Barbaresi & Round are delighted that we have been appointed to be resident artists at Power Station A prior to it's decommissioning at the end of March, 2013. On Monday Barbaresi made a first visit to the power station. I have driven past the power station at Didcot many times, and it's cooling towers have told me that I am near home on many occasions, but for the first time on Monday I drove in through the gates, past the 'Private property' sign and parked adjacent to the cooling towers. I looked over to the towers and saw that, as a friend recently told me, they are open at the bottom with a wall of water cascading down. Looking at them in the landscape they seem so monumental and solid, and it is incredible to see that they almost appear to float on water. The first of many revelations that I experienced during my visit. Wendy, my guide for the visit, came to meet me and started the process of explaining how the power station works. From the complex diagrams showing the process of converting coal to electricity it was clear that the cooling towers are a peripheral part of the process, even though visually they're the dominating feature of the power station. Later Wendy told me that the rings around the cooling tower reveal the length of time it took to construct them as each ring is a days work. The builders cast a row of panels each day and then left them overnight to dry before constructing the next section. The rings show the history of building in the way that the rings in a tree trunk show it's age. We crossed the site to start the tour, visiting the place where coal is delivered to the power station by train. From the vantage point of the control room I could see across acres of land which is covered in coal and ash. Coal that will be taken by conveyer belt to be crushed into a fine powder before being drawn into the furnace by a gust of hot air, and various types of ash and by-product which will be taken away from the site. Some of these will be used in the making of products such as thermalite. Just seeing the area which would usually be stockpiled, and the trains coming in with tonnes of coal shows the scale of this operation and the amount of fuel needed to keep our electric lights (and appliances, gadgets, computers, tvs, machinery...) going. We wandered over to the little train station where the coal is dropped into underground chambers from which it is moved onto a conveyer belt and taken on the one and a half mile journey to the pulverising mill and boiler. The dramatic view of the train, the sounds of tonnes of coal dropping down and the clouds of steam rising from the coal were reminiscent of a scene from Turner. During the tour one of the employees pointed out that these power stations are the last of heavy industry in the south-east. I realise how alien this world is to me.
We crossed the site towards the centre of operations on the site. In a room which has all the original 1970's fittings and looks like a scene from 'Space Odyssey' we saw the hub from which the power station is controlled. Computers have been bolted onto the original knob and dial controls, but the original technology has been adapted rather than superceded. I couldn't help but be reminded of this installation by Brian Cyril Griffiths that was at the Saatchi Gallery years ago.
I snapped a 1970's aerial view of the power station on our way to the turbine hall. Wendy pointed out the clear division of the site into two parts with two groups of three towers sited more than a mile apart. The architect, Gibberd chose to locate the towers separately to create a more pleasing design for the site. This is why we see the towers in groupings of three, creating more interesting spatial relationships than a cluster of six towers. The design is very unusual as most power stations are designed with more thought to practicalities than aesthetics. As a result there was need for more infrastructure at Didcot as water had to be channelled right across the site to power station A.
Wendy prepared me for entering the turbine hall by handing me some ear plugs. The noise of machinery and the immense scale of the operation creates a barrage on the senses. As we walked through I tried to make sense of the explanations on plaques - it was impossible for Wendy to offer explanations here! She found me a great vantage point to take some photos across the length of the hall, and when we left the turbine hall, laughed at my face and hands smeared with coal dust.
We looked at the workshops where parts are made and machinery is mended. Like everything here, it's a large-scale operation. There are many hundred kms of pipes and cable to maintain. Some parts are ordered in, but many are created and adapted - it's highly skilled work. Dusk was falling as we left the building and saw the pylons that carry the electricity onto the National Grid. It was too dark to photograph the cooling towers. That will wait for the next visit. I'm intrigued by these structures and can't wait to get a better look.