Where is your home? This is question with a great deal of power to disturb as well as comfort. Many great works of literature have been written about our human need to find a home, or make our way back to it, and the demons we have to slay, outwit and poke in the eye with a sharp stick to be worthy of the homecoming Fatted Calf Casserole.
From Homer’s Odyssey, to Homer’s Springfield, there is much received wisdom in human culture about what our home should be – a place of safety, where the heart is, our castle,
The reality is a bit more brutal for many people, of course. While we all try to make a safe home for our families, in the real world – far away from the fluffy clichés of sitcom land – home for many people can be a far from a haven.
It has always struck me that it is a little strange for our culture to be so very attached to the concept of home, as our history of staying in one place is so very recent. For the vast majority of our human history, Homo Sapiens was a wanderer, a hunter, a gatherer. Wherever he laid his Stone-Age hat, that was his home; but only until the weather changed or the food ran out or some annoying Neanderthals with a tendency to make very smoky mammoth barbecues moved into the cave next door. Then they would be off, seeking out new territory.
I have always considered myself to be pretty much of a happy wanderer myself. Not so much with the hunting and gathering, for sure – but I always got a bit itchy staying too long in one place. For years, I liked to time my house moves to coincide with the urgent need for the oven to be cleaned. But somehow, I am not sure how this happened, I appear to have managed to stay in the same house for just over a decade*.
It’s not that I am particularly attached to the house, as anyone who has ever visited me can testify. In fact I take it pretty much for granted. I certainly can’t commit to a re-decoration programme, or any anything longer than a short term commitment to grow stuff in the ‘garden’.
But the village, the town, it seems, has wormed its way into my Happy-Wanderer soul.
This week, the Didcot A power station ceased operating. We got plenty of warning of course, but it still hit me surprisingly hard. For me, as for many of you no doubt, the sight of those vast cooling towers nestling in the centre of the town was the first sign of home, whether driving over the hill or pootling into the train station.
On Thursday on my way back from work as usual, the sight of those great curved milk bottles, the Henge of the Valleys, suddenly quiet and lifeless, was so poignant and strange I had to pull over and take it all in.
It may seem strange to feel so attached to something that Country Life readers recently concluded was an ‘eye-sore’; to feel sad at the closure of a facility that Friends of the Earth confirmed was the ninth most polluting power-station in the UK and one that has been a focus for frequent environmental protests over the last decade.
But that’s part of what home means, perhaps – a place that’s yours, where you belong and that belongs to you, despite what anyone else thinks about. It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it’s likely to be full of fairly annoying and possibly noisome company at times – but it is yours, and you can breathe out there.
To be honest, I think the ‘eye-sore’ jibe was always ill-founded. The Country Life types, well they can keep their kitschy-Kitson nostalgia. Personally, I always found a certain charm in the curved lines of the cooling towers, and a pleasing quality to their placement in the landscape – both somehow dwarfing and being dwarfed by their surroundings.
From a distance, the shapes they made against the open sky were frequently beautiful, often almost sculptural in their form; locals affectionately referred to them as ‘The Cloud-makers’. Up close, the size and scale was impressive and even awe-inspiring; the effect of the light of the setting sun on their gently-curved outlines often provided a dazzling display of warm rich colour.
But perhaps the most telling comment was from the listeners to Radio Oxford; they received votes for Didcot Power Station when they conducted a survey of the worst building in Oxfordshire, with some listeners referring to it as looking like somewhere up North. As someone who grew up among the slag-heaps and mine-heads of the actual industrial North, I am perhaps more used to the idea that ‘home’ contains the dirty business of industry and making stuff, the evidence of usefulness as well as twee shops selling dinky teatowels and stinky candles.
So yes, I shed a tear when they turned off the switch and the Cloud-makers were no more. Though none of this will stop me from booking a front seat if and when they decide to demolish the towers. That really will be a sight to see and one to remember.
Coming home will never be the same again.
*don’t worry. I have avoided the dirty oven problem by buying a new kitchen every few years. Much more economical.
Picture acknowledgment – from The Social Landscape of Didcot (payment sent)
The Social Landscape of Didcot is an ongoing photographic project capturing the town; photography by long-term Didcot resident Paul Bodsworth. You can see more of his work and purchase prints etc here: