The world from the top of a wind turbine

I’ve always loved seeing wind turbines in the landscape, I think they look elegant and majestic. As someone more than a little bit concerned about climate change, I find the sight of wind power in action uplifting and deeply reassuring - perhaps we really are going to solve this problem after all.

Resilience Centre, Forest of Dean. Photo Andy Aitchinson

Resilience Centre, Forest of Dean. Photo Andy Aitchinson

Of course, not everyone reacts like this to wind turbines. To some, wind farms are nothing more than blots on the landscape. Personally, I had only ever seen them in the distance, and in passing. Perhaps I too would feel differently if I had to live right next door to one? My son Sol and I decided to investigate.

One of the most familiar turbines for us is the one at Ecotricity’s Green Britain Centre in Swaffham, Norfolk. It really is in Swaffham, in one of the units on the industrial estate at the edge of town which it shares with a Tesco and a Waitrose.

Photo: Elliott Simpson  Creative Commons

Photo: Elliott Simpson Creative Commons

You don’t need a sat-nav to tell you you’re approaching Swaffham - the distinctive 67m tall wind turbine does the job for you. This is the star attraction at the Green Britain Centre, which Ecotricity say is still the only turbine in the world with a publicly accessible viewing platform.

When this turbine first went up in August 1999, the average UK windmill stood at only 30m tall. At over twice that height, this was Britain’s first ‘Megawatt class windmill’ (ie - big!), and powers the equivalent of around 650 homes each year.

After the first one was installed, Ecotricity went on to get planning permission for a second similar turbine nearby. From 2006 a further ten, slightly larger, turbines went on to be built just outside Swaffham in the neighbouring village of North Pickenham. But how do the locals feel about that? Having lived harmoniously alongside these windmills for some years already, local people famously lodged no planning objections to the new wind farm. So the Swaffham area now has a lot of wind turbines, and between them, on windy days, they supply the town with all of its electricity needs.

My co-pilot, Sol, preparing for the ascent. 

My co-pilot, Sol, preparing for the ascent. 

So what are they like close up? My main worry was that it would be very noisy underneath. But on the day we visited all we could hear, standing right at the bottom of the turbine, was the traffic on the A47, some birdsong, and a very - very - faint whooshing sound.

This is a 360 degree photo! Click and drag the image sideways to look around!

Sol & I about to go on #TurbineTours at Green Britain Centre Oct 2016 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Inside the tower, 300 steps spiral steeply upwards, with two rest stops part way to the summit: under-7s and those with heart conditions are not invited. The last leg of the climb becomes progressively narrower and darker inside the steel tube, before the climber finally emerges to some truly breathtaking panoramic views over the Norfolk countryside.

The rhythmic swooshing of the turbine blades was not that much more noticeable even here directly beneath the hub. But the sight of them turning was strangely mesmerising.

Some of the most striking features of the surrounding landscape are the neighbouring turbines. The sister windmill to ours stood spinning majestically off towards Norwich, the pair of them keeping watch over the traffic on the A47.

We handed out some copies of The Wind to our fellow turbine tourists, and I got chatting to local farmer John Blackburn. As luck would have it, his is the closest house to the North Pickenham wind turbines, and he and his wife liked them so much they decided to get one for their own farm.

John turned out to be a fascinating character with a lot to say about wind farms. Here’s a short extract from our conversation so you can get a flavour.

John showed me footage on his phone of his own turbine spinning. It’s a small one - called a Gaia-Wind, and you can just make it out in this picture, beside the foot of the fourth turbine from the right.

The pylon on the left of this picture looks to me like a sinister red-eyed robot intruder, while the turbines themselves are entirely picturesque. This is all a matter of taste of course. But it’s worth noting that in a decentralised, renewable energy future, while more of us will need to live close to sources of power like windmills and solar farms, we should need a lot less transmission infrastructure - AKA pylons. I know which I prefer.

Below the tower, the Green Britain Centre has an organic garden and mini-wildlife refuge. It looks very pretty from above.

We hung out and took in the views for a bit longer...

That's a 360 degree photo! Click and drag the image sideways to look around!

Sol and I on #TurbineTours at the Green Britain Centre, Oct 2016 - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

...and then it was time to start the long journey back down to earth.

Once all the other guests had made it safely down, the head of the Centre, Paul Woodmin, took a few minutes out to talk to me about wind energy in Swaffham and beyond.

So, what did we find out on our turbine adventure? Firstly, viewing platforms in wind turbines are awesome, and there should be more of them. Secondly, we’re not the only ones who think so - around 200,000 people have climbed the turbine since 1999.

Third, and most importantly, local people are completely relaxed about the windmills which dominate the landscape here. A whole generation has now grown up beneath them, and most of the time nobody even notices they’re there. When they do, the windmills are more likely to be seen as a source of civic pride than an eyesore.

This is even without community ownership, or smart grids and energy market rules that would let local people buy cheaper wind power directly. Looking at Swaffham, it’s not hard to imagine a future where most towns tap their local renewable energy resources to meet their own energy needs - and where communities are driving this transition.

If you fancy taking a trip up the turbine (strongly recommended!) at the Green Britain Centre, check out their website here.

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Photos: Leo Murray, 10:10