I’ve never been too happy to wander lonely as a cloud up hill and down dale but recent visits to Cumbria and Lancashire are providing me with the chance to explore some of Britain’s most beautiful coasts in the North West: although my early moments have already complicated that stereotype. There’s the huge ship building sheds of Barrow with its history celebrated in Japan; the bleak but impressive outlines of Sunderland Point and it’s sharp reminder of the British slave trade with Africa and the Caribbean of the 18th century; and the nearby nuclear demonology at Heysham Nuclear Power Station conjures up memories of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
For all its claim to being a rural idyll separated from the hurly and burly of city and corporate life, this part of the coast line has powerful international economic significance. Some say that were it not for Barrow’s nuclear submarine building capability, that Britain would find itself cast out of NATO and the G8 power block. The region is known as the energy coast and the preponderance of fission technology on those coast lines is one reason why and also a cause of intrigue and curiosity: why are nuclear power stations built in pairs? How many atoms are split every hour?
The moment you slip off the beaten tracks which connect fission technology to the nation’s defence policy and enter more isolated communities – which have themselves been subject to more than their fair share of societal fission in recent decades – the everyday language for the citizens of those communities shines as startling forms of linguistic flora and fauna.
Whammeling, Haff Netting and the Wynt are not only just great scrabble words but everyday expressions of fishermen and women whose families have lived in the region for over 5 generations. You double take as Nordic surfaces in the conversation and stories of fluorescent plankton disrupting a fathers fishing night spill out into the cold December air.
‘Did you catch anything dad?’ A son asked his father 70 years ago as he set about his nightly task of salmon fishing. ‘No, the nets were on fire’ was the disgusted reply from his dad when talking about the plankton that had coated his fishing net.
Nothing to do with nuclear spillage but the wonders of the industrial and linguistic terrain open up the possibility of some extra-terrestrial apparitions in the not too distant future. I’m still trying to figure out how many atoms were split over the course of the hour that I visited Heysham. Whatever the figure, it will be unimaginably large and no doubt involve several hundred zeroes in it somewhere: more than all the grains of the sand in the world someone says; more than all the Scousers in the world retorts someone else. Impossible, I answer back, but one thing is sure: the mysteries of atomic and linguistic fission won’t be easily solved by a few hours visiting the visitors centre of Heysham Nuclear Power Station.