The Cloud Factory

The local sugar beet campaign has started and there are days when its scent hangs heavily over our town. I have always been fond of this factory right from my sixth form days when, approaching town after an interminable school bus journey, a plume of water vapour would hover over the fields and the bus would fill with the scent of hot, woody, sugary roots as we approached the Southgate roundabout. And on the way home, we would look back and see the factory lit up against the waning light of an early winter afternoon. It seemed so mysterious. How many local children grew up believing they had a ‘cloud factory’ in their midst? I certainly told this story to my own children and I still think of it as a cloud factory. There is something Willy Wonka-ish about it; I have never been inside so it is easy to imagine it as a vast city peopled by tiny, scurrying workers who we never see enter or leave. And their labour transforms mud-clodded roots into gleaming crystals of sugar, beautiful sugar to sweeten candy, chocolate, cake, and our mood. And this delicious local sweetness starts to be made as winter approaches. What good timing.

Belching great gouts of steam into the sky and visible for miles around, the factory acts as a sentinel, telling locals that they are home and despite the appalled reaction of nature writer Roger Deakin, many of us are pretty tolerant of the factory, smells and all. Deakin was pretty hard on the sugar beet factory in part because back in the 80s, toxic effluent was leaked into the river Lark and sugar is a particularly malevolent contaminant, deoxygenating water by encouraging a massive overgrowth of bacteria. Interestingly this is one of the reasons why people with diabetes who have poor blood sugar control may also struggle with lingering bacterial infections, especially of the skin.

Anyway, Deakin reminds us that lorry drivers refer to Bury St Edmunds as “sugar city” on their CB radios (Like this is a bad thing?) and finds it easy to see the factory as a “giant conspiracy against the nation’s health…it looks at its most satanic at night, when clouds of evil-smelling smoke and steam billows like candyfloss out of a forest of steam chimneys and high-tech ducting, floodlit in lurid pink and orange.” He continues…“The place looks like a missile launching site…with a system of deodorising mist sprays…perfuming the evil-smelling air…a gleaming new spinney conceals vast lagoons full of rotting beet sludge” then ends by referring to “a potpourri of perfume and stench [which] assails the puzzled nostrils of the traveller.”

(“A14 and Sugar-beet factory” by Martin Pettitt is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Roger, this is a bit harsh. The campaign scent is not always an unpleasant one: there’s sweet, burned sugar with a vegetal note, reminiscent of the smell of decaying old rhubarb leaves as you dig them back in, exposing fresh growth at the crown of the plant, or potato grown soft at the back of the vegetable bin. It is an agricultural smell and we live in an agricultural region. Although residents in Bury St Edmunds know not to open their windows when the wind blows in a certain direction, I haven’t encountered anyone who vehemently objects; indeed most people seem fairly pragmatic about their neighbour, recognising that this is a place that creates work and opportunities for a significant amount of people across our region and strives to develop a ‘circular approach’ to manufacturing, which reuses by-products, resulting in virtually zero waste.

It’s easy to find beauty in woodlands, the bright electric blue dart of a kingfisher in flight, or the seer, granite edge of a tor but one has to look a bit harder to see the grace and beauty in the work of an engineer, scientist or technician. But it is there. Humans designed and built this factory and we can see it as a blot on the landscape or a series of incredible scientific discoveries and technical refinements, which went on to reduce our dependence on sugar cane produced by enslaved people and colonial systems. As was said in the National Era, the options for refining sugar needed to “show that the sweet may be obtained without the bitter and that there is no necessary connection between bondage and Muscovadoes.” Sugar from beets has, in part, allowed us to do that.