The power – and the glory of Sizewell
Consultation is about to start on plans for a third nuclear power plant at Sizewell. But for residents, there’s still nowhere better. Sheena Grant reports
FOLLOW the steps down towards the shingle from Sizewell beach car park and you might, if you look closely, notice a small wooden cross on the edge of a bracken-covered hill.
Above looms the now-silent but omnipresent concrete hulk that is Sizewell A nuclear power station but the little cross harks back to the days before it - and the bright white dome of Sizewell B - came to dominate this stretch of coastline.
In those days another imposing building stood in this commanding position - one that was all-together easier on the eye. One that left an indelible mark on the heart of a woman called Joan Gunthorpe.
Hill House was not only a local landmark but the place where Joan was born in 1916. Her family were tenants but had lived there for so long that the house was known locally as Gunthorpe’s House.
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But by the early 1960s they had been forced to move out and the house - along with a few others that had been unoccupied since the Second World War - was demolished to make way for the giant, windowless structure of Sizewell A.
To Joan Gunthorpe it was a tragedy. One she never forgot. Towards the end of her long life she became frail and forgetful, but her happy memories of Hill House and the Sizewell of her youth never dimmed.
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“Two weeks before she died she asked to be taken back one more time,” says her niece, Gill Staff, who lives in the village with her husband, life-long Sizewell resident Brian. “She forgot lots of things, but she never forgot Sizewell.”
After Joan’s death in 2008 her family honoured her last wishes: to scatter her ashes at the site of her childhood home and put up a memorial cross nearby, which carries the poignant words: ‘Home at last’.
Gill is one of a handful of Sizewell residents who knew the village when Hill House still stood.
“It was a lovely old red brick house and had a thatched roof,” she says. “We all loved it. I can remember going down there at Christmas every year and exchanging presents. The demolition had a big effect on everyone. The Gunthorpes lived there for years and Joan loved Sizewell. It was just beautiful down that end of village and although Joan didn’t live there immediately before the house was demolished it was her childhood home and was full of happy memories. Her ashes were scattered there. That was her wish and the family planted daffodil bulbs around the cross, which bloom every spring.”
Gill and Brian built their current home in 1963 as the first power station took shape. It began generating power in 1966, the year they were married, and was shut down in 2006, the year they celebrated their Ruby wedding anniversary.
In the ‘60s, many believed the brave new nuclear future would bring cheaper electricity and endless work for all local people. They hoped that would be the trade-off for all that was lost with the building of the power station.
Nowadays, older and wiser, they scoff at the naivety of their younger selves but despite everything, for many people there is still no place like Sizewell. There’s even a website, called Memories of Sizewell, where people reminisce about happy times spent there.
Sizewell is about the last remaining place on the Heritage Coast you can escape the gentried summer madness that engulfs nearby tourist hotspots. For the most part, it is still populated by year-round residents.
Yes, it has what many would term industrial monstrosities in its midst (and, some would contend, too many dogs - along with the mess they leave behind) but its quiet character and relaxed beauty remain in spite of all that, perhaps even because of it. There is an ‘end of the line’ feel about Sizewell that enhances the rugged wildness of the place. The landscape may have lost out to man’s technological know-how but it has triumphed in so many other ways.
Noel Cattermole, the only remaining fisherman in Sizewell, has lived there for 48 years. His family also runs the beach cafe.
“There were several fishermen all along the coast when I was a boy,” he says. “When I left school it seemed the best thing to go into. I left school one day and started fishing the next. I have fished the same spot just off the beach for the last 40 years.”
Sizewell A had just been finished when Noel moved to the village and he clearly remembers the construction of the B station in the 1980s and 90s.
“I think a lot of the older people who lived here before the power stations were built resent them being here still but I quite liked the interaction of meeting all the different people who came into the area when B was built,” he says. “The disruption wasn’t too bad as they brought a lot of the stuff in by sea. It didn’t come through the village.
“They are an eyesore, there’s no getting away from it. But everything, in time, becomes something beautiful. The outfalls at sea, which people didn’t like at the time, have now become a big nesting site for kittiwakes. Everything goes full circle eventually. Older people knew Sizewell as an idyllic place but younger people have never known anything different. It’s not pretty but it is there so my attitude to the prospect of another being built is, why not?
“I don’t want Sizewell to be too busy and if the power stations weren’t there we would have more tourists. There would have been a lot more development and we would probably be like Aldeburgh and Southwold - you can’t get into these places sometimes in summer. Some people don’t like nuclear, I know, but it doesn’t worry me. I know you can never say never as far as an accident is concerned but I think the likelihood is low. I’ve got confidence in the nuclear people. They are very rigorous.”
For artist Liza Adamczewski, who has lived in one of the Coastguard Cottages on the beach for two years, the power stations made Sizewell an affordable place to live by the sea. Her sitting room is bathed in light and has sea views from every window.
“I’ll tell you what it’s like to live near a nuclear power station,” she says. “You don’t even notice it after a while. You get invited to lots of stakeholder meetings, where they give you sandwiches and cakes and keep you pretty well-informed. I would prefer it if the power station wasn’t there, of course, but the truth is you tend to forget it is there on a day-to-day basis.”
She admits to finding it a little spooky when the B station’s alarm sounded for the first time after she moved in but is now used to hearing it tested every so often.
“It is better living this close in many ways rather than two or three miles away because we get informed about things we wouldn’t otherwise,” she says. “Anyway, I wouldn’t have moved here if I was worried about safety, although I would rather they didn’t build another one. If the power stations weren’t here there’s no doubt the place would be more developed and have more tourists. It keeps people away and this is really a wonderful stretch of beach for plants and wildlife. I love the rawness of it and the juxtaposition of a massive industrial structure and nature. I spend a lot of my time drawing and painting because it is visually very exciting.”
Alan Warner, Liza’s neighbour, has lived in the village all his life and doesn’t like the power stations but accepts their presence has helped preserve the area’s tranquility. Like Liza he isn’t actually aware of them much of the time, especially since A, which was noiser than B, stopped operating at the end of its 40-year life.
“Putting the power station there spoiled the best part of Sizewell,” says Alan, who remembers the woods that existed before, along with a military firing range, as well as the Gunthorpe house. “It had a big brick wall around the back and apple trees. It was a lovely house - the only one with a telephone at the time.”
He would rather not see any more power stations and thinks the recent development associated with an off-shore windfarm is too much for the area. But for all he doesn’t regret staying put at Sizewell.
“I’ve got the sea outside my front door. Why would I want to move anywhere else? There is nowhere better.”