At 2pm on Friday 22nd March they shut Didcot Power Station. An icon of the Oxfordshire countryside became a mausoleum at the flick of a switch, and a mausoleum that won’t be around for long either. With land prices high and a railway line nearby, once decommissioning has finished in around 18 months, the demolition will start. Inevitably the story is slightly more complicated, as there are two Didcot Power Stations. It’s the Coal and Oil fired Didcot A that’s closed, as it can’t meet EU emissions targets but the smaller Combined Cycle Didcot B is still in use, but the huge cooling towers and the vast majority of the skyline will disappear.
Many will be pleased to see it go, the plant was voted Britain’s third ugliest building by readers of Country Life magazine in 2003, and many times I’ve driven past and wondered how on earth it got planning permission! It’s visible for miles, from the M40 at Stokenchurch, and from the A34 at West Ilsley. The ecologists hated the place, in 2006, 30 Greenpeace volunteers invaded and a group chained themselves to a broken coal-carrying conveyor belt. A second group scaled the 200 metre high chimney, and set up a ‘climate camp’. They proceeded to paint “Blair’s Legacy” on the side of the chimney overlooking the town, claiming it was the second most polluting in Britain after Drax in Yorkshire. Friends of the Earth describe it as the ninth worst in the UK, so these groups will doubtless be celebrating.
The locals take a completely different view. For Friday’s light show finale, artists were seen sketching the towers, and descriptions comparing the towers to Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North were recorded. As far as I know, no-one went quite as far as Kelly Green who had the towers tattooed on her shin, but it’s clear that Didcot’s identity and the power station have become intertwined since its opening in 1968. Before then, Didcot was a Garrison town, with the Great Western Railway running through, itself only there because Lord Wantage objected to the line going through the more logical Abingdon to the north. I sat in the pub in Oxford last night and we talked about the station. I was surprised at how as children, we all used the place as a landmark to place when we were close to home after a long journey.
I visited the site after the celebrations had finished, the cameramen had packed up and gone, the artists nowhere to be seen. The cooling waters still flowed from the bottoms of the towers, as the snow began to fall gently. I smiled, Didcot got snow sometimes when nowhere else did, due to the cooling tower’s steam condensing and freezing. I contemplated the curves of the towers designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd, who also designed Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral. It’s obvious he was massively influenced by the likes of Le Corbusier and the entire Bauhaus movement. Those designs, noted for functionality rather than form, think of 1950’s tower blocks, were seldom easy on the eye but I do think the Didcot residents have a point. There is a sense of “So ugly its beautiful,” about the station, and on that level alone I’ll be sad to see them demolished.