X-10 Power in the Land

22Jul16

Exhibition catalogue. X-10 Pŵer yn y Tir/ Power in the Land. Editors: Helen Grove-White and Annie Grove-White. Published by X-10, 2016.

Ysbyty Ifan (St. John’s Hospital) is a remote and beautiful hamlet in North Wales. The surrounding landscape feels like Icelandic tundra, or moonscape. In the summer, the expansive mountaintop flickers with the white fluff of cotton grass, and mournful curlews can be heard with the joyous skylarks hovering above the heather. There is something of the otherworld about it.

Like most of the remote places where nuclear power facilities are located, this place has layers of history. The black earth at Ysbyty Ifan records the footsteps of pilgrims, the Red Bandits of Mawddwy, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the poet William Cynwal, Tomos Prys, sailor, buccaneer and poet, and Abraham Lincoln’s great, great grandfather, John Morris, whose daughter made the journey to the ‘Welsh Tract’ of Pennsylvania in the 1600s.

 

Steeped in these histories, little has changed in this place since the Knights of St John, otherwise known as the Order of Hospitallers, set up a pilgrim hospital and hostel for weary medieval travellers following the routes from Bangor Is y Coed (Bangor-on-Dee) to Holyhead and Bardsey Island and the Cistercian Way between Aberconwy and Cymer. On their difficult journey this isolated hamlet must have felt like a welcome refuge from the battering of wind and heavy rain.

 

In April 1986 a similar maelstrom of weather carried radioactive material in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster that seeped into the black earth. The radiation in the soil was absorbed by the cotton grass, llus and heathers, which were then eaten by sheep. For over two decades afterwards, restriction orders were placed on the movement of sheep in the area. Yet the journey of atomic particles from the Ukraine had taken a little over 24 hours to reach the hills of North Wales and elsewhere. From that moment on, the peaty earth of Ysbyty Ifan and its histories were forever intertwined with Caesium -137, carried by the wind to these parts.

 

One of the pilgrim routes from Ysbyty Ifan led towards Holy Island on Anglesey, now known today for its busy ferry port at Holyhead. Back in the early 1960s the port provided easy access from the sea for construction materials to arrive to build Wylfa nuclear power station (Atomfa’r Wylfa) along the coast, near the village of Cemaes Bay. It is the most northerly village in Wales (excluding the nearby hamlet of Llanbadrig).

 

The location of the power station here was chosen because of its remoteness, its geological stability and proximity to the sea for cooling the twin nuclear reactors.

Operating since 1971, the plant lies adjacent to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that is partly owned by the National Trust.

 

Like Ysbyty Ifan, the area has layers of history. The unpredictability of the weather and currents around this part of the Anglesey coast has resulted in a number of shipwrecks across the centuries. One of the most memorable was in AD440, when Bishop Patrick, on his way to bring Christianity to the Irish from the Scottish island of Iona, was shipwrecked during a violent storm. He survived the clamour and turmoil of the storm, taking shelter in a cave on the mainland. In giving thanks for his survival, he founded a church at Llanbadrig (St. Patrick’s Church).

 

While Llanbadrig church still stands proudly on the cliff-top, layers of earth hide other histories of people and buildings. Along the coast beyond Cemaes, David Hughes, a local Victorian philanthropist who had made his fortune as a Liverpool builder, built Wylfa Manor and gardens with entrance lodge in the 1890s. He lived there until his death in 1904. The remains are now beneath the public car park near Wylfa nuclear power station.

 

From David Hughes’s time to the late 1930s, the area became a fashionable location for holiday homes, and at one point Wylfa Head was known as ‘millionaires row’. Lloyd George was a regular visitor. Princess Victoria, daughter of Edward VII, would visit the Hon. Violet Vivian at Cestyll, and they would all socialize together.

 

Cestyll was bought by William Walter Vivian in 1918, for his niece Violet Vivien, daughter of Lord Bodmin and she made it her home. From 1922 onwards she began to design and develop a garden in the valley to the west of the house. The garden is described as “an informal plantsman’s garden which has many small, separate but linked areas, in many cases defined by the bends and loops of the stream, which give it a very intimate atmosphere” (CADW, n.d. ).

 

Cestyll was demolished in 1991. A south-east range of sheds and a garage may still be seen, though are very overgrown and difficult to access. The walled garden, somewhat overgrown, remains and is adjacent to Wylfa nuclear power station, (also known as Wylfa A), and is managed by Horizon Nuclear Power.

 

On the site of Wylfa A itself, once stood a farmhouse. It was bought in the 1930s by Rosina Buckman, a New Zealand-born soprano who had retired from singing 10 years earlier, and then taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She would bring groups of students up to Cemaes and they would perform concerts in the Village Hall. It is said that her ghost still wanders around the site, sometimes seen humming an aria in a voluminous white dress, her pet Pekinese held under her arm.

