I have a regular tricycling route that takes me from my house by Plessey Woods along to Bedlington then down through the wooded banks of the River Blyth and along its estuary to the boatyards of the port of Blyth. The landscape of the estuary has seen some dramatic changes in my lifetime. For over 40 years the north side was dominated by the 4 towering chimneys of a mighty coal-fired power station, blown up in 2003. On the south side was the Bates Colliery and the drops – the quayside structures, first developed in the 18th century, that enabled efficient loading of coal into ships. Blyth was once one of the main coal-shipping ports in Britain but with the demise of the pits it has been busy reinventing itself and is at the forefront of the development of offshore wind energy. First with 9 wind turbines along its East Breakwater, now replaced by a single monster looming over the town. Then with 2 mighty turbines, the first offshore turbines in the country, out in the bay. These have now gone the way of the power station chimneys but instead there are 5 even mightier turbines further offshore, each about four times the height of Nelson’s Column, together with equipment research and testing facilities in the town.
The most recent development takes the visible form of an anonymous great industrial shed gleaming on the north shore. Paint it blue and it could be an IKEA store. In fact it is an electrical converter station, where direct current will be converted to alternating current and fed into the national grid. It is here because it is the British end of a 450-mile submarine cable (actually a pair of cables) linking us to Norway, known as the North Sea Link, and due to complete next year. As opponents of wind power never tire of pointing out, it can only generate electricity when the wind blows: sometimes our growing armada of wind turbines will produce more than we can use, and sometimes little or none. Norway, famously, is powered mainly by hydroelectricity, and usually has more than it knows what to do with. So what could be better than linking the electrical grids of the 2 countries so we can complement our supplies of renewable energy. This is not the only electrical interconnecter we have with our neighbours – we are joined also to Ireland, France, Belgium and Holland, and will soon be joined to Denmark as well as Norway. I find it comforting that at a time when much of the political discourse seems to be about weakening cooperation with our neighbouring countries the reality on the ground is that we are in ever closer union with them. To keep life on this planet tolerable we need more international cooperation not less. The current coronavirus crisis is surely a forceful reminder that we will have to keep on finding ways of solving problems and of working together, no matter how difficult we make it for ourselves.
So for me this enormous, shiny steel shed is a beacon of hope, a symbol of sensible international relations, and as much a sign of a changing world as the new birds, the little egrets and the avocets, that have now joined the perennial redshanks and dunlins on the estuary’s mudflats.