The giant coal-fired power station with its turbine hall, boiler house, sky-scraping chimneys and six cooling towers had always been there, but now all that remained were two of the original towers. Standing at over three hundred feet, the towers dominated the landscape. Enormous, grey and forbidding structures with a base that tapered towards the neck and then curved out again to the rim, so that they resembled huge conical flasks cast in concrete, they were both solid and ethereal. The towers stretched up to the clouds, but hidden from the eye were a network of stilts which supported them, so that they appeared to float.
They’d been in the background of my wife’s life from childhood right through to her forties, and soon they’d be no more. The power station had already ceased to operate; it was decommissioned and pulled down incrementally. We had arrived at the final stage; nature had already begun to reclaim the land that it had stood on. Jo imagined it would eventually all go back to the wild, to the marshland after which the power station was named: Thorpe Marsh.
But it hadn’t fully disappeared, not yet. After the demolition of the first four towers and the rest of the buildings and structures, much of the rubble remained, like the ruins of a once great civilisation. Tonnes of broken slabs that ought to have been carted off to be buried in landfills still littered the surface. And locals said that even when the last two came down, the forty-feet-deep shafts of concrete – the foundations upon which the power station was built – would never be extracted, at least not in their lifetime. Nature’s reclamation would only be partial.
Driving up from Brighton with Jo and our children, the appearance of the towers was always welcomed as an indication that we were nearing our destination. But they also characterised the great change and stark contrast in the landscape. The sight of the cooling towers meant, according to our middle child, that ‘we’re certainly not in the south anymore.’ It was stated simply, without prejudice, although it might have been mistaken for an echo of Dorothy’s ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore.’
One version of the English dream that still survives is the yearning to escape the aggression, the harsh and unrewarding streetscapes of its concrete towns and cities, and to retire peacefully to the Arcadian idyll of the English countryside. But that model is built on a lie: that the comforts of modernity can be harmlessly transported to idyllic and unmolested villages without a price.
The desolate marsh, once inhabited – before man’s industrial intervention – by vole, shrew, long-eared owls, willow warblers, ducks and other wild fowl, had seemed an improbable location for a power station when construction began in 1958. The great feat of engineering had destroyed an ancient ecosystem. In the name of progress, wildlife was cleansed, the myriad species sent into exile.
The area was bleak, flat and often water-logged. Whenever I travelled back up to south Yorkshire with Jo, the area’s susceptibility to flooding reminded me why the seventeenth-century Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden seemed as regular a topic of conversation as the weather. People continued to speak admiringly of him as if he was still at work on the land. Vermuyden’s expertise in the drainage of Hatfield Chase and the Isle of Axholme, further to the east, had transformed a pastoral landscape into tens of thousands of acres of agrarian fields. The scale of that reclamation could be measured by the simple fact that the Isle of Axholme was now a hill.
It was a stupendous, awe-inspiring achievement, but there was always a doubt over the permanence of that effort, over whether nature could really be tamed; a sense that the land had suffered a terrible trauma, that wildlife had fled in the face of man’s necessary inhumanity and that one day nature would settle the score.
The uniqueness of Axholme hill also drew attention to the unforgiving monotony of the neighbouring south Yorskshire landscape. Unlike Jo, I was blind to its charms but – as she would remind me – I came from Luton, a town not known for being bucolic. Nonetheless, as the country needed the electricity from power stations, south Yorkshire was well chosen: there was an unspoken assumption that they would be less of a blot on the landscape there than if they had been constructed in the Home Counties.
Rising up from the ground like a series of concrete monoliths, Thorpe Marsh was undeniably impressive. But actually, was its location so ideal? Apart from the plainness of the landscape why would anyone construct an enormous power plant on wetlands?
The unsuitability of Thorpe’s marshland for construction was offset by a number of attractive positives: a remote location with good rail and road services; abundant supply of coal from nearby collieries; and proximity to the River Don.
The river was vital, but also a source of risk. Though its banks were built up to prevent flooding, Jo recalled how the River Don seemed to burst its banks every year, submerging much of the surrounding area. As the water levels rose, the roads became unpassable; children, ignorant of adult anxiety, would take to canoes or dinghies to frolic around the impromptu, temporary lake. Flooding had been part of the narrative of the area for centuries. An old flood-level mark on the perimeter wall of the medieval church next door to where Jo grew up was a sobering testament to past disasters: it was waist height.
The power plant, which was comprised of two 550 megawatt units (ten times the size of the industry standard at the time) had been a hugely ambitious project that many thought could not succeed. It had attracted scores of eager, young engineers and their spouses, drawn not just by the wonder of it all but by the promise of high wages and cheap, spacious accommodation – with brand-new council housing allocated to the power station workers on a street known locally as Mega Watt Avenue. Among the pioneers were my wife’s parents, Richard and Hilary. Jo’s birth in 1965 coincided with the start of electricity production at the power station on the outskirts of their village, Barnby Dun.
