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Friday, 9 August 2019

From Ferrybridge to Finland

Demolition of Ferrybridge Tower 6 (click to play video)
Demolition of Ferrybridge Tower 6 (click to play video)

Those huge cloud factories, the eight enormous cooling towers of Ferrybridge C Power Station, have stood beside the A1 in Yorkshire for over fifty years (the power station itself has existed one form or another for over ninety), but not for much longer. One tower was demolished on July 28th, four more will go in October and all will be gone by 2021.  The site has become a multifuel power generating plant burning waste and biomass, and using all the steam it generates.

Perhaps it’s for the best. In its heyday, Ferrybridge was one of the worst contributors to Scandinavian acid rain, which in 1993 memorably led the Norwegian environment minister Thorbjoern Berntsen to call his British counterpart, John Selwyn Gummer, the biggest “dritsekk” he had met in his life. Even so, I will miss its majestic scale.

I’ve contemplated the towers from miles away: from the top of the Wolds at South Cave near Beverley, from the top of the Pennines at High Flats near Huddersfield and from vantage points in the low lying Humberhead Levels. They have presided over my journeys to and from Leeds by train, bus and car after I left school, and welcomed me back to my part of Yorkshire when I’ve lived away. I have seen them from the air when flying from Scotland where I once lived to give a talk at a London conference, and from a flight to Helsinki. That’s my best memory.

It was in December, 1991, when I was with a Nottingham software company. I set off for the airport at Birmingham in the dark, in fog so thick I had to drive at walking pace with the window open just to be able to make out the white line in the middle of the road. The motorway wasn’t much better but I got there just in time, still in a gloomy blanket of fog.

I had a window seat but it was some time before things on the ground started to become visible. I could see what seemed to be moorland and dry stone walls, probably Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. Then suddenly we were out of it and over three enormous power stations in a straight line, and an island in a river with a familiar hook-shaped bend: unmistakeably Ferrybridge, Eggborough, Drax and the town of Goole laid out like a street plan. And there: a certain crossroads I knew so well. I was looking down on my dad’s house. He would be in his kitchen getting breakfast, absolutely oblivious to me peering down from an aeroplane two or three miles above.

Then, in next to no time we were over the Humber and flying past Hull with Hornsea Mere and the Yorkshire coast curving North to Flamborough just like on the map, and out over the North Sea to Copenhagen, and I realised I’d missed my complimentary whisky.

Oh my, Helsinki is cold in December. They have to run their car engines at least ten minutes with the heat full up the windscreen and lots of vigorous scraping before they can set off. I walked to the clients from the dingy hotel in the snow trying consciously not to breath in too much of the cold. Everyone had thick woolly mitts, hats and scarves in the brightest colours.

Back at the hotel there was evening entertainment from a lookalike John Shuttleworth keyboard and drums combo which I tried to ignore as I ate my tea. A forty-something woman asked me to dance. She said it was bad manners in Finland to refuse a woman who asks a man to dance. I said I was working and she said so was she. I made my excuses and left. I went to my room and locked the door. In the early hours I was awoken by a fight outside in the corridor. Dritsekks! Paska potkuts!

If you have to go to Helsinki, don’t go in December.

12 comments:

  1. Shame on you for refusing the poor lady her chance to make a living. Your description of the fight outside your room reminded me of the time my OH and I drove down to Barcelona back in the early 1980s. We had parked in a side street near our hotel just off the Ramblas, near the port. That evening there was quite a loud altercation down in the alleyway beneath our window with much screaming and smashing of glass. We locked our door and jammed a chair against it for good measure. The next morning we found our car window smashed and all the contents from the glove box missing. Ah, happy days.

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    1. It makes you feel very vulnerable doesn't it. At least I didn't have a car parked in the corridor.

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  2. Such a grand description of the morning and the flight.
    My hometown burns biomass for steam heat, though not in converted old nuclear towers. What an imposing installation, and indicative of the time.

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    1. The new Ferrybridge plant doesn't need cooling towers. My understanding is that it reuses all the waste steam and heat.

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  3. When you went to London to give a talk at that conference was the topic Scandinavian bad language? As for cooling towers, along with thousands of other Sheffielders I was both sad and angry when E-on arranged the demolition of the famous Tinsley towers. They had become iconic and should still be standing today. It is the reason we switched our energy supplier and I would never return to E-on because of that thoughtless act of corporate vandalism.

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    1. The talk was before the software job. You learn Scandinavian bad language by listening to their comments about the software company you work for. I agree about the Tinsley towers - these things are iconic landmarks and the Magna building still there is by comparison just drit paska. Another one I miss is the four brick kiln towers just north of Nottingham. Why go to all that bother of getting Antony Gormley to build a ridiculous human dragonfly out of scrap iron near Newcastle when these other awe inspiring structures are there already?

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    2. Oh yes, and the cooling towers at Elland which filled the view beneath the M62 as you drove through the underpass from Huddersfield to Halifax, which then shrank to scale against the hills as you emerged, like you'd just passed through the star gate of the 2001 film - also gone.

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    3. Sing it Mary!
      "Those were the days my friend/ We thought they'd never end..."

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  4. That tower looked like folding cardboard when it went down. I like watching demolition by explosives. About 3 weeks preparation for a 5 second event.

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    1. It's expert stuff, and will no doubt be even more impressive when they blow up another four in October, but I'd prefer it if they were able to leave them.

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  5. Ha! Or, if you're into that sort of thing, do go to Helsinki in December!

    I'm going to guess that 'dritsekk' translates to 'shit sack'. :D

    I rather like how the power station structures look, but understand why they must go.

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    1. I understand why they have to be shut down, but surely they could keep some of these things as inspirational landmarks (especially when elsewhere artists are commissioned to create other large structures). The Tinsley towers mentioned above in Yorkshire Pudding's comment are especially missed.
      As regards the translation, I see your Scandinavian genes are still working. Click the link at end of paragraph 2 for further background.

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