By destruction, dwell in doubtful joy


This Sunday at 5am, when all sensible people were sleeping off the effects of a high-summer Saturday in the sun, I was lying in bed 200 miles from home squinting at a live stream of a little bit of my heart being reduced to rubble.

I am aware that to most people, the idea of being attached to some cooling towers, concrete monstrosities, and eye-sore on the landscape, seems bizarre at best.

I wrote last year about the sorrow in Didcot when the coal-fired power station was turned off for the final time. Since then, we’ve swapped tower-related gossip and rumour – when are they being demolished? Couldn’t they be saved, somehow, to loom above us as they have always done?(No, said English Heritage. They aren’t ‘unique’ enough to be listed, despite their pleasing aesthetic qualities. Pfft.) And if their days WERE numbered, how could we mark their passing?

There is no doubt that there is real affection for the towers. We even have nicknames for them. The Milk Bottles. The Cloud Makers, after the ways the steam would gather into soft fluffy cotton wool balls and sheepy fleeces, particularly on clear days. The Bumper Cars (no I don’t understand that one either). Didcot Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Valleys.

In fact almost everyone I speak to in the town and the surrounding villages feels extremely fondly about them. Their dads and granddads, uncles and brothers helped build them, sometimes losing their lives in the process. I have heard more than once that ‘my dad’s signature is on one of those bricks’. For many people in the town, there are happy memories of working there, part of a community of workers. They were an unmissable part of the landscape for 40 years and naturally we wanted to be there when they disappeared.

For sentimental reasons, so we could be together when it all ended, but also because bloody hell who wouldn’t want to miss three 100m cooling towers get blown up? That’s not the kind of thing you get to see every day. Also, possibly, we were kinda hoping the debris might squash the neighbouring Daily Mail building, thereby destroying Didcot’s REAL eyesore.

But RWE Npower, who had snaffled up the power station for a bargain price in the great Tory Asset Jumble Sale of the late 20th century, had other ideas. Like a killjoy over-anxious grandma, Granny Npower was determined that we should all just stay indoors in the warm and dry.

‘It will be too dusty! It will be too loud! You can watch it from Far Away on a hill! Oh no, actually you can’t because that would also be too exciting and you will get all dust on your nice clean clothes. Anyway we don’t know when we might demolish it. Could be 2am, could be 3, might be later, look just come after a nice nourishing breakfast, when we’ve had chance to run the hoover round and get the Mr Sheen round the place so it’s spick and span.’

So it was hardly surprising that 3000 people signed a petition to persuade Granny Npower to move the demolition to a later time, so that we could all get up early to watch the towers we had driven past every day come crumpling down.

Granny Npower wouldn’t budge, but then neither would the Didcotians. They DEFIED Granny Npower, dressed in her high vis vest, tutting into her walkie talkie about health and safety; they stood quietly on public roads and footpaths, or sat patiently on deckchairs on high ground in the early morning gloaming to see the old girls finally sink to their knees and film it on their iphones. Anarchy in the 21st century is a blurry video clip shared on Twitter (#didcotdemolition).

Not me, though. I am in deepest Wales, and after bidding a sniffly goodbye on Saturday morning I was forced to watch the gut-wrenching moment on my phone via a live stream with my dodgy rural internet connection.

What the hell am I crying for, though? I only moved here ten years ago but I never found them ugly, only pretty awe-inspiring up close, sometimes taking my breath away like standing under the side of a ship or at the foot of a great cathedral. From a distance, I loved the clouds they made, and (sometimes, excitingly) the Didcot Snow that fell. I particularly loved the way the pinky-mellow evening light would reflect off them like gently curving cliffs.

Most of all I loved the things they represented. The story I hear over and over is that they were a landmark, the first sign of coming home. They certainly meant that for me, but they held another meaning for me as well.

The towers, like the power station, meant the town was connected to the outside world, a living breathing place. Like the factories and pit heads and slag heaps I grew up with, they may not be picturesque, they might even look ugly to most, but for the people who live and work here, this is what makes a community. We might not have a castle or a stately home or a cathedral, but the Cathedral of the Valleys was a place that brought the town together, linked us with one another, made us who we are – the people that made the lights come on when you flicked the switch.

RIP – and if anyone can nick me a chunk of rubble, I am DEFINITELY interested.

Watch the moment of final destruction here (it’s actually pretty coolio).

Some wonderful photographs of Didcot, including some great ones from this weekend, here:

What the towers look like today…




About number6

I am not a number, I am a free woman. More or less.
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