It was surprising to find Delabole windfarm on my return to Cornwall back in 1992. After the common trend within landscape planning through the 1980s of feebly screening any large and/or industrial structure with planting and bunds, the honest and simple form of the Delabole wind turbines towering above the underlying landscape appeared extremely refreshing. Once again it seemed large structures could have positive influence in our landscape while their uncompromising scale emphasised that good design mattered.
Delabole windfarm is located within a transitional
area between the intricate north Cornish coast and
bold simplicity of Bodmin Moor, creating a focal
feature that marks Delabole’s place in-between.
Delabole marked the beginning of a roll-out of contemporary windfarms across the UK and, in parallel, was the prompt for my own career designing, assessing and planning windfarms as a professional Landscape Architect. But, while my work took me far afield and, ultimately, saw me settle more than 700 miles away in the Scottish Highlands, I nonetheless returned frequently to Delabole to see the windfarm in all lights and seasons, and to gradually understand better its relationship with its surroundings.
For years, through the provision of guidance notes, publications and countless presentations to various audiences, I reinforced the need for careful design of windfarms so that they relate to the specific characteristics of a landscape. And Delabole supported this case - its siting, layout and design seeming interwoven within the intricate pattern of fields and hedgerows. But given it had not benefited from the professional guide of a landscape architect, unlike other successive windfarms within the UK, I was curious to understand how it was so successful. Was it the farmer’s intimate knowledge of the ‘ins and outs’ of the underlying landscape from years of observation and toil? Or his innovative and independent research of similar developments in Denmark (at a time when the technology was largely unheard of in the UK)? Or perhaps it was the careful placement of the wind turbines within the distinctive pattern of hedgerows, or even its continuation of the local tradition of industry, lying adjacent to the Delabole slate quarry.
After repeated analysis, I came to the satisfied conclusion that the success of the windfarm probably derived from a combination of all these factors and that, although it may not have been formally ‘designed’, it nonetheless possessed all the characteristics of being very carefully ‘designed’ with great knowledge and understanding.
Original Delabole wind turbines relating to the in-
trinsic landscape characteristics and, although
irregular in layout, seemed simple in their overall
collective image and close links to the landscape
Twenty years following construction, after Delabole windfarm had become a familiar feature within the Cornish landscape (its place even validated through its appearance on tourist postcards), its characteristics were however to change. The windfarm’s ‘first generation’ wind turbines, at 400kW, had become antiquated; and so followed a process of ‘repowering’. This involved removing the 10 original wind turbines and replacing these with 4 larger machines twice the height and almost 6 times the generating capacity (2.3 MW). During my regular return trips to Cornwall, now a researcher of the perception of landscape scale, I was obviously concerned whether the success of the original scheme would be lost, particularly as the replacement turbines would be developed in a more conventional manner, using ‘off the peg’ models and developed by a large energy company.
What I found was that being taller in height, fewer in number and less intricate and responsive in design did not result in a directly proportionate increase of landscape impacts. Rather, the new windfarm seemed to take on a very different relationship with its surroundings. The wind turbines did not seem twice as ‘overwhelming’ upon the landscape features to which they previously related, such as hedgerows and farm buildings but, alternatively, they didn’t seem remotely associated with these same elements due to their disparity of size. Just like zooming out to get a wide-angle view on a camera, it seems our eyes view larger wind turbines in association with broader elements of the landscape composition. This re-focussing demoted the landscape features used previously as reference points to being background texture or insignificant detail and, instead, latched onto new larger reference points, for example the wider landform skyline of Bodmin Moor and a distant windfarm over 12 miles away.
Key characteristics of the Delabole landscape in-
clude the distinctive pattern of fields and buildings
seen against a simple hill backdrop
‘Small’ wind turbines relate to the landscape
character, so that the focus remains the detailed /
landscape encourage a wider view of the area so
that the turbines are seen in relation to larger
scale components of the landscape
While this ability to adjust our scale reference can reassure us that we won’t necessarily become ‘dominated’ by the continued enlargement of wind turbines as well as other engineering and infrastructural elements in our landscape, (1) what it does question is how we will view and make scale reference in future landscapes. If it was the specific physical and cultural characteristics of the Delabole landscape and a farmer’s intimate understanding of these that was largely responsible for a new development being accommodated so readily within a special landscape, will increasingly larger structures that require by necessity a more detached view seem superficial? And will this mean that they seem increasingly disconnected to the distinct qualities of people and place, and thus our experience of our landscape?
Bell (1999) (2) highlights that '…we indulge in perception that is purposeful and selective...', while Appleton (1996) (3) points out the inherent importance of scale: 'To misjudge distance, to overestimate the size of a hiding-place, to allow a hazard to approach too close before setting in motion the escape mechanism – these may indeed prove disastrous, and the question of scale is therefore a very important one'.
