Harvesting sunshine

A walk in the Cotswold countryside to the slightly unlikely destination of a solar farm. The panels are in long lines, following the slope of the field, protected by strong metal fences, warnings of death and lines of cameras – but with not a single person anywhere to be seen. SecurityThere is a public footpath through the middle and around the perimeter which hasn’t exactly been blocked but which avoids attracting any attention to itself – only the Ordnance Survey offers any confidence that it exists at all. I wonder whether to be a walker here is to be instantly suspicious, but the cameras do not turn, and even poking a camera over the fence prompts no reaction.

The solar panels stand in grassland which would be hard and inefficient to keep tidy with machinery. There is of course a simpler and long-established method for keeping parkland tidy – and so the impersonal modernity of renewable power generation is supported by some gently grazing sheep. It’s tempting to call it Combined Sheep and Power.

Combined Sheep and Power

Along the way, the light and clouds keep shifting, the threatened downpour never quite materialising.

London Loop 17 – Cockfosters to Enfield Lock

It seems odd to walk out of a tube station and within three minutes to be walking along a muddy path without a building in sight.

Unsystematic study, possibly affected by sampling errors, suggests that more people walk their dogs on Good Friday than on any other day of the year.

The illusion of rurality continues to amuse. Looking across a meadow, gently rising towards a line of trees across the skyline – and a red double decker appears running along the road hidden by the trees.

Country bus

Near what was once Elsynge Palace, the path crosses the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have spread his cloak over a puddle so that the queen could cross unmuddied. The invention of tarmac has made the gesture redundant – and has made much of this stretch of the Loop feel a bit incongruous: paths along streams and through woodland where there should be some give (and after a few days rain, some discernible squelch) underfoot, but instead there is the hardness of urban pavement. The illusion shimmers once more.

The A10 is crossed by a footbridge, which is a big improvement on the A1, which is crossed by a detour.

There are more cemeteries along this section than I can remember in any earlier one. The last of the three is a bit surreal. A vast lawn apparently randomly interspersed with benches and flowers, which manage to look wholly unnatural while avoiding any suggestion of death. And then, in the furthest corner, a row of fresh graves, the soil still roughly piled on top.

I bought a 50mm prime lens a couple of days ago. This was its first outing. When I started taking pictures, a zoom lens seemed an unaffordable and unattainble luxury. Now, a prime lens feels almost an indulgence. In the same way that I used to be able judge exposure pretty well without a light meter, I learned to frame a shot by moving myself, not the lens. Both skills have left me, but the second is one I think it’s worth reawakening.

Spring blossom

Five bridges and an eight

Albert is a fine name for a bridge, Battersea a little prosaic. But then comes Cremorne, which is a splendid name for a splendid bridge, even if it was built to carry the less euphoniously named West London Extension Joint Railway over the river. And after Wandsworth, about which there is nothing to say, comes Fulham Railway Bridge, which is unimaginative but exact, with eights shooting unexpectedly from under pedestrians’ feet.

Who pays for footpaths?

Here is a typical English rural scene. It’s early June, the sun is shining, the crops are growing, the footpath skirts the edge of the field, and there is almost nobody about – except a small group of teenagers who have just gone past trying, not altogether successfully, to get their heads round orienteering.

The only slightly odd thing about it isn’t apparent from the picture. This farm is not in some bucolic shire, it’s in Greater London, just 17 miles as the crow flies from Trafalgar Square.

As a Londoner, I think that’s fantastic. I get to go for long walks in the country without going out of range of my oyster card. But it’s also a bit odd. Astonishingly (at least to me), 10% of the land area of Greater London is used for agriculture, with a further (in)decent chunk (or so it feels from walking around and across them) taken up by golf courses. For a city facing acute shortages of affordable housing, that might look like a solution waiting to be seized. But as a post in CityMetric which prompted this reflection notes, the London Assembly Planning and Housing Committee concluded something very different:

There is a good case to be made that commercial agriculture is one of the best and most productive land uses in the Green Belt. The benefits include: opportunities for local job creation, skills development, regeneration, preservation and management of green space, potential for waste management, providing healthy locally produced food and so reducing food packaging and food miles, and the potential for improving food security.

So as ever, there are costs and benefits. I reap some of the benefits (and part of the benefit is that there often seems to be very few other people interested in sharing them) but incur none of the costs. So who is paying for my enjoyment?

One answer is everybody – this is a consequence of a green belt policy and so is a collective self-denying ordinance not to allow alternative uses for the land. There is apparently strong popular support for the policy – but then this is a near perfect example of a policy where a small number of people capture a very large share of the benefits (people who live in or near the green belt) and a much larger number of people share the costs (people whose housing choices are constrained or journeys to work elongated); the first group find it much easier to defend their shared interests than the the second.

Another answer therefore, is that the cost is carried by everybody who could make better use of the land but is prevented form doing so.  The people who would live in the houses which cannot be built are quite literally not in the picture. That leads to suggestions such as the observation by the Adam Smith Institute that a million homes could be built within walking distance of stations in the green belt and in doing so take up only 3.7% of the total area – met unsurprisingly with an equally strong rejection from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (and that such a campaign would concern itself with the rurality of the world inside the M25 is itself cause for reflection).

It seems pretty clear that we are not going to run out of land any time soon – not even of land close to major urban areas. The enjoyment of that land may not have a direct monetary cost, but its preservation does have consequences.

While the arguments continue, I will keep on walking, hoping as I go that if anything is to be built on, it’s the golf courses which go first.