more biodiversity.
All day I’ve been missing insects. Now I’m surrounded by insects. From the small light-blue dragonflies that dart around my feet, to the occasional large dark damselfly that settles (unlike the dragonflies) for long enough to take a photo. The river is also home to a lot of waterfowl. At one point I pass a pair of great crested grebes floating downstream on the current, while above them a pair of common terns screamed back and forth along the same stretch of water looking for fish or insects.
At Clifton Hampden I sit on the parapet of the bridge and have drink. I could carry on along the river, but that’ll be pretty much like the last three miles. I remember an old route and decide to change my plans.
I walk through the pretty, old-fashioned red brick and tile village, with its lovely bright-red “object to the quarry” signs, and head off up into the woods beyond.
The ground here has changed, a reddish brown sand and gravel (Upper Greensand?) that, while not as cracked, is equally as rock hard as the ground on the other side of the valley.
Very soon this gives way to the old tamped concrete surface of Thame Lane, laid when the naval airfield was hastily constructed during the Second World War. This will carry me around the outside of the security fence of the once airfield, now UKAEA Culham site and on to the village the other side.
Early on in my work I found a general rule; that the back yard of a large industrial site is always more telling of what truly goes on there than it’s front lawn. Nuclear sites were no exception. You always got a better idea of what was going at Harwell and Culham by looking ‘out the back’ rather than seeing the bright gleaming frontage the organisation wanted you to see.
Today it’s a mix of bits of old equipment and containers, which will probably increase as decommissioning begins in earnest soon. Further round there are various environmental experiments set up. Getting near the front of the site there’s a self-driving car moving around a fenced-off area of tarmac, reversing into parking spaces.
On the far side of the site I take a right, over the railway and on straight for a mile into the village of Culham. I walk through very quickly, past the lovely bright psychedelic-patterned green-and-blue signs saying, “No New Town with 3,500 Houses in Culham Green Belt”, heading for the little park next to Culham Lock and the benches that I remember being there. Better still, I find one that’s shaded beneath the glowing red flowers of a chestnut tree.
Thame Lane, away from the river and in the shelter of trees, had been rather hot. I stop for fifteen minutes at Culham Lock to have a slow drink. Then it was time to move on, across the bridges, then following the bank of the river into Sutton Courtenay.
As you enter the village an anonymous looking brick building marked “319.5” stands on the river bank amongst some trees. This was the end of the pipeline that discharged radioactive effluent into The Thames from the Harwell site. Along with a similar pipeline discharge from Aldermaston which entered The Thames below Pangbourne (just upstream of the Reading/WOMAD festival site), they were closed by 2010 when their continued operation became unsafe.
I cross the road and enter All Saints Lane. Here Harwell had a water works that pumped treated cooling water to the site. More significantly, in the early 1990s, I caught the AEA unlawfully dumping not only the waste from water processing into the old gravel pits behind the site; they were also dumping spent nuclear waste transport drums and chemical flasks into the lagoon too (see picture, right).
The old water works and the pit of waste it accumulated has already gone ‐ today mysteriously marked “Harwell Angling Club – Members Only”. Now, behind the extraordinarily over-engineered perimeter fence for a fishing pond, a large weed-filled void remains after they had to remove all the waste they'd dumped there and dispose of it properly.
On a lamp post is a planning notice; they’re going to remove the discharge pipeline too.
I take a right into All Saints' Church. A little searching around and I find who I’m looking for; Eric Arthur Blair.
Eric Blair is unknown to most. I got to know him in detail thanks to my A-level English Language & Literature project, and in particular the work he is best know for under his pseudonym, George Orwell.
June 8th marks 70 years since its first publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
On the ground in front of the headstone there’s a message from a person from the Czech Republic; “to a champion of liberty admired throughout the world”. Next to it is a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
If you really want to know about the book, however, you need to get a copy of the facsimile of the manuscript. There you can see the parts that never made it through the final edit. In particular how “the proles” were controlled through stoking nationalism and racism, and dividing them one from another so that they could not challenge “The Party”.