The same view of Delabole windfarm in 1992 and 2011
AF: Recently, as I mull over my skying field trips, I have been reflecting on the properties of wind installations, in terms of the technology and the terrain that pre-exists it. I appreciate your sense of the intuitive local understanding of the site at Delabole, which could perhaps be said to touch upon the symbolic in the patterning of hedgerows and the slate quarry. After all, The Braes of Doune windfarm is named for its poetic associations as much as its location. The wind-towers take possession of a vertical and horizontal 'field': in the abstract one can talk of them in a similar way to Charles Olson's sense of the poem on the page as a field of energy, in which words and the blank spaces between them were equally defining of space and rhythm – or energy – discoveries which came about through the technology of the typewriter. The Doune installation heightens this effect as, seen from the south, the 'page' of the moor they stand against marks the border between the lowlands and highlands. It does so by being so forcefully technology, not 'natural', forcing the viewer to consider the use and, implicitly, the ownership of that landscape.
I was recently on Skye where, at Sligachan, there is a community project to install a traditional – or, to take a position, old-fashioned – memorial statue to a famous climber and mountain guide, as a local recognition of 'Munroism'. In the promotional material for the memorial much play is made of the removal of a small wooden pole from a defunct hydro project, as part of the scheme of 'improvement'. Of course, that pole represents an important aspect of the cultural history of the landscape – and of modern Scottish culture – but, being technology, it is seen as 'bad', while the 'good' statue, which is cast in the prestigous material of bronze, is allowed to be sited on the brow of a hillock, imposing itself in a forceful way on that famous view of the Cuillin. The enterprise is rather paradoxical, if one considers the calvinist purity which many hikers and climbers demand of that scenery and do so much to protect.
CS: What you describe here is akin to the concept of 'affordances'. Henry Heft (Denison University) has written a lot about this subject. To quote him: 'from an ecological perspective, what is immediately perceived is not an array of two-dimensional forms, or picture-like images, or mental constructions of the environment, much less stimuli, but what the environment affords - that is, its affordances'. 'Affordances are relational properties of the environment taken with reference to a specific individual'.(4)
A number of people have suggested that our attitudes to wind turbines are strongly influenced by the fact that windfarms do not occupy an obvious niche within our landscape or society. Unlike the wind pumps or windmills of old, they are not distinctly agricultural or industrial in character and, because of the predominant high wind speeds across the UK and dispersed nature of our National Grid, are not linked to any distinct type of landscape or community. Brittan (2002) states 'resistance to wind turbines is not because they are uglier than other forms of energy production, but because they are characteristic of contemporary technology... they are like so many other human artifacts [sic] and activities for which we don’t yet have an evolutionary perspective and cannot therefore call beautiful.' Hough (1990) also highlights the difficulty of integrating structures that have '...no direct connection with the underlying landscape,' saying '...industrial processes must contribute to the landscapes they change.' It seems this lack of a distinct ‘place’ for windfarms has been partly responsible for planners continuing to be unsure about where they should go and where they shouldn’t and thus a fairly ad hoc pattern of development.
AF: Yes, the sculpture has its place, marking the entrance to the mountains, which are owned for the people by the John Muir Trust. As for windmills, they bear in a different though related way upon the issues of wilderness landscape, economy and ownership. Someone of my generation is aware of the passing of an era of public ownership, as technologies are divested into a number of profit based private companies. The economic factors also bear on 'affordances': in the past one could view a hydro-electric scheme as, implicitly, a kind enforced nationalisation of the land, with has potential implications in terms of improved access, for instance for hiking. There is also an awareness of energy as, potentially, embedded within communal ownership, rather than the rather dubious grants that exist just now. When we see a windfarm many of us are unclear whose property we are regarding, who is deriving economic benefit from a particular breeze and, just as importantly, what will be the future of that landscape after the period of economic gain has passed.
CS: Yes, the funding and operation of windfarms varies and is now typically very complex. In the 'old days', windfarm developers tended to lease land off a landowner and pay them an amount per turbine per year. However, landowners soon realised that they were earning a ‘piddly’ amount of money this way compared to large returns for the developers, so now landowners typically require a joint company to be set-up between them and the developer (who is sometimes, but sometimes not, the main source of funding). If all goes smoothly, once a development is constructed, the joint company should then share the earnings. However, it is increasingly common that, after a development gets permission or is built, the landowner and developer are just too tempted by an offer of big bucks to sell the scheme to an investment buyer/energy company. If this happens, obviously the link changes between a landowner (and the wider local community?) with the wind development.
It would be interesting to explore this link between landscape, ownership and development. I always felt that the first windfarm in the UK at Delabole in Cornwall was one of the most sensitively designed and this must have been partly linked to the fact it had been developed by the local farmer who not only 'knew the lie of the land' intimately, but went out on a limb to research the whole feasiblity of windfarms from scratch by travelling to Denmark etc.
AF: Your work made me aware of that salient fact: technology continues to evolve, so, as your essay sets out, no windfarm will simply be renewed: it is always an evolving process, a question of removal or upgrade, which implies a rethinking of the relationship with the landscape. (Or not.)
(1) For ‘over-sized’ houses, Arthur Stamps III (Institute of Environmental Quality, San Francisco) has amusingly named these ‘McMansions’ after the fast-food outlet that serves up over-sized burgers
(2) Bell, S (1999) Landscape: pattern, perception and process. London, E&F Spon.
(3) Appleton, J. (1996) The experience of landscape. Revised edn. Chichester, England, John Wiley & Sons.
(4) Heft, H. (2011), 'Affordances and the perception of landscape'. Published Ward, Thompson C., Aspinall, P. & Bell, S., Innovative approaches to researching landscape and health.