Boris Johnson wants a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. But he’s not the first to suggest it

The bridge would stretch between Scotland’s Portpatrick and Bangor or Larne on the Irish side. Image: Google Maps.

It wouldn’t be a Boris Johnson political intervention if it didn’t involve a massive and ultimately highly unlikely bridge. As London mayor he sunk £46m of taxpayer money into the failed Garden Bridge. More recently, one of the few things he did in his two-year stint as foreign secretary was proposing a “Channel Bridge” to link England and France.

So, true to brand, his most recent spat with the Prime Minister over Brexit saw Boris Johnson suggest an “Irish Bridge”. But, classic Boris as it is, this idea of an Ireland-Great Britain link far predates his most recent attempts to grab the limelight.

In the late 19th century a British company applied for funding to survey the Scotland-Ulster link in the hopes of building a tunnel. The idea was then raised in parliament during World War One, as a means to ensure a link between the two islands in spite of the menace of German U-boats. The then prime minister, Henry Asquith, shot the idea down in a single sentence; describing it as “hardly practicable in the present circumstances”. I don’t get to say this often, but I’m with Asquith on this one. Huge spending on an infrastructure project of dubious value at a time of national crisis would hardly have gone down well. Boris, are you listening?

Yet even in peacetime this grand idea has always been scuppered by Beaufort's Dyke, a marine trench 50km long, 5km wide and around 250m deep. It had been a difficult challenge for engineers to overcome even before the MoD dumped over a million tonnes of unwanted munitions in it after World War Two. This military flytipping meant a 1995 attempt at building a pipeline caused unexploded bombs to start washing up on the Scottish coast – leading British Gas to wisely re-route. So any further underwater construction (which a bridge would require) would have to tread softly so they don’t, erm, blow it.

Despite the so-called “ticking timebomb in the sea”, the plan has been floated numerous times throughout the 20th century by politicians and engineers on both sides of the sea. As a unionist party, the DUP is particularly keen because it would strengthen ties with the mainland UK. It was in the party’s 2015 manifesto and highlighted when it looked like they might be kingmakers in a hung parliament.


Earlier this year Alan Dunlop, a professor of architecture at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, breathed scientific credibility to the project, citing how the technological advancements currently used in the Norwegian Coastal Highway could be applied to bridging the North Channel. His proposed bridge between Scotland’s Portpatrick and Bangor or Larne on the Irish side could cost up to £20bn, which, while a fraction of the £120bn estimated for the Channel Bridge, is still not exactly pocket change.

And this takes us to the present day. With his blend of infrastructure populism and political wrangling for DUP support, Boris Johnson has put his name behind the project. At the same time he bangs the Brexit drum, which means the UK’s economic stability is far from secure. Maybe this was his plan all along; the old Lib Dem approach of promising the world because you will never be in a position to deliver anyway.

If that’s the case, then this is just another blip in the long history of proposals for an Irish Bridge.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.