I think I can recall the newspaper headlines that large amounts of gas had been discovered in the North Sea; or it might have been oil. In any case the drilling had come up with substantial supplies of energy. I was in the senior school, so it was sometime after 1963. Sticking out into the North Sea as East Anglia does, this was obviously important news for Norfolk. Exploration vessels were already leaving our ports to service the exploratory rigs and eventually a gas terminal would be constructed at Bacton; but it was also a news story of national importance, and these headlines were not only in the EDP but also in the Daily Mail. This discovery led to a major change in the gas supply, which from a processing industry based on coal became an extractive industry relying on drilling rigs.
Until the early seventies many market towns, even the small ones like Holt and Fakenham had their own gas works. They produced town gas (which largely consisted of poisonous carbon monoxide) from coal, and also two useful side products, coke (a smokeless fuel) and coal-tar. This had many uses from road mending to the making of soap. Putting the gas supply in an underground national grid was a huge task; previously the National Grid meant just electricity pylons. The electricity pylons were quite an undertaking, but at least they went overground. Once the gas grid had been completed the gas works were closed. Everybody’s gas appliances had to be converted to run on the new fuel. This was an equally mammoth job.
North Sea gas was not poisonous which made it safer although it could still explode if it leaked of course. The combustible part was methane not carbon monoxide. This didn’t make any difference to the way it worked, but the pressure of the new gas was higher which led to the need for adjustments to be made to gas cookers and boilers. We had a gas supply at Surrey Street in Norwich, but the sole appliance in the building was a single gas ring in the basement. Nevertheless we had a visit from the gas man who had to adjust the pressure before we could be converted to natural gas.
One effect of going over to a national grid was the spread of gas to even relatively remote places. Both Poringland and Taverham (then much smaller villages than they are today) got mains gas which they had not been able to receive from Norwich gasworks. There are still many smaller and more remote country villages where gas is not supplied. Bawdeswell for instance has no mains gas. The number of consumers is just too small to justify the expense of installing the infrastructure, while the gas grid might well pass close by. It is a common complaint of country dwellers that they have the added expense and inconvenience of buying bottled gas or oil to fire their central heating. When I lived in Poringland I never had central heating, just a coal fire in the living room. Exceptionally we lit a fire in the front room as well, but never in the bedrooms which we were literally frreezing, with ice the inside of the window panes in the winter mornings. Natural gas must have been laid on in the 1970s, but it was after I had moved on in 1985 that my sister had central heating installed.
You couldn’t miss the passage of the gas main while it was being installed, with diggers advancing across the countryside. Even after the trench had been filled in and the grass had regrown over it you could still see where the pipe went from the ‘gas markers’ – posts about 10 feet high with a luminous orange triangle on top, placed at strategic points, where the pipes crossed road for example. These were to make it possible to see the route from the air, so that a helicopter could easily inspect the pipe for leaks and possibly for interference from terrorists as well. These gas markers are still there, although they have become so much part of the country scene that we no longer notice them. That was not the case when they first went up, when they stuck out like bright beacons in the landscape.
After more than 40 years the gas terminal at Bacton is still a crucial part of our energy requirements, although Britain is not and I think never has been self-sufficient in natural gas. We rely on supplies from the continent and from North Africa, from where it is shipped in liquid form. This part of the world is not politically the most stable, and this has implications for the reliability of supply.
Another effect of North Sea gas was indirectly the demise of the miners. The immediate cause of the rapid winding down of the coal industry was the disastrous 1984 strike led by Arthur Scargill. However this would not have been an option if the country had still depended on coal for all its power. With gas no longer being produced from coal, and the substitution of gas electricity generating stations for coal ones, we have got very nicely without the once crucial coal mines. The position has recently deteriorated with not enough generating capacity being provided, but the dirty coal firedpower stations are inconceivable today.
As a fossil fuel, gas produces CO2 and is thus bad for the environment, but as yet we have no realistic alternative. The power produced by wind farms is clean but expensive and unreliable as well as visually intrusive, and other forms of renewable have scarcely been tried in England. The prospect of producing gas from shale in this country raises all sorts of questions, pitting the need for reliable energy against damaging the environment and the possibility of producing earthquakes, in a densely populated country. I have not even mentioned nuclear energy which poses all sorts of questions, not least the problem of who will pay the huge cost of building the power stations.
MEMORIES OF THE COUNTIES OF NORFOLK AND SUFFOLK