Curious Questions: Can ancient technology of wind, water and hot springs help make a sustainable future?

The UK is switching on to a future of home-grown, greener power — and yet this future is drawing on the past. Jonathan Lee revisits the renewable revolution that started right here.

Dazzlingly bright and dangerous, electric lamps flicker into life in a corner of Northumberland in 1878. These carbon arc lamps glare and fizz in the gallery at Cragside, built by William, 1st Baron Armstrong, and his wife, Margaret, and mark a brilliant new era: they are powered by hydroelectricity, making this the first home in the world to be lit by electricity generated from water. ‘It was a game changer,’ explains Clara Woolford, National Trust curator at Cragside, ‘which 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 keen botanist and geologist. They created artificial lakes to send water gushing through a turbine, which, in turn, generated enough energy to light their home. You can visit Cragside today to discover other inventions, such as a water-powered spit and a hydraulic luggage lift, which helped the house earn its moniker the ‘palace of the modern magician’.

Cragside is said to have inspired the giant hydroelectricity plant at Niagara Falls in the US and fuelled debates about how the British Empire might be powered once coal reserves had run 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 waterwheel in Aberdulais is Europe’s largest — and today it’s once again making energy.

Not every Victorian embraced new-fangled technology, however. 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 cottage. The professor’s cloth-sailed contraption, measuring 33ft tall, was the world’s first electricity-generating windmill and it was such a success that Blyth offered his surplus power to the village, only to be rebuffed by those who reportedly claimed electricity was ‘the work of the devil’. He had better luck with Montrose Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary, which gladly accepted his scaled-up turbine and used it for three decades.

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The UK has been one of the slowest nations to harness geothermal power, which taps into energy stored in the form of heat below the earth’s surface, although its potential has been under our noses for millennia. Bath’s hot mineral springs were discovered more than 5,000 years ago, but it took the Romans to tap into the full power of hot rocks and restorative waters. After building the Temple of Sulis Minerva in about AD75, they spent three centuries crafting a complex of spring-powered hot baths and icy plunge pools, designed to cleanse both body and mind. More than a million litres, all a toasty 40˚C–46˚C, still bubble up into Bath every day. Rain filters down 1½ miles, heats up and then fizzes up through fractures in Jurassic rocks.

Encouragingly, the city is embracing its natural asset anew. In 2021, Bath Abbey ditched antiquated Victorian pipework and switched on its new eco-friendly underfloor-heating system, powered by the city’s hot springs. Two new spaces for 2022, the Clore Learning Centre and the Bath World Heritage Centre, are also heated by geothermal energy.

‘It’s incredibly clever,’ Amanda Hart, Roman Baths and Pump Room manager, explains. ‘As the Roman engineers harnessed the spring water’s heat for the baths, so this new technology is using the hot water to reduce our carbon footprint today.’

The Old Roman Baths at Bath. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Head west over the River Severn and you will find another sustainable landmark: Europe’s largest energy-generating waterwheel, situated in Aberdulais, south Wales. Forged of Port Talbot steel, this clean-energy behemoth weighs 16 tons, spans more than 26ft and cranks out about 110kW of electricity a day. Its story stretches back to Elizabeth I, who, in 1584, was casting around for a way to finance 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 some 10,000 windmills studding the British landscape in the 19th century, harnessing the wind to supply local communities with flour, but the ensuing march of steam-, diesel- and electricity-powered technology has left only about 40 traditional windmills turning. One of the finest is in Heckington in Lincolnshire: it’s believed to be the only working windmill in the world with eight sails and is a lesson in recycling.


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The mill started life in 1830 with five sails, which were ripped off by a huge storm in 1890. Enterprising miller John Pocklington repaired it and upped the number of sails to eight — recycled from another mill — to keep the mill working during slack winds. ‘It wasn’t so much about power, but reliability,’ explains Charles Pinchbeck, chairman of the Heckington Windmill Trust. ‘For the community, there was greater security of supply as the mill would turn in lighter winds and could work more days.’ Current restoration works are due to complete in 2024, but you can still visit and pick up a bag of homeground flour or sample a pint of 8 Sail ale from the on-site brewery and bar.

All of these projects give us hope for more ‘world firsts’, such as two proposed schemes for Wales. Swansea’s planned £1.7 billion Blue Eden Project features a tidal lagoon, floating solar panels and eco-homes anchored in the water, whereas a £7 billion tidal lagoon for the north coast of Conwy and Denbighshire would generate enough power for every home in the country.

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

‘It would secure natural, sustainable, low-carbon energy for the next 120 years,’ says Henry Dixon, chairman of North Wales Tidal Energy and Coastal Protection, which is behind the north coast project. ‘We’ve been doing dams and hydro schemes for hundreds of years. Why don’t we scale up the technology? It’s Victorian thinking; it’s for our children and grandchildren, providing energy security and stability.’

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