In 1963, Harold Wilson presented ‘Labour’s Plan for Science’ with the rousing speech that first mentioned the ‘white heat’ of technology. ‘Things are going to depend in the remainder of this century to a unique extent on the speed with which we come to terms with the world of change,’ he said.
Mum and Dad were 22 and 23, newly married and working at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. Wilson’s speech mentions ‘Harwell’ as if it’s safe to assume that everybody knows what it is and what it means. Mum and Dad were the people he was speaking to, the generation driving the ‘world of change’, and they were keeping pace.
The dads on the new housing estates where I grew up were scientists and engineers. (The mums did pottery and macrame, and sometimes had part-time jobs as receptionists.) At school, there were two sorts of paper: sugar paper, for painting on, and ‘computer paper’ – waste printouts on large perforated sheets, concertinaed into piles, with holey edges to track through the printers. It was only ever printed on one side, and we used it for everything. I thought everybody did.
When I was born in 1965, Didcot power station was under construction. It was erected with an optimistic spirit, designed with a mid-century aesthetic. Henry Moore had a hand in the careful arrangement of the six elegantly waisted cooling towers, in two groups of three. The slim central tower was one of the tallest in Europe. The power station was switched on in 1970, and it breathed steam across our wide skies for forty years. It seemed to be a living thing, dominating the flat landscape like a cathedral in the fenlands or a castle on a rock. It was built to be admired. Placed sturdily on the flattish floor of the Thames Valley, you could see it from everywhere.
Because it was unmistakable, and unfailingly reliable, it became a marker of home. Whenever we drove to the coast for holidays, we all wanted to be the first to yell, ‘I can see the sea!’ When we drove home, up over the Downs and down into our valley, we looked for the power station and often pointed it out to each other – ‘Nearly home now, look.’ We’d be tired after the long journey. It might be dark. The red, blinking lights on the tallest tower were reassuring. Our ancestors lit beacon fires on the Ridgeway. The power station was our beacon.
It was easy to see the six maidens and the tall tower as a family. Quietly, solidly, always there, but not unchanging – every day the buildings looked different. Sometimes they loomed through the mist rising from the fields, sometimes they were blackened on one side by driving rain, standing resilient. Sometimes regal, white as marble against a crisp blue sky, they rippled in the summer heat. The clouds that rose from the cooling towers were white and fluffy, steam not smoke, but depending on the weather they might float upwards and congregate like cumuli above Didcot, or be blown into mile-long streams across the valley. I admired them from the dirty windows of the school bus and thought of trying to draw or paint or photograph them, to create an arty collection, ‘The Power Station Through The Seasons.’ Never did it. The idea of setting foot in a private field and approaching the power station with a camera was as unthinkable to me as walking up to the Queen and asking her to pose.
I did tour the power station once, as a Girl Guide helping with a troupe of little Cub Scouts. I remember the boys’ excitement at the giant diggers that moved mountains of coal about. I remember standing on a metal grid walkway and looking through it, down to the coal trains unloading. I stood directly above a wagon piled high with coal, and watched it suddenly drain out – a shocking rush of air – it felt as if it would suck my innards down with it. I have a fantasy memory of a room full of men in white lab coats tending banks of seventies-style computers painted dark green with flashing lights, meter needles and dials. (I can’t say for sure that I ever saw that room. But I still think it was there.)
We were part of a new community that put all its faith in science. The power station stood like our new church, overseeing us benignly as we scurried around its skirts. A modern place, a place to be proud of, built to suit our modern world.
Mum had an illness that science couldn’t cure. She took Yeast-Vite pills when she was tired, and signed up for all the latest experiments. We were confident that Oxford’s rheumatology centre, allied to the university, was the best in the world. Mum tolerated injections of gold that bruised her, pioneering knee joint replacements that left her unable to straighten her legs, elbow replacements that shortened her arms, neck surgery that fused her vertebrae and made it impossible to turn her head. Her skin blistered in the sun because of the drugs. Her permanently bent knees couldn’t support her for long enough to stand and fry a fishcake. She bought machines for slicing bread and peeling potatoes, and a long-handled brush to reach her hair. Being brave and buying gadgets was better than admitting that nature was getting the better of her, of all of us, the family, the doctors – there was no stopping it.
