PsychoGeography #49: The adventures of a nuclear family

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The Independent Online

Sizewell again. This patch of Suffolk coastline, psychically irradiated by the untold ergs of electricity generated by the two nuclear power stations, exerts a strange hold on me.

Sizewell again. This patch of Suffolk coastline, psychically irradiated by the untold ergs of electricity generated by the two nuclear power stations, exerts a strange hold on me. I far prefer it to the environs of Southwold, further up the coast, and overwritten by scribes as various as P D James and W G Sebald. I lived inland of here for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, but was forced to evacuate when the wife of the one local acquaintance I'd made invited me to "drop by" her gift shop when I was next in Saxmundham. I was on the phone to the self-drive van hire company that very evening.

The two power stations - "A", a humungous, foursquare chunk of 1960s concrete, complete with outsize transom windows; "B" a 1980s plinth of dark, yet iridescent blue steel, topped off by a vast golf ball of a dome - squat in back of the dunes, willing you to impose your own imaginative vision on them. The Supreme Ruler of the Entire Known Universe will probably take a lease on "B" some time in the future, furnishing it with 100-metre-long smoked glass coffee tables and square hectares of quarry tiling. "A" will become a charmingly recherché guest annex.

The interzone between the fortified plutonium piles and the sea has been landscaped since I was last here, dinky hillocks skilfully mounded by British Nuclear Fuels, then planted with reed, furze, and alien-flesh samphire. But offshore the two platforms which mark the intake and outflow of the power stations' cooling system remain charmingly iron, streaked with rust and guano, capped by wheeling gulls. This plot of water is a few degrees warmer than the surrounding North Sea, so it attracts fish, fowl and fishermen, links in a strange food chain. The fishermen come mostly from the Midlands. Having headed due east, as if summoned by some collective, phylogenetic impulse, they erect their little nylon huts on the beach and sit until dawn, dabbling their lines in the Roentgen briny, sucking on filter tips and cans of Stella Artois, a peculiar temporary settlement of moody anchorites.

The beach has a visitor car park and a prefab tea shop dubbed, appropriately enough, Sizewell "T"; while on the shingle lies the fag end of a centuries-old inshore fishing fleet, clinker built and tar-caulked. But neither industry nor leisure can truly impose itself on Sizewell, where the collision between crumbling coastline and human artefact with a guaranteed lethal half-life of tens of thousands of years, induces a sense of exhilarating queasiness: deep time interpenetrating every grain of sand.

The small boys demanded an isolated camping spot, so their mother and I hauled our equipment along the beach, to where the BNFL land marches with the Mimsmere Nature Reserve. Here, in a thicket of dwarf oaks, we erected our two-person tent.

Darkness fell and sausages were eaten, then it was back to the beach for a bonfire. The Matriarch arranged driftwood against a half-buried concrete dragon's tooth with an artistry that would've caused Richard Long to tear his own heart out with envy and throw it, still beating, to the ground. The oily spars burnt green and purple, the slack waves rattled the shingle, we were snug in a little sitting room carved out of the soft night.

The following afternoon, heading back to the Great Wen, I turned the car off the road on to a track. I wanted to see a house that I remembered from 10 years before. A perfectly nice, dyad of farm labourers' cottages, tucked up in a dell within a hundred metres of the fizzing, popping hank of power lines, that loop from the power stations to the first of the pylons, then march, seriatim, across the flat lands in the direction of Ipswich.

A decade before the house was untenanted, and it was difficult to imagine who would want to reside in this potential cancer risk; but now there was a young, well-spoken man, tinkering with an immaculate vintage motorcycle in the garage. We chatted a bit, and he laughingly acknowledged the preposterous character of the dwelling. Our six-year-old, sensing a toehold, chimed up from the back seat: "Excuse me, when we come back here again, can we visit your house properly?" Clearly he is another psychogeographer in the making. Sizewell, again.