 

The landscape began to change during and after the Second World War. The name Wylfa, derived from ‘gwylfa’, means prominent place or eminence, and it is not surprising that the RAF built a Chain Home post on the cliffs at Wylfa Head. Its purpose was to detect enemy aircraft by radar or, in some instances, the management of shipping in the Liverpool approaches. The radar worked by ‘floodlighting’ the sky with pulsed radio waves. The ‘echo’ from obstacles in the path would be received and displayed at the base station.

 

After the war, the Central Electricity Generating Board bought Wylfa Head and in 1963 construction work began on the nuclear plant and its two Magnox reactors. The architects for the station were Farmer & Dark, and the landscape architect was Dame Sylvia Crowe, who was also responsible for landscaping at Trawsfynydd nuclear power station.

 

After 44 years of operation, Wylfa A is now due to close in 2015 and another layer of history begins to be made. Decommissioning begins immediately and it is a long and potentially dangerous process. Final site clearance at Trawsfynydd for example, ‘is not projected to start until 2074 with the land returned to its original state by 2083. It is at that stage that the reactor buildings and the steel pressure vessels will be demolished’ (BBC, 2013).

 

The conundrums of nuclear power make it a challenge to discuss dispassionately. Without even considering the politics of the nuclear agenda, we need to consider the emergence and development of our nuclear age.

 

From the beginning of the nineteenth century scientists began to make new discoveries about the world around us. The development of research in this field roughly corresponds with the development of Modernism in fine art. In many ways these scientists and artists had much in common. Often they would work in atelier-like laboratories. They were all exploring what Robert Hughes describes as ‘The Shock of the New’ (1980).

 

Photography was at the forefront of this new era both in the arts and sciences. In his Parisian laboratory, Antoine Henri Becquerel’s experiments led to the discovery of radioactivity in 1896. He observed that uranium could blacken a photographic plate, even though separated by glass or black paper. He also observed that the rays that produced the darkening were capable of discharging an electroscope, indicating that the rays possessed an electric charge.

 

By the end of the century, scientists knew more about the structure and workings of the atom, and had made the discoveries of X-rays, radioactivity and the electron. In 1905 Albert Einstein published the special theory of relativity regarding convertibility of matter and energy (E=mc2), and 10 years later, he published his general theory of relativity. The theory proposed that gravity, as well as motion, can affect the intervals of time and of space.

 

Marie and Pierre Curie worked tirelessly in Paris discovering polonium and then radium. She used her knowledge to establish x-ray facilities at the Front during World War 1. In June 1919, Ernest Rutherford bombarded nitrogen gas with alpha-particles and obtained atoms of an oxygen isotope and protons. This transmutation of nitrogen into oxygen was the first artificially induced nuclear reaction. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the neutron.

 

In a period of less than a lifetime we had moved from the Steam Age to the Atomic Age. The industrialization of the atom begins. This new era was, and continues to make its mark across the planet, crossing over nations’ lands, peoples and borders regardless. The local is now global, and the global is now local.

 

In the UK, the development of nuclear weapons was authorized in January 1947. By June, under the direction of William Penney, the UK began to design its plutonium bomb, and in August work began on our first atomic reactor. In 1956 the world’s first civil nuclear programme was established, with the opening of Calder Hall nuclear power station at Windscale, England. Within a year, a fire had destroyed the core of a reactor, sending clouds of radioactivity into the atmosphere

 

Five years later in 1962 between October 16 and 28, the world held its collective breath as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, bringing the world the closest it has ever come to nuclear annihilation. During those 13 days, in a small village in Gwynedd, North Wales, called Penrhyndeudraeth (Peninsula with two beaches), a “nonagenarian intellectual in carpet slippers in his cottage in North Wales” (cited in Sekel, 1984, p.1), sent a series of telegrams to such leaders as President John F. Kennedy, Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, U Thant (then Secretary General of the United Nations), Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), in his nineties at the time, sitting in his cottage, is thus credited by many historians as having played an important role in bringing about the turning-point in the crisis.

 

In this exhibition, ‘Power in the Land’, ten artists from Wales, England and other parts of Europe, have each turned their attention to Wylfa nuclear power station as the starting point for exploring some of the local and global themes and concerns related to nuclear power today. They have done this in an open, questioning and exploratory manner that prise open some of the conundrums of nuclear power that we live with.

 

 

References

CADW (n.d.).Cestyll, Cemlyn, Wales. [online] Available at http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/749?preview=1 (Accessed 10 November 2015)

Green, S. (2013). How do you close a nuclear power station? [BBC online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/24642256 (Accessed 15 November 2015)

Sekel, A. (1984). Russell and the Cuban Missile Crisis. [online] Available at https://escarpmentpress.org/russelljournal/article/viewFile/1632/1658 (Accessed 15 November 2015)

 



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