keepers of the flame

By the time you read this, some of England’s most totemic landmarks will have been felled by high explosive. The local crowds spectating – both the lovers and the haters – will witness a curtain being drawn over an era of optimism.

The end of the Industrial Age has been declared multiple times in Britain. Usually trumpeted – justifiably so – from Manchester and its environs, the Glasgow dockyards or the mines of the Welsh valleys. 

However, that age actually spawned smaller, more fleeting progeny that even flourished in the home counties’ farming belts.

Workers from industry backgrounds made a life-changing decision at the end of the 1960s to move hundreds of miles and put roots in south Oxfordshire as jobs were snuffed out in their homelands. This meant that a new coal-powered plant just outside Didcot could hit the ground running with a skilled workforce. 

So, I suppose Didcot powerstation and its cooling towers’ demise signals the end of an industrial aftershock, echo or epilogue, rather than the Industrial Age proper (capitalised)

Architect Sir Frederic Gibberd designed the towers. Despite the fiercely functional design, he did concede an overture to local agriculture: the six towers were separated in the Oxfordshire loam and planted as trios – feng shui’d to put breaks in the landscape and allow greenery and its associated reassurance to peek through the giant houkas.

After being spurred into action in 1970, it was switched off for good in 2013 – a working lifetime of 43 years. Mr Lyn Bowen was the engineer at the helm. It was his finger tripping the switch on both occasions – the latter must truly have been an emotional one.

Anybody who’s ever driven up the A34 from Newbury will have have been subjected to the awe of the cooling towers’ austere majesty. At one stretch, the road plunges to focus the power station in its distant crosshairs.

It’s no exagerration to experience it on a reverential level. The towers were constructed on a plain just like ancient tumuli, smithies or menhirs to be seen from miles around – stoic gatekeepers of an archaic dominion.

At dawn and dusk, incandescent light would elevate the clouds of steam to a spiritual realm. The discharge would appear molten orange, viscous pink like the unabashed flush of spring, even blazing red – bloody rage or unbridled lust – impassioned by an occluded sun. 

image courtesy of Anthony Morris, Farmoor @AnthonyPMorris

The vapour would fuse with the low cloud cover making it seem the whole sky had been belched from the towers’ gullets in some creation myth – an aboriginal dreamtime for the Thames Valley.

From vantage points across the Ridgeway (the ancient network of foot and bridleways that snake across the Oxon/Berks uplands) you could look down on these imposing sentinels and it seemed the landscape itself bowed in supplication towards them. 

These mythical associations, of course, did not dictate their design; they were built for a sole purpose – to funnel steam produced from coal firing up and away from human habitation. They had no higher or lower purpose.

But they were still beautiful even if nobody admitted it.

The towers were shapely – quite feminine. Think of the ample torso of Ingres’ Violin by Man Ray. The bases were hollowed-out gourds with necks and rims thrown on a godlike potter’s wheel. 

Picked out by the sun, the brickwork was the same hue as the tides of ripening barley blanketing the surrounding clover.

Originally, a new object on the horizon is an intruder into our lived experience – the bigger the more ungracious. It assaults our senses. We struggle to accept it, sneer at it. At the time, we scowled at the buildings as blots on the landscape, but we couldn’t do without them.

Our lives got lived out in their auspices. They were in the background of every memory, indeed – some were completely framed by them. The good times and the bad were played out in their shadows. Thinking of childhood in Didcot without them is to lobotomise a whole hemisphere.

After long journeys, catching sight of the towers from the road told you you’d arrived home. They constituted the reassurance of the nest and the promise of rest and cosy familiarity. 

School trips from St Birinius school on the Tappins stagecoach would career first past the razorwire-topped fence of the military barracks and then under those menacing guardians; they represented the ultimate adults – looming authority figures incarnate to us preteens in uniform.

I started working for a central London council in 2006 when there were plans to reduce Battersea powerstation to rubble. After all, it was a building bereft of purpose – a massive unaesthetic concrete hulk south of the river. 

taken several days ago from north of the river

Within a decade, that mindset had reversed. Instead, it’s now seen as a survivor of the capital’s Industrial Age and its upside-down snooker table shape is unique. I’ve wondered at it many times from buildings on the Churchill Gardens estate just across the water.

The same wanderlust for destruction was variously aimed at windmills in Norfolk, oast houses in Kent, hop kilns in Hertfordshire, tin mines in Cornwall and the potteries of Staffordshire – and that’s not even scratching the industrial north of England. Our structures are footnotes in this country’s tale. 

It would be unrealistic to safeguard every chimney, factory, tower or kiln, but we need to keep specimens from each county in order to preserve in stone the chapters from our own island’s history.

These buildings become beguiling when their function vanishes – in part because of bewilderment. Why are there sails, revolving weathervanes, tapering roofs, rounded cobbled bodies?

We’ll never know them as our forebears did – as the loci of back-breaking labour, choking fumes and ear-splitting clangour with occupational death a common fact of life. Instead, the ruins take a hold of us. We seize them to stop them fading into the amnesia of time because we need to remember how we got here in the first place.

image courtesy of Henry S @henryspil

Didcot power station was the agressive stamp of mankind challenging nature in its own realm. It dominated the horizon of south Oxfordshire – that unbroken quilt of thatched walls and cottages which, according to Midsomer Murders, Miss Marple and Inspector Morse, boasts a higher murder rate than Los Cabos in Mexico.

It was an achievement – a triumph of human endeavor. The growing local communities needed a source of energy to cook, wash, heat their homes and to thrive. Love it or hate it, that was our solution grafted onto the horizon and it worked.

That iconic sight, its function now obsolete, would’ve been an amazing emblem for south Oxfordshire. The cooling towers could be sketched by pupils with a few bold pencil lines – ideal as a local motif for badges, ensigns, council offices, websites and schools. 

There are potential contenders like the Saxon ramparts of Wallingford, Long Wittenham Clumps or Blewburton Hill that equally reflect our forebears’ ingenuity moulding the land, however these landmarks are too soft or undefined for bold shorthand. But the towers were utterly perfect. 

One cooling tower could’ve acted as a centrepiece for a park serving the thousands of new homes planned for the area – a background for future selfies…..

Alas, they’re now completely gone. We blew them all to kingdom come.

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