Pandaemonium: In the Shadow of Hinkley Point (and Easyjet)
By Peter Coates
On Thursday evening, on the projector screen in the bar/sitting room, accompanied by a crackling fire, the six members of the group staying an extra night settled down to watch a film lent by Tim Russell. ‘Pandaemonium’ (2001) is Julien Temple’s two-hour film about the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge during the year they spent together in the Quantocks (1797-98). Much of the film was shot on location. The Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey, a National Trust property since 1909, did not feature; probably because the area around this undistinguished ploughman’s cottage has simply changed too much in the meantime. But the exterior of Alfoxden House, which William and Dorothy Wordsworth rented, and whose setting remains more or less unaltered, was included. I found the film hugely entertaining and chuckled rather than fretted at its absurdities. I especially liked the healthy disdain for painstaking reconstruction of period flavour down to the last detail. This was no Merchant Ivory production. Temple grew up in the local town of Bridgwater (‘Nine Miles from Bridgwater’, you may recall, was a title Gary Penny considered for his collection of photos of the Quantocks’ human residents). And, after living in California, Temple now makes his home on the Quantocks, though he’s probably better known for his biopics of The Sex Pistols and The Clash, as well as numerous familiar music videos.
So it came as no surprise that Dorothy wore a tight-fitting black leather jacket and the behaviour of the crowds responding to the liberationist rhetoric of the republican hotheads was more Glastonbury than late eighteenth-century. In his cameo appearances, Byron also wore the air of a self-satisfied rock star mobbed by near-hysterical groupies who scrambled to retrieve the handkerchief he nonchalantly tossed away.
You don’t have to be a devotee of Wordsworth to recoil at the besmirching of his reputation. Temple portrayed him as stolid and uncreative, intensely jealous of his younger friend’s genius and so ungenerous of spirit that the dry old stick tried to claim sole credit for Lyrical Ballads and prevent the publication of ‘Kubla Khan’. Naturally, I was far more interested to see what ‘Pandaemonium’ contributed to what we had learnt about the Quantocks during our sojourn. The hilltops appeared in gorgeous green garb and a scene was shot in one of the combes that run down the northeastern side of the hills – Butterfly, Slaughterhouse or Holford. These perfectly picturesque dingley dells also provided the setting (along with Kilve Beach’s fantastic wave-cut platforms) for the video that Temple made for Canadian rocker Bryan Adams’ smash hit ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’. Scenes in the film in which the power ballad featured, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (1991), starring Kevin Costner, were also filmed in Holford Glen.
Re-winding back to the 1790s, what Temple also got right in his film, in addition to the chemistry between Coleridge and Dorothy and the slighting of Coleridge’s long-suffering wife, Sarah, was the threesome’s habit of tracing streams to their damp mossy sources high on the eastern side of the Quantock ridge (a habit that aroused the intense suspicion of certain locals, who interpreted these studies as part of preparations for a French invasion). We also particularly enjoyed the footage of Kilve Beach with its astonishing rock formations, which we’d visited just a few hours earlier.
I don’t know about the rest of the group, but I found the disregard for the literal recreation of the physical landscape of the 1790s refreshing. At two points, the vapour trail of an airplane streaks across the sky; the first occasion was shortly after Coleridge’s wild spirited ascent in Humphrey Davy’s hot air balloon. Hinkley Point’s two sullen, incorrigible towers also appeared a couple of times. The towers, as we know from our walks up Cothelstone Hill and onto the main ridge on Wednesday afternoon, are an ever-present feature of the view to the north. As Emma-Jane Preece of the AONB service told us, she’s been heavily involved over the past few months in the planning process for the construction of a new generation of nuclear reactors at Hinkley, working hard to ensure that the visual intrusion on the renowned panorama from the top of the ridge is kept to a minimum. I admire Temple’s decision not to airbrush out the ageing reactors, and also his impulse to revel in their ineluctable presence. I can’t read his mind, but wonder whether this is what was going through Temple’s head when he included these non-conforming elements. Sever the ancient bond between Humankind and Nature, as the Ancient Mariner did when he slayed the albatross, and this is what you get: nuclear fission and vapour trails.
At the workshop, Rob Lambert remarked on how he’d grown accustomed to various devilish nuclear installations such as Dungeness and Dounreay during his birdwatching forays into their vicinities. Do many who visit the Quantocks also become inured to Hinkley’s brooding existence, regarding its squat blue towers as part of the scenery rather than a blot on the landscape?