Jo’s parents saw themselves as front line adventurers, prepared to up sticks and move to a remote location. Before marriage, Hilary had yearned to escape the pea-soup fog and grime of Leeds; after an apprenticeship, Richard toiled at a stagnant glass works. Newly wed, they’d moved into a tiny flat in a pit village that stank from the nauseating fumes of the nearby chemical works. By some miracle, they’d been given a chance for betterment: they’d relocated to Barnby Dun, to a home of their own, a modernist council house; Richard was fast-tracked onto a career path which guaranteed promotion, doing important work, going on to become an expert in a vital, new and relatively clean industry.
Though there’d be the constant deafening drone of the power plant, requiring workers to be kitted out with protective earphones along with their boiler suits, they’d be spared the soot-filled lungs, the intense heat and back-breaking, subterranean work of the coal pits where many of the men at Thorpe Marsh would ordinarily have been destined. The power plant heralded a time of heady and dazzling opportunities; the Aldersons and hundreds of young families like them recognised that they were at the forefront of a resurgence in the north, providing the electricity on which the whole country’s prosperity would turn, but also that they were beneficiaries of an extraordinary lottery.
Though boasting an ancient, fourteenth-century church, Barnby Dun could not claim to be a pretty village; technically rural, it felt urban. Along with myriad others, it was a satellite of Doncaster, a tough industrial conurbation in the heart of mining country whose population provided the workforce for its pits. Such was the veracious appetite for coal that the planners of the power plant had taken the precaution of purchasing the ground beneath its feet, lest one day it should be dug up for its black gold.
‘The coal came in by train and by canal,’ Jo remembered. ‘When the bridge over the canal was open, you’d sit in the car waiting and watching the barge go by with the Tom Puddings (tug boats). There’d be seventeen of them and it would take ages for it to go through; the same was true for the railway crossing; the train laden with coal containers would eventually be unloaded and the power station would eat it all up. Occasionally as kids we’d sit directly under the bridge and the dark, thunderous rumbling of the passing trains and coal wagons sounded like the end of the world.’
By the 1980s, with the defeat of the miners’ strike, the world as Jo knew it was edging towards some kind of apocalypse. ‘The coal came from local pits, but then they started bringing coal in from abroad saying it was cheaper, and that anyway there was no coal left in South Yorkshire, but that wasn’t true. My dad always used to say, “There’s lots of coal still down there.” Yet they were bringing coal all the way from Poland to a place that had pits just down the road.’
Richard was conflicted over the 1984 miners’ strike as power station workers were obliged to breach the picket lines outside of plants such as Thorpe Marsh; he was angry and years later still clung to his sense of the government’s assault on his integrity and on the north itself, of its betrayal – as he witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of the enforced pit closures, sucking the energy and aspiration out of places like Doncaster, until they began to resemble ghost towns.
Thorpe Marsh ate up the coal, Jo said, and as well as firing the turbines that generated electricity, there were by-products including ash and excessive heat. The ash was recycled. Over the years several hundred thousand tonnes would be loaded up onto lorries, and used in building vast stretches of motorway.
But inevitably some of the ash would escape into the atmosphere, and Jo and her friends would pray for the wind to blow it away. When she heard the news reports of how it turned to acid rain, dispersed over northern Europe, she was relieved that it did not fall on Barnby Dun. But then she would agonise about the children over whose heads it did rain, convinced as she was that the children would dissolve, as the rain must be like the sulphuric acid used for experiments in chemistry lessons.
Although it was meant to be safe, Jo worried over the water recycled by the power plant, too. The cooling towers dispensed with heat by drawing the water from the River Don, much of which was then emitted as steam from the mouth of the towers. As a child Jo was convinced that all the world’s clouds were caused by the steam that was belched out from and permanently shrouding the towers.
If the marshland was being bent to man’s will, then so too was the river coursing between Thorpe Marsh and the village. Without the river there’d have been no power station. Barnby Dun was further separated from the power plant by a canal which had been built (before the craze for railroads) to serve the commercial traffic that swelled during the Industrial Revolution. At times the canal joined and straightened the river in a ‘navigation’. Throughout it was broken up by a series of locks and swinging gates and bridges, attended by a permanently employed bridge keeper. Amongst Jo and her teenage friends, the tradition of daring each other to treat the bridges as improvised fairground rides, clinging to them as they swung open across the water, came to an end when one of the girls slipped and fell between a bridge and the bank, was trapped and broke her pelvis.