Years later, Orwell's manuscript description of a racist attack on an immigrant woman still haunts my mind. Given today’s major political debate and what it has spawned, the original/working title for the book, “The Last Man in Europe”, does seem particularly ironic.
What I learned from reading Orwell was that, outside the physical sciences and mathematics, understanding “a truth” is not an absolute but a necessary contrast of views. In particular, to really understand what Orwell is trying to describe, you have to contrast his view with those of his contemporary authors. For example:
What I learned from contrasting different author’s views of the same contemporary issue was that, just like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “two plus two” can equal both “four” or “five”; that truth exists not a single version of someone’s point of view, but in understanding why the space between different version of a particular truth exists and what other meanings that can give us.
In short, fake news isn't wholly ‘fake’; it's just that the best place to hide a whopping ‘lie’ will always be in the grey area between two known ‘truths’.
Arguably Brave New World is far more like the present-day world than Orwell’s vision. Not just that people are lulled by technology into certain ways of living, but they feel that is natural. Likewise, though Orwell feared that a future society might ban books, what Huxley feared was that people would lose the will to read books because of all the other ‘distractions’ in their lives. If Orwell does have relevance today, I think that it exists in how we view raw power and its uses – such as artificial intelligence and machine algorithms, and who precisely they represent in the battle for control of the 'Information Society'.
Leaving Sutton Courtenay the field to the side of the path has been dug-up. I instantly know why; it’s the route of the discharge pipeline.
Beyond Sutton Courtenay I enter what I call “the wasteland”. It's a large area where for many years gravel was extracted and taken by train to London; and in its place train-loads of containerised household and industrial waste were dumped to fill the holes. Those works have now pretty much ceased – the gravel extraction having moved to the sides of The Thames at Appleford (too close to the river to allow waste disposal). In any case London has incinerators now; 'skyfilling' instead of 'landfilling'.
Thinking of “The Waste Land”, and it’s author, I’m reminded that T.S Eliot in his role as a director of Faber & Faber famously turned down Orwell’s previous book, Animal Farm. Within his establishment leanings, it was too political in the climate of the Second World War for them to publish. How truly “Orwellian” it was, then, when the CIA funded someone to make the 1954 animated film version of the story.
On into the silent willow-covered mounds of clay-entombed waste I walk. Eventually I emerge into the, messy, churned-up, waste- and equipment-strewn working area at the heart of the site.
From different directions I’m joined by large black pipes that run along the side of the trackway. I know what they are; I know where they’re going. It’s what I find when I get there that warps my perceptions. A landfill gas power plant run by “Infinis”, trumpeting its role in creating 'renewable' energy.
In the circumstances I find that more “Orwellian” than the CIA funding the film of Animal Farm.
Strange how you can turn the arse-end of a waste site into a ‘green’ power plant. What’s more, having seen how some of those pipes are installed and looked after, I’d like to return here with a methane gas meter.
Methane is eighty- to one-hundred-and-twenty-times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide. If any of those pipes have significant leakage, all of the green claims made about that plant ‘go up in smoke’ (pun intended). Walking by the plant the dry, hot plastic, acrid smell of burnt landfill gas hits me; on the haul road the hot gases venting from the short stub flues is creating shimmering patterns on the dry tarmac.
Appleford Crossing, since the re-routing of the landfill traffic, is deserted and the barriers are kept permanently down. I press the button. A few minutes later the gates rise and I am allowed to walk across the railway. Then I dodge fast expensive cars on the road, none of whom seem to want to thank you jumping into the hedge so that they don't have to slow down for oncoming traffic, until I reach the cycleway back into Didcot.
Onwards and under the Didcot Perimeter Road I emerge back into the Ladygrove estate. People are streaming in the opposite direction to me, away from the station. I arrive in the quiet, ordered chaos of the late rush-hour. I’ve missed the direct train and so I ride to Oxford to find a train for Banbury. Along the way I ponder how this area has changed so much in the last thirty years; and how even that might be cranked up a gear as this is the end of the proposed Oxford–Cambridge expressway. Question is, is all this development for “The Proles”, or is it really all just for ”The Party”; and if so what does it add up to?