Protecting Fairlight’s Heritage – The Threat of the Oilmen

Protecting Fairlight’s Heritage – the Threat of the Oilmen 

by Haydon Luke

In an earlier issue of Fairlight News I wrote about the fragility of Fairlight’s natural heritage and the far-sighted and public spirited role of Reginald Eves and the National Trust in protecting some of our most valuable landscape around the village and especially between Fairlight and Pett Level.  But that was in a different era, perhaps one with different and less materialistic values.  We all know that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.

Our present century is certainly very different and as a consequence the integrity of the local landscape remains under constant threat. Recent events such as the Wakehams Farm housing scheme proposal and Hastings Borough Council’s desire to set up extensive solar panel arrays in the Country Park, surrounding one of the most historic houses in the area, Fairlight Place, are but two very local examples.

In the 1980s there was another potential threat to the beauty and tranquillity of our local countryside. Stand aside for the march of the oilmen!  This is what happened.

At first some people were incredulous that there was any danger – after all, the UK was not a desert kingdom and surely such oil as we had was confined to the North Sea?  Well, not entirely.  Largely out of sight on the Studland peninsula in an extremely scenic part of Dorset, the Wytch Farm oilfield had been steadily producing oil since 1979.

Historically, the Isle of Purbeck’s oil industry began in 1936 with first unsuccessful and then experimental wells drilled at Broad Bench near Kimmeridge in an area which had long been mined for oil shale and tar.  It was not until 1959, however, that a borehole at Kimmeridge showed that oil was seeping out, and 1960 that British Petroleum’s Kimmeridge Oil Field was discovered.  And the seeping oil was there in commercially viable quantities.

According to Wikipedia, production grew from 4,000 to 6,000 barrels per day and eventually peaked at 110,000 barrels per day in 1997.  By 2002 this had declined to 50,000 barrels per day. That same year it was estimated that the field contained reserves of 65.40 million tonnes of oil (479.6 million barrels), 4.73 million tonnes of natural gas liquids and 1.42 billion cubic metres of natural gas – quantities sufficient to last until 2020 and 2025 respectively.

Against that background it is not surprising that other oil companies began to cast around for other potential on-shore sites.  And given that at the Dorset site most of the field is protected by various conservation laws, including the Jurassic Coast world heritage site, Purbeck Heritage Coast and a number of sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and nature reserves (including Studland and Brownsea Island) it was clear that the perceived need for oil would trump these apparent protections for the landscape.  Geologically, too, there were similarities between that area of Dorset and our local landscape.

Rumours had circulated locally for several months in the summer of 1985 that a major oil company was interested in drilling in the Fairlight area, but it was not until Amoco’s plans were published in December 1985 that the rumour became a reality. The proposed sites were each side of Martineau Lane, one to the west and two to the east, and one off Rock Lane.  Amoco’s preferred site was the westerly and would have meant drilling rigs almost 160 feet high would be situated on the slope between Martineau Lane (just opposite the entrance drive to Fairlight Hall) and North’s Seat. 

Reactions to Amoco’s plans were rapid and vehement.  Locals were concerned about traffic, noise, pollution, access and the fear, should oil or gas be found in commercial quantities, of fields of ‘Dallas’ style nodding donkeys all over the area and ruining the views of the Wealden landscape to the north of the Fairlight Road.  A retired oilman, doubtless mindful of what had happened at Kimmeridge, warned: “Nothing will stop Amoco oil giants from producing oil if the company’s test drilling proves successful….and none of the financial benefits of tapping the little oil which may lie beneath Fairlight’s designated area of outstanding beauty will find their way to the [local] people.” (John Allen, quoted in HSLO, 2 January 1986).

Time for protest was short but residents acted quickly and the Fairlight Down Conservation Society (FDCS) was formed after a packed public meeting in the Village Hall on Monday 6 January, pledging to become a thorn in Amoco’s side.  A poorly-conceived “inept, over-technical, and under-chaired” (Sussex Rural News, No 45, Spring 1986)  meeting a few days later organised by  Amoco at Hillcrest School to explain their plans to the public was packed out.  The fact that there would be 18 weeks of boring, 24 hours a day, did not help Amoco’s cause, nor did their poor local knowledge – what they referred to as a ‘disused branch railway’ was in fact the main Hastings to London line!  Anti-oil posters proliferated in windows and on makeshift boards.

The protestors’ cause was even helped by Linda McCartney, then living locally.  She helped the FDCS by allowing a postcard of one of her photographs – “mist-shrouded Fairlight Down” – to go on sale in aid of the fighting fund.  Another picture was one of 24 photographs in the exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall in London on England’s Endangered Landscapes organised by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. 

This is the relevant page from the subsequent book “England’s Glory/Vanishing England” from 1987.

Hastings’ then MP, Ken Warren, supported the protestors saying:  “I do not think it is an appropriate site even if all the oil in Texas is under it.” (HSLO, 16 January 1986).

Hostile public opinion grew rapidly, so much so that the meeting of the Hastings development committee to debate the issue was moved to the White Rock Theatre to ensure enough space for the expected turnout of protestors and objectors, whose case was supported by the Nature Conservancy Council.  The debate was vigorous and the opposition vociferous.  And fortunately the politicians listened.

The matter was finally decided by East Sussex County Council – as the Financial Times of 4  April 1986 reported:

 “Amoco, the US oil company, has been rebuffed in its plans to drill for oil and gas in a beauty spot near Hastings, Sussex.
It is the first time East Sussex County Council has refused a company permission to drill in a region viewed by the international oil industry as having great potential for oil and gas discoveries….East Sussex county council said yesterday the proposed drilling site, at Fairlight, was within the High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty, close to Hastings Country park and to a residential area.”

So, in the event, the oilmen were seen off and the nightmare of fields full of oil pumps was no more than a bad dream. 

But, as we see in today’s context, rather like the mythical hydra which Hercules encountered, once one threat is seen off, others grow to replace it.  And, if the oil threat were to return, who can say whether in 2019 the outcome would be the same?  We must be vigilant.

By Haydon Luke



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