A plan to build an 11-mile long barrage across the Severn estuary has been given a boost after David Cameron asked ministers to look at it. The scheme, according to its champion Peter Hain, would be financed to the tune of £30 billion by ‘sovereign wealth funds’ (state investors largely based in Kuwait and Qatar). It promises to generate 5% of the UK’s electricity and create 10,000 jobs. It would be expected to be operational for more than 120 years. All the UK government has to do is signal its support in principle, provide authorization in the form of a ‘Hybrid’ Parliamentary bill, and stabilize the electricity price for 25-30 years. Possible extra income from a road or rail link across the barrage from Lavernock Point near Cardiff across to Brean Down (fans of Dion Fortune beware) near Weston-super-Mare in Somerset would not be highlighted to investors at this stage. Corlan Hafren (Welsh for Severn Pen or Enclosure), the consortium of engineering and construction companies behind the proposal, wants to sell the plan on the strength of its electricity generating capacity alone.
My personal gut response (without trying to get grown up and political) is grief for the Severn Bore, which would pass into memory with the implementation of this scheme. It is one of Britain’s few truly spectacular phenomena. It’s large surge wave can be seen in the Severn estuary, whose tidal range is the second highest in the world – up to 50 feet (15.4 metres). The shape of the estuary is such that water is funnelled into a narrowing channel as the tide rises, forming the large wave. The river’s course takes it past Avonmouth where it is approximately 5 miles wide, though Lydney and Sharpness where it is approximately 1 mile wide, and eventually to Minsterworth where it is less than a hundred yards across, maintaining this width all the way to Gloucester.
Minsterworth itself is a special place for me, an ideal spot for what I call ‘soft’ contemplation – contemplation as gentle reverie. The churchyard, very close to the river, is the home of a ‘veteran’ yew (500-1200 years old). A church of some kind has been on the site since at least 1030. There are remains of landing stages from a time of commercial fruit growing. It is a peaceful setting, enlivened at both the Spring and Autumn Equinox periods by the appearance of the Bore, now often witnessed by enthusiastic crowds as the wave sweeps past, sometimes bearing surfers and canoeists, temporarily reversing the course of the river. If the Barrier scheme goes through, we will lose the Severn Bore. If it doesn’t go through, we will likely use the yews, the church and the churchyard. Much of the Severn’s intertidal area (the area that is above water at low tide and underwater at high tide and famous for its diverse bird life) will disappear over the coming decades whether it goes through or not.
Whatever happens, the world will not stand still. As we pass beyond the Equinoctial moment into the darker half of the year, I’m feeling uncertainty and disequilibrium. I’m feeling that the ground is disappearing beneath my feet, that the same things will not come reassuringly back year after year. So for me right now, contemplation is about living the point of tension I’m experiencing. And it also raises issues about how best contemplation and action belong together and sustain each other.