The bridge further down the canal at Bramwith appears to have been more strictly policed by Anne, now a sprightly 80-year-old. Perhaps her extra diligence was a legacy of an earlier tragedy in the late 1940s, when a child drowned near the gate. Although she’d retired as a bridge keeper twenty years ago, at some level Anne still seemed on amber alert. We sat in her living room overlooking the canal. As Anne served the coffee her eyes slowly followed the passage of barges floating past, momentarily framed by the window. I felt even now she had to restrain herself from popping up automatically to swing open the bridge as she had done daily for more than thirty years. She’d arrived in 1958, a pioneer herself as one of only two female bridge keepers, and recalled the excitement around the opening of the power plant; and the immense scaffolding required at the beginning of the cooling towers’ construction.
Her living room wall was decorated with delicate paintings of the canal and countryside. In one of them, faint and grey, the remaining cooling towers appeared ghost-like in the background – as if the painting foretold their destiny. I wondered what the cooling towers had meant to her. ‘Well,’ she laughed, ‘once the scaffolding was removed, I suppose they were quite sculptural. But I didn’t find them aesthetically pleasing. I didn’t have time to ponder,’ said Anne. Like so many people in south Yorkshire, notwithstanding that she was originally from Hove, Anne was phlegmatic about the end of the towers.
Speaking to her, I felt that even after Thorpe Marsh station disappeared from the landscape, something of its presence would remain, like the phantom limb sensation of an amputated hand.
Of course, the inevitable end of the power plant and the restoration of nature wouldn’t necessarily re-establish people’s connection with the natural world – the link had been broken. Restored nature would be a phantom of its former self. The experience would be akin to visiting a wildlife park: you’d experience an attenuated idea; wildlife was somehow once removed.
Walking from Bramwith back towards Barnby Dun along the canal, heavy low-flying swans practised take off and landing; their webbed feet slapping and splashing noisily on the descent. The birds pretty much have a free run as there’s not much cargo now; mostly it’s just pleasure boats, geese, other swans, ravens and occasionally a corpse emerging from the canal’s ink-like malevolent waters.
For as long as Jo could remember, the canal had had a reputation for danger. It had claimed many lives, mostly accidental: the late-night reveller who in a drunken stupor had slipped in – he was found with his carefree hands still in his pockets, his bloated corpse covered with leeches; the man who having killed his wife (their final argument was settled with the blunt head of a hammer), lowered himself into the black water and never surfaced; and Michael Swan, whose name was evoked at every assembly as the headmaster counselled Jo and her school friends on why they should fear and respect the canal.
Growing up, Jo had never thought of the cooling towers’ age: they had always been there, exuding a monolithic magnificence, close to the water. Quiet, mostly, they had witnessed all of this tragedy silently with a kind of beautiful indifference to the deaths without and within.
Though not as perilous as coal mining, working at the power station could be dangerous: in 1973, in what should have been a routine inspection, four workers went into a part of the plant they believed was locked down when it was in fact still live. The men were electrocuted; all subsequently died. It must have been a wrench on a village of a few thousand who provided most of the power plant’s five-hundred-strong workforce. ‘It wasn’t a topic of conversation,’ said Graham, who had started at the power station a couple of years later. Though he resisted my suggestion, I couldn’t help but think that the memory of the accident would have hung over them, casting a pitiful pall over all who worked there.
A memorial garden was created for the four electrocuted workers, and a few years later a nature reserve was opened nearby. It seemed almost a penance or tribute – that having taken from the land with the erection of a power station, something should be given back. The wildlife sanctuary thrived in the shadow of Thorpe Marsh in the 1980s, and within a few years species that had fled during the power station’s construction began to return: great crested newts, palmate newts, smooth newts, weasels, pipistrelle bats, water voles, reed buntings and grass snakes.
‘I don’t go there,’ said Tony the farmer. ‘I don’t need to, do I? I’ve got my own land. It’s all right though, the nature reserve.’ Tony appeared almost the archetype of the good-natured, burly farmer, in a big house where luxury came only as a second thought. He was graceful and amused by life. Arson had been a big problem in the past when bored youths roamed about setting bales of hay on fire, but things had improved since the widespread introduction of computers, he told me. Now the would-be arsonists were otherwise engaged in their bedrooms in video game shoot-outs.
He considered himself a custodian of the land but was also pragmatic and accepting. I’d expected that a farmer wouldn’t have an especially romantic attachment to the land, but Tony’s hard-nosed calculations on achieving the best yield from his fields surprised me. Whilst the Clean Air Act (of 1993) was obviously welcome, he maintained that ‘something in the mucky air must have been good for the crops’ because since then he’d had to put on expensive sulphur in granular fertiliser to achieve the same results. ‘Now don’t be writing anything down that’s controversial,’ he added. Tony clearly enjoyed undermining townies, complicating their privileged inconsequential assertions with his lived experiences: where I saw danger, he saw opportunity.
