For those who pass them every day, certain points on the line gain an importance that outweighs their function as signposts of distance or time. I had not been travelling long before I fell under the spell of the power station at Didcot. First, there was the simple geometry of its shapes – a scattering of modernist building-blocks placed incongruously in a rural setting: six cooling towers, a vast rectangular turbine hall, a 270 foot chimney studded with red lights to warn off low-flying aircraft.
Second, and more importantly, there was the array of atmospheric effects the station produced. On clear days Didcot announced its presence shortly after the train left Oxford, some 10 miles away, with a plume of white water vapour rising into the sky.
At other times the graceful silhouettes of the towers were barely visible through the mist of the river valley as we drew parallel to them on the approach to Didcot station. Every day was different. At sunset the clouds that arose from the mouth of the towers could be tinted pink or purple; if you were lucky enough to pass at exactly the right moment the entire side of the glass-clad Turbine Hall would ignite with the reflection of the setting sun. On cold, frosty mornings when it was generating at full capacity, the power station almost disappeared behind its self-generated veil of smoke. The adjacent opencast landfill site, with its clouds of wheeling birds and fluttering flags of plastic caught in bushes and fences, merely added to the post-apocalyptic splendour of the scene.
Once noticed, such elements in the landscape can never again be ignored. Like the ‘punctum’ in a photograph that Roland Barthes speaks of, at first they appear to be an insignificant detail; it is only later we realise they give meaning to the whole composition. I came to be able to sense the presence of the cooling towers. However absorbed I was in what I was reading or writing, I would find myself compelled to look up as they came into view. Soon I was photographing them, standing in the corridor with my head out of the window, or shooting through the glass from my seat. I had no interest in obtaining a sharp image; the blur and judder produced by the train became part of the composition, a futurist rendering of an icon on the point of disappearance.
A 1960s coal-fired power station, Didcot A was unable to meet European Directives on emissions. On Friday 22nd March 2013 it ceased operation for the last time and the clean up of the site began, a prelude to all the buildings on the site being demolished. For now, the towers remain: breathless, silent, somehow robbed of their aura along with their function. Of course, I feel no nostalgia for the burning of fossil fuels per se; the problems associated with coal-fired power generation are well documented. However, the knowledge that something is potentially destructive does not lessen our appreciation of its beauty. The thrill of the sublime, that mixture of awe and terror that poets and painters of previous generations experienced in rocky mountain gorges or in the face of an immense ocean, we now feel in concrete chasms of our own making, faced with monsters that have slipped beyond our control and turned to bite the hand that gave them life.
A week before the station closes I join what is to be the last public tour of the site. I cycle from the station at Didcot and report to the gatehouse that sits in the shadow of the three north towers. How will you feel when they come down, I ask the middle-aged woman who signs me in, pointing through the window.
‘I class them as my three kings’, she says. ‘I feel safe, knowing they are there. You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I even try to get Christmas cards with them on. When you go away from Didcot – say you go on a foreign holiday – when you see the smoke in the sky you know you are nearly home. What other landmark has Didcot got’?
We are a small group. The artists Barbaresi and Round are coming to the end of a residency at Didcot. (You can read about their work on their blog, here). It is Rachel Barbaressi who has invited me to join the visit, arranged so that she can bring a cameraman onto the site to capture some final images. Our guide for the tour is a woman married to a worker at the station who has been taking parties around Didcot A for twenty years. We don hard hats and protective goggles and set off in a minibus around the site.
For the first time I am close enough to the base of the towers to see that they stand on stilts. A continual waterfall of water is cascading down inside them into a deep pool. Air is sucked up through the towers by the something called the Ventura Effect, caused by their shape. Didcot A had a licence to take up to 45 million gallons a day of river water from the Thames to cool the plant – the water flowed along concrete rivers where it circulated to cool the high pressure turbine and was then fed back to the towers.
The pools are deep enough to attract heron that come searching for the fish that live in the strange space beneath the cascade. Once the river water cooled sufficiently it was fed back into a ninth century channel that runs through the site known as Moor Ditch and then into the river — discounting of course the Thames water that was transmuted, emerging from the tops of the towers as cloud, to drift on a course of its own.