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In praise of Didcot's cooling towers

Published by Andy Boddington on Sunday, November 18th, 2012 at 19:32 pm

For too many years I worked out of offices on the outskirts on Oxford. For what seemed like too many centuries, I crawled bumper to bumper along the city’s Western Bypass. On bad days, and they were frequent, the traffic southwards would not start to free flow until Abingdon.

Only then could I relax a little as I cruised south on the A34 towards one of the most iconic monuments in Oxfordshire. The dreaming spires behind me, the Chilterns and Berkshire Downs in distant view, the great delight for my eyes were the cooling towers of Didcot power station. Six of them. Sleek, curvaceous concrete bastions of power rising out the dampness of the Oxford Clay Vale.

Didcot A power station is a polluting relic of the past. It is a mighty symbol of King Coal. It consumes hard hewn rocks that have been resting for 300 million years. It belches ancient carbon into the atmosphere. It daily nudges our climate one more notch towards instability. It has for decades dumped its poisonous waste sludge into Radley Lakes, the most treasured of which were only saved after a hard fought battle against the power company.

Of course Didcot A has provided power. It has also provided jobs. But it has polluted the environment in pursuit of profit too long. EU directives have now thankfully ordered it to close by next March. The environment will be all the better for its demise. It is time for energy production to move on. But should the closure of the power station entail demolishing Didcot’s enchanting cooling towers?

The Independent reports that English Heritage is considering listing the towers. The power company is not happy. “Didcot's owner, RWE npower, concerned by the growth of public affection for the towers, has applied for a certificate of immunity from English Heritage, to stop the towers being listed.” This will give RWE npower five years immunity from heritage protection. Five years during which it can tear down the towers with impunity.

The six towers are, for traditionalists at least, outrageously modern buildings. They were only built in 1970. Yet this modernity has not prevented the Didcot Six from becoming the defining feature of the flat, sleepy clay landscape south of Oxford. It does not bar the Six from being an object of local affection.

It has been suggested that the layout of the six towers was influenced by sculptor Henry Moore. Would anyone destroy a Moore sculpture? Would anyone pull down the Angel of the North? The Didcot cooling towers are a work of art. Industrial art has a significant place in our landscape of patchwork fields. It must be protected, not demolished merely because it is commercially redundant.

The next time I drive south on the A34, I look forward to seeing banners strewn along the roadside:

“Save the Didcot Six!”

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