The power station dwarfed nature. It showed that we were in charge. It was a thrilling declaration of independence, or perhaps of war. It showed what humans could do. We take nature’s dirt and we convert it into shimmering electricity. The power station was not a castle, a beacon, a church. Not a monument to a higher power. It was a higher power. It was pure science.
But times changed, and people began to hate it. People attacked it. They said it was ruining the place, that it was dirty, an eyesore. The Readers of Country Living magazine named it the third worst eyesore in Britain, but many of the locals felt attached to the place. Decommissioning was one thing, but demolition? A child of an engineer and the step-child of an architect, I thought it might be possible to save the cooling towers, make them safe to live in, add some porthole windows – the power station could have become a spectacular Game of Thrones castle, an airy, mid-century, Yellow Submarine living and working space for hundreds of people.
According to the Oxford Mail, when the owners became ‘concerned by the growth of public affection for the towers’, they applied for a ‘certificate of immunity’ to stop English Heritage from protecting them. And so the slow demolition at the centre of the world began.
Three of Didcot power station’s elegant, waisted cooling towers had already been knocked down when part of the turbine hall twisted and fell unexpectedly, crushing the men who were working on its demolition. The turbine hall killed four people when it collapsed. It looked like vengeance. The desperate, self-destructive spasm of a dying thing. Perhaps the power station felt rejected and despised. Perhaps when half of it was gone, it didn’t want to go on.
Traveling home in 2017 to be with mum while her husband died and to make a funeral happen, I was destabilised as soon as I saw the power station, half gone. It looked like a shut-down, retired, damaged, hurt, dying, unloved thing.
The remaining towers went down at dawn on 18th August 2019. Three weeks later, mum died: suddenly, unexpectedly, tidily. She went to bed, and never woke up. In the evening she was there; in the morning, she wasn’t. When I went down for the funeral, only the big tower was still standing.
The man who switched the power station on was given the honour of switching it back off. According to the Oxford Mail, there were no celebrations. The pensioner, dressed in his old boiler suit, gave a sad thumbs-down to staff and told reporters: ‘When I put it on in 1970 it was exciting, there was a future ahead.’
I’m a child of a scientific age. While I’m surprised to find I formed an emotional attachment to Didcot Power Station, at the same time I’m not. I was raised to revere science, and the power station represented everything reassuring and reliable about my technological homeland. The power station wasn’t built as a beacon, but I made it one. It wasn’t built as a monument, but it could have been one. It could have stood for a record of a generation full of optimism, a community that was all about the future.
At the end, it was a family, demolished.
After the last cooling towers went down, the InDidcot blog site could not say what might be built in their place, only that there would be ‘no iconic or controversial buildings’. Later, InDidcot reported plans for around 400 houses, offices, light industrial units and a hotel, commenting ‘It’s hard to imagine what this will look like’.
In the poll that named Didcot power station as the third most hated blot on the landscape, the number one spot went to windfarms – any and all of them. Once again, I’m at odds. I know that wind turbines can be noisy, and that they can kill birds. Still, I find them elegant, and as powerfully optimistic as the new power station was when they switched it on in 1970. I know that the power station damaged the environment, and that the ‘white heat’ left a terrible legacy, but I miss the seven tall towers that used to welcome me home.
Jane Hughes is a psychotherapist and a mature student, studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. Her published work includes Three Wheels on my Wagon, which appears in Essays in Life Writing published by Routledge in 2022, and Nothing To See Here, published in the online journal, Elsewhere.
Photograph: Anthony P. Morris, Farmoor/Alamy Stock Photo