Curious questions: Can the ancient technology of wind, water and hot springs help create a sustainable future?


The UK is looking towards a greener local energy future – and yet that future is building on the past. Jonathan Lee revisits the renewable revolution that started right here.

Dazzling and dangerous, electric lamps twinkle to life in a corner of Northumberland in 1878. These carbon arc lamps dazzle and sparkle in the Cragside Gallery, built by William, 1st Baron Armstrong, and his wife, Margaret, and mark a bright new era: they are powered by hydroelectricity, making them the first house in the world to be lit by electricity generated from water. “It was a game-changer,” says Clara Woolford, National Trust curator at Cragside, “which has had huge ramifications in our modern quest to produce renewable energy.”

The Armstrongs were a Victorian power couple par excellence: Lord Armstrong an engineer and inventor and Lady Armstrong a passionate botanist and geologist. They created artificial lakes to send water spurting through a turbine, which, in turn, generated enough energy to light their home. You can visit Cragside today to see other inventions, such as a water spindle and a hydraulic lift, which helped the house earn its nickname of ‘the modern magician’s palace’.

Cragside is said to have inspired the giant Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station in the United States and fueled debates about how the British Empire could be powered once coal reserves ran out. The curator adds: “If we had used the resources we have as an island – wind and water – we could have had a very different industrial revolution.”

The Aberdulais waterwheel is the largest in Europe — and today it is producing power again.

However, not all Victorians embraced advanced technology. Nine years later, in 1887, some 170 miles north of Cragside in Marykirk, James Blyth put the finishing touches to a wind turbine in the garden of his holiday home. The Professor’s cloth sailing contraption, standing 33 feet tall, was the world’s first electricity-generating windmill and it was such a success that Blyth offered its surplus electricity to the village, only to be rebuffed. by those who allegedly claimed that electricity was ‘the work of the devil’. He had better luck with Montrose Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary, which gladly accepted his full-scale turbine and used it for three decades.

The UK has been one of the slowest countries to harness geothermal energy, which taps into energy stored as heat beneath the earth’s surface, although its potential has been right under our noses for millennia. . Bath’s hot mineral springs were discovered over 5,000 years ago, but it took the Romans to harness the full power of the hot rocks and restorative waters. After building the Temple of Sulis Minerva around 75 AD, they spent three centuries creating a complex of spring-fed hot baths and deep icy pools, designed to cleanse both body and mind. More than a million litres, all hot between 40°C and 46°C, still bubble up in Bath every day. Rain filters for 1½ miles, warms and then fizzes through fractures in Jurassic rocks.

Encouragingly, the city is once again embracing its natural asset. In 2021, Bath Abbey ditched outdated Victorian plumbing and turned on its new eco-friendly underfloor heating system, powered by the city’s hot springs. Two new spaces for 2022, the Clore Learning Center and the Bath World Heritage Centre, are also geothermally heated.

“It’s incredibly smart,” says Amanda Hart, manager of the Roman baths and pump room. “As Roman engineers harnessed the heat of spring water for baths, this new technology uses hot water to reduce our carbon footprint today.”

The ancient Roman baths of Bath. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Head west on the River Severn and you’ll find another enduring landmark: Europe’s largest power-generating waterwheel, located in Aberdulais, South Wales. Wrought from Port Talbot steel, this clean energy giant weighs 16 tons, spans over 26 feet and generates around 110 kW of electricity per day. Its history dates back to Elizabeth I, who in 1584 was looking for a way to fund her warships to repel the Spanish Armada. Good Queen Bess smelted copper to mint new coins in secret at Aberdulais, using the swirling currents of the River Dulais to power a huge wooden water wheel. If you visit the site (owned by the National Trust and currently closed for repairs) in winter you will witness the brutal power of the falls.

There were around 10,000 windmills dotting the British landscape in the 19th century, harnessing the wind to supply local communities with flour, but the advance of steam, diesel and electric technology left only around 40 running. traditional windmills. One of the finest is at Heckington in Lincolnshire: it’s believed to be the only working windmill in the world with eight sails and it’s a lesson in recycling.

The mill began life in 1830 with five sails, which were blown off by a huge storm in 1890. Enterprising miller John Pocklington repaired it and increased the number of sails to eight – recycled from another mill – for that the windmill continues to operate during light winds. “It wasn’t so much about power as it was about reliability,” says Charles Pinchbeck, chairman of the Heckington Windmill Trust. “For the community there was greater security of supply as the mill would run in lighter winds and could work more days.” The current restoration work is due to be completed in 2024, but you can still visit and buy a bag of homemade flour or enjoy a pint of 8 Sail ale at the on-site brewery and bar.

All these projects give us hope for other “world firsts”, such as two projects proposed for Wales. Swansea’s planned £1.7billion Blue Eden project includes a tidal lagoon, floating solar panels and water-anchored eco-homes, while a £7billion tidal lagoon for the North coast of Conwy and Denbighshire would generate enough electricity for every home in the country.

A proposed tidal lagoon in North Wales would provide low-carbon energy for 120 years. Image: Tidal Power and Coastal Protection North Wales

“This would ensure natural, sustainable, low-carbon energy for the next 120 years,” said Henry Dixon, chairman of North Wales Tidal Energy and Coastal Protection, which is behind the North Coast project. “We have been building dams and hydro projects for hundreds of years. Why not step up the technology? This is Victorian thinking; it is for our children and grandchildren, who provide energy security and stability.

What better way to create sustainable energy for future generations than to build on the breakthroughs of our ancestors?

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