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A royal solution to put the spark back into the Dales

Friday 05 November 2004

Countryside commentator John Sheard praises the plan to power Windsor Castle with electricity produced by the River Thames - and remembers that similar schemes once worked in the Yorkshire Dales

IF IT had been another divorce or adultery scandal, much more publicity would have been devoted to the workings of the Royal Family this week than actually was. So one of the most imaginative schemes proposed Down South for many years was largely overlooked.

This was the announcement that the Queen had given the go-ahead for the building of a small hydro-electricity power station on the River Thames which will provide all the electricity needed to run Windsor Castle.

The River Wharfe: Dales power house?

Now this is a delicious idea and, I am sure, the few people who read about it thought it would be a marvellous coming together of a centuries-old building and the very latest in 21st Century hi-tech.

Well, that is partially true but it is by no means a new idea. For it was in use in the Yorkshire Dales decades ago and for a very long time, the River Wharfe turned the water wheels that provided the electricity to Grassington and Threshfield.

The evidence is still there for all to see: the weir a couple of hundreds of yards downstream from the Grassington/Threshfield bridge was once part of the operation. This is a scene photographed by thousands of visitors but few would realise that is the remains of an industrial legacy which, sadly, has largely been forgotten.

Some ten years ago, a Grassington engineer - now, sadly, dead - called for the re-establishment of this power generation system and was greeted with near uproar.

Opponents were outraged at the thought of building of some huge power-station-like structure in such a famous beauty spot. But they had it all wrong: such is modern technology that the generating plant would actually be buried below the banks of the river - and people could walk over it barely knowing it was there.

Then there were the fishermen, anxious that their wild brown trout, fit and lean from constantly fighting the strong Wharfe currents, would become fat and sluggish - a point of view that I, as a fly fisherman, took close to heart.

So I did some extensive research with the then, later to be scrapped, National Rivers Authority, only to find out that such schemes in other countries actually benefited fish.

By regulating the flow of water into a steady stream, hydro-power plants, even very small ones, keep the water oxygenated. The small pools that form below them are ideal habitats for the water insects on which trout thrive. In the old days, mill pools throughout Britain were known as anglers' paradises.

These considerations, however, failed to impress local planners and the initiative was quietly scrapped. It has remained forgotten to this day - unless, of course, a right royal initiative Down South can get the pot boiling again.

At present, one of the most bitter environmental controversies raging in Britain concerns the potential power shortages we face in twenty years time when our natural gas runs dry in the North Sea and our nuclear power stations have all been de-commissioned.

The so-called "green lobby" is pushing for a huge increase in wind farms, although it is already known that this could never fill the gap without covering virtually the whole of the countryside with ugly, noisy and expensive windmills.

Why not small, virtually invisible, water-powered generators designed to serve the small towns and villages dotted all over the Yorkshire Dales, most of them sited by rivers or becks? If it's good for the Queen, wouldn't it be good for the country too?

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