Behind us the castle: the ragged keep rises from the scarp like a giant’s stumpy tooth. Nearly every day I pass this magnificent pile, but its magic never pales: the way it nestles on the hilltop of Corfe, ringed in fortifications of ‘burr’ stone and the broken circle of its defences. It’s the magic of a monster defanged, a once remorseless bully designed to illustrate the power it enacted. Swipe away romantic illusions about castles – Corfe’s significance in history wasn’t as a setting for jousts or royal banquets, but as an out-of-the-way prison for pretenders to the crown, and the setting for two notable sieges during the Anarchy of the twelfth century and the Civil War of the seventeenth. But one thing to be said for it – at least the castle didn’t hide.
These days, power manifests differently – which is to say that it tries not to manifest at all. We’re on our way to a hideaway, a couple of miles from Corfe. We move like a peasants’ revolt, past the tangled growth of ancient forests, onto the heathland that stretches across the nature reserve of Arne, crossing a medieval footbridge and making our way towards Wytch Heath. When Corfe Castle was built in the eleventh century, this was a busy area for the production of salt, connected with the abbeys of Shaftesbury and Milton, which were two of the area’s most powerful landowners, and archaeologists have found extensive remains of workshops. Later, stone-quarrying became the principle industry, supplying limestone and so-called ‘marble’ for some of England’s most prestigious buildings such as Salisbury Cathedral. But after the discovery of oil shale in the 1890s, Wytch Farm became involved in a more modern form of extraction. It currently produces 14,000 barrels a day (down from a peak of 100,000), a ‘late life’ field that still accounts for 1% of the UK’s crude oil demand and 75% of its onshore field production. A significant industry locally, yet many people in Purbeck are barely aware of the oil field’s existence. Even when you look directly towards the oil fields from Arne, your view is deflected by military camouflaging. So it is only when accidents occur that the oil field comes under the spotlight.
Which is what happened on 26th March this year. 200 barrels of reservoir fluid, containing 15% water and 85% oil, leaked from the pipeline into Poole Harbour. The subsequent recovery operation led to more than 300 bags of oil and contaminated material being collected from the beaches around Poole and 417,000 litres of oil and oily water being collected from Ower Bay, according to the commissioners for Poole Harbour. In the days following the spill, thirty birds were detected with signs of contamination, there was a prohibition against the selling of shellfish and a major incident was declared. It wasn’t the first time Wytch Farm had been responsible for an incident: in 2013, 13,600 litres of crude oil and 560 kg of gas polluted the area due to poorly installed equipment and an inadequate risk assessment; in October 2020, around 6.25 cubic metres of liquid (28% of which was hydrochloric acid) spewed into the site’s ‘meat’ storage system. What the incidents collectively illustrate is that accidents are hard to avoid, but as long as Wytch Farm continues to harvest oil it continues to pose a threat to one of England’s most beautiful natural areas – a sanctuary for birdlife that featured in recent installments of Springwatch.
Up the road we go, armed with drums and banners and scientific facts mounted on wooden stakes. The protest march draws in people from all over Dorset – Just Stop Oil’s Shaftesbury branch leads the way; there are members from Purbeck’s Extinction Rebellion group as well as locals without any particular affiliation, a corpus of around fifty protesters: children and pensioners, long-term activists and people drawn to the issue by their love of the local birdlife. Somebody wears a papier-mâché globe on their head, there’s a group in pink jumpsuits; catchphrases are tagged to drums and T-shirts – ‘democracy is a verb’, ‘tell the truth’; banners display owls and insects and seahorses, underlining the cost of the spill. Over the heath we march, keeping to the footpaths, following a route okayed with the police according to the current legislation, down the road to Wytch Farm, to call on the high-earning but shadowy company Perenco to take responsibility for what’s happened under its watch. But of course no company representative is there to listen to our message: one of the drawbacks of legal protest is that you’re unlikely to cause much of a stir.
‘We recycle, we modernise, and we redevelop.’ So claims Perenco, which has run Wytch Farm since 2011 (taking it over from BP). On the company’s website, these ethics aren’t hidden away in the small print but boasted at the top of the homepage: ‘We limit the impact we have with our operations in oil and gas production. That means keeping the environment in mind and trying to put it back how we find it, as well as putting biodiversity first.’ Like so many oil giants, Perenco can point to their virtuous deeds – locally, they sponsor Corfe Castle Primary School’s minibus, for example – but dig a little into their activities and it’s hard to see such token efforts as anything other than greenwashing.
Last year, Perenco launched an action in Peru to repeal a law protecting uncontacted tribes in the Amazon – hardly the work of a company dedicated to putting things ‘back how we find it’. In the DRC, ex-employees have admitted to Perenco’s responsibility for crude oil leaks, and studies have connected ground-level flaring (contravening local and international law) with respiratory disease and agricultural damage. The company’s CEO, François Perrodo, owns 46 sports cars, including a £12 million McLaren F1 GTR, calls himself a ‘dedicated petrolhead’ and spends his time between a 25 million Euro castle near Bordeaux and other properties in Paris, London and St Tropez. So much for ‘keeping the environment in mind’.
No Perenco representative comes to see us, no oil workers acknowledge our presence. The drummers form a circle, and others dance behind them, limbs spidering in every direction, heads bobbing to the beat. Others sit on the grass to eat their snacks, connecting with old friends and establishing new ones, weaving into the political declarations the sociable atmosphere of a woodland happening. But the call and response is confined to the bubble of our own small protest group. We might as well be medieval villeins hurling our sticks at the palisade around Corfe Castle.
In one surreal moment, a truck arrives, bringing a cow through the gates. The cow stands on her bed, looking down on us all, and we stand aside to let this unexpected cargo through. And here is the futility of our demonstration, when the only response from anybody behind the gates is nothing more than this: the blink of a cow. But as soon as the gates close, the drumming begins again, poems are recited, speeches delivered, solidarity consolidated, before the crowd melts back across the heath, back towards the rising crags of Corfe Castle. And the Purbeck Forest is left to the lovely sound of the birds swooping across from Arne, and the less lovely groan of the oil drills.
Nicholas Jubber is the author of five books of non-fiction and a winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book Award. His latest book is The Fairy Tellers: a journey into the secret history of fairy tales. He has written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, solar and wind power in the Sahara, the war in Mali and the experiences of refugees crossing into Europe, for publications including The Guardian, Telegraph and BBC Online.
Call to Action:
Attend events in your area to protest against the continued extraction of fossil fuels and slow action on renewables. If you know about a ‘hidden’ industry like Wytch Farm, tell people about it: businesses like Perenco depend on our silence. If you agree with these arguments, please consider signing this petition against the renewal of Perenco’s license to drill at Wytch Farm: