Image from visitwalesnow.org
The South Wales Valleys are a curious and scarred countryside. From one viewpoint they can be seen as a manifestation of community, of a strength through industry that (in most versions of the story) was killed by Thatcher who cared nothing for the consequences. From another they can resemble a post apocalyptic landscape, a pertinent reminder of how it's possible to trash an area bigger than London for lack of care of a different sort. A drive up the Rhondda will give you as good as any sense of these, not necessarily conflicting, perspectives.
The Heads of the Valley tends more to the post apocalyptic; it's new dual carriageway cuts a swathe through the spoil heaps on which even tussock grass is never quite fully established. The road links Abergavenny to the Neath valley, skirting a list of the towns synonymous with our industrial heritage: Blaenavon, Ebbw Vale, Merthyr Tydfil. It's a bleak drive, the sense of failed regeneration felt as keenly in the empty industrial units as in the bald and blackening moorland. The quintessential highlight is an ASDA superstore that overlooks Merthyr's Gurnos estate, a place once described as the UK's capital of economic inactivity.
I've been travelling this road for twenty five years, and not a lot has changed. Except that is for the Glynneath; an area that, from a landscape perspective at least, has been gradually rejuvenating. There is more tree planting here - sure, a lot of it's commercial, but it's sensitively done - the canal has been renovated too; there are boat trips from Resolven and the river is clean enough for trout and sewin. It may be that this particular valley was spared the worst of industrial despoliation - I don't pretend to know its history - but whatever it's past, I've always regarded it as a model for what the other Valleys might eventually become.
So why, oh why have they covered it turbines!
Covered is an exaggeration, but as always seems to be the case, they pick the best, the wildest, the most open landscape to site these monstrosities. Drive now into the one valley that seemed to have come through and the first thing you see is a hillside of tri-blade propellers. And if you're like me, every other time you pass, not one of them will be turning.
Not that I'd be more inclined to love them if they were. I've long hated windfarms, and I'm unashamed in my view that they despoil our landscape, that this matters deeply and that the putative benefits don't outweigh the aesthetic impact. The turbines that have been installed across Wales can be seen over thousands of square miles; their impact is far greater than the land they stand on.
The journalist Will Self, wrote this week in praise of windfarms - or rather of the development of the countryside as a constantly evolving and functional space. He argues that virtually all our landscape is man made; that when he took a three day trek from London to Newhaven he hardly saw anyone - though quite why that's relevant I don't know - that there's a deal of hypocrisy in our views of countryside. And in that regard he's right. But overwhelmingly I regard Self's view is an oh so clever analysis, typical of metropolitan intellectuals who like to sneer at the commuting middle classes of Sussex.
Frankly, I could sneer at people who think a three day walk across the Home Counties makes them an expert on the value of landscape. What's more - and this is particularly telling of Self's article - I have little regard for the views of people who have only viewed turbines from afar. Before anyone sets about justifying them, I'd suggest they go stand underneath a 165ft tower, and that to reach it they walk one of the service roads that have been gouged through the forests and hillsides; that they take time to look away from the blades and compare the view without them, before excusing their presence.
To be fair to Will Self he's not presenting himself as a lover of the great outdoors, but to my mind his argument gives insufficient value to wilderness - indeed, he questions its very concept. In terms of pastoral England he might be right, but I'd bet a lot of cash that he's never been to Plynlimon, or Hyddgen (see photo left) - both of which's have an intrinsic value in their very remoteness, and both of which are seriously under threat. What Self's argument fails to address is that it is ancient and naturally important landscapes like these that are the most likely sites for windfarms in Wales.
My drive through Glynneath made me sad. According to Self, that's sentimentality; he'd say the turbines merely continue a tradition of utilising the land effectively. I think that's intellectual bollocks, fuelled by a certain philistinism toward nature. To me, they're a lost opportunity; yet another scar on a landscape that's suffered enough. Strange analogy that it is, they felt like an addict relapsing.