If ever Vermuyden returned he’d find plenty of commissions, Tony believed, as there’d been so much building on the land, especially with new housing developments, that the water had nowhere to go when it rained; there was a hell of a lot of pumping going on; non-stop it seemed, water from the water-logged fields was being dumped in the river. Not that there’d be many fields left in the future. Barnby Dun and its neighbours were already more urban than rural. The back to back expansion of the villages and hamlets meant that pretty soon ‘there’d be no corridor of green belt land’. The villages would be all joined up.
Tony was one of the few locals who’d welcomed a scheme to turn the disused Thorpe Marsh site into a giant car park, acting as a distribution centre for imported cars. That particular proposal had been vetoed, but, since the demise of coal, service industries had arrived in south Yorkshire to fill the employment gap. There’d been a tremendous expansion of call centres, industrial estates and distribution depots; this in turn had fuelled a housing boom. But nothing had been built on the Thorpe Marsh site; the two cooling towers remained.
The farmer, Tony, reminded me of the plain honesty of the south Yorkshire countryside, peppered with power stations and cooling towers. Modernisation had to be paid for, and ugly concrete power plants were the price. Except they weren’t just that; Thorpe Marsh was so incongruous in the landscape that it was almost beautiful, as beautiful and as magnificent as Cyrano de Bergerac’s massive conk. It had taken me a while to see its majesty. Others, like Jo, had long recognised Yorkshire’s power stations as testaments of man’s ingenuity, even as examples of public art that deserved preserving. What would Jo miss when the final towers came down? Not just the sight but the sound of them, she said. The noise of the power station had proved a disturbing and memorable soundscape to Jo’s childhood, especially when they ‘blew off’.
Blowing off was the term used to describe the readjustment of the pressure in the cooling towers. ‘They used to blow off all the time,’ said Jo. ‘You’d hear this terrible sound that would drown out everything else. It was like the power station was respiring. There’d be a continuous rrrrrrrrr, really scary, and sometimes – I don’t know why it would happen, if it was to do with the wind blowing in a certain direction – you’d hear voices when they’d speak over tannoys in the power station. You couldn’t tell at all what they were saying, but it was loud enough to be heard from all that distance. It sounded like a giant – in fact, the power station looked like a giant that you could only see a part of; the towers were its legs, big solid elephant legs, continually shrouded in all the steam.’
After sight and smell comes sound perhaps, but only retrospectively had Jo realised that the incessant noise of the power station had been the soundtrack of her youth, one of the biggest polluters of her childhood. And despite my precious southern sensibility, talking with Jo, it became clearer why I was drawn to her story. I began to see that Barnby Dun was not so far removed from Luton. I’d grown up on an estate in an industrial town; the M1 motorway was fenced off barely two hundred metres from our home but I never registered the sound of the cars screaming along the asphalt until I’d left home and returned one day, and asked my mum: ‘what’s that noise?’
We travelled up to Barnby Dun on the weekend when the last two towers were to be demolished. It would happen in the kind of early hours that used to be reserved for public executions. It felt that way. We rose and in our pyjamas and dressing gowns traipsed to the end of the lane. It was a good vantage point. We had a clear view of the towers across the field, canal and river, perhaps half a mile off. Because of the danger to the infrastructure of the nearby canal, it was decided that explosives would not be used in the demolition. Instead, a metal cable connected to diggers would do the job: like a giant cheese wire, it would be pulled through the base of each tower.
With hardly any sound or lead up, the tower just lowered out of view, collapsing in on itself with a faint rumbling that appeared almost as an after effect. The second tower seemed more resistant. There was an ominous and unsettling clanking from within, as if the tower had indigestion and was now beginning to groan. Then it, too, followed its stalwart partner and sunk down into the ground, gently and quickly.
We contemplated whether what we had seen was somehow the will of nature; that nature would always win out over man’s arrogant stewardship of the land; that the planners who had designed and constructed Thorpe Marsh had unwittingly (at nature’s silent behest) also built in, and planned for, its obsolescence.
Jo mused on the strange non-event afterwards: ‘Well, that’s that. They’ve gone now; it’s the weirdest thing, isn’t it? It’s disorientating. All your life it’s been orientating you without you fully realising. You’re aware of it but you can’t quite fathom what it is you’re aware of because there’s nothing now, where there was always something that was huge and imposing, it’s like the presence of nothing; it’s as if your eyes are lying’.
We had captured the demolition on film. Playing it back afterwards, it was true, our eyes had not lied: there really was nothing, except a small bird fluttering in the space where the towers had been.
Photograph © Simon Grass, Thorpe Marsh, 2008