2nd Visit to Didcot A

Having been commissioned to make an artist’s project about Didcot A power station more than 2 months ago, this was Suzy's first visit. It was great to be there with Rachel, so we could come away with a shared experience of the place. Travelling home on the train the thing that really struck me about today’s visit, is in comparison to today’s digital and micro technology, it is a very overwhelmingly physical process. Everything can be seen, and is there, big and present on the site. Coming from a very different background as an artist it was awe-inspiring trying to get to grips with the complexities and scale of the engineering behind the generation of electricity.
The power station has been going for 43 years, since 1970. Wendy, our guide said that the power station was only designed to last for 25 years. So although it is on the point of closure, it could be seen as highly successful to have lasted this long. The reasons for its closure are connected with EU emissions targets. But it was interesting to think about what the reasons might have been in 1970 for assuming it would not go on indefinably. Before the time of it’s opening, there had been many smaller power stations, and Didcot A was one of a number of larger scale power stations built at a similar time. It was made with the idea of serving the south. And was in a good strategic position in relation to train connections and importantly by the river Thames which is needed for the cooling process. The land had been owned by the army before, and was given over for power generation. It was interesting thinking about the underlying assumption that power generation was a national concern, and public funds and resources would be provided on an ambitious scale to make it happen using the most up to date technology at the time.

We started off with the station, where the coal arrives. A mind-blowing quantity is needed each day. And the best way of doing so is by train. Trains can bring many times more tons of coal each day than by road. We were lucky enough to arrive when a train was there unloading. The trucks open and the coal falls down to an underground conveyer belt.

We were able to get up close to the cooling towers. As it was a freezing snowy day, huge icicles had formed at the bottom of the towers. As Rachel said the towers are on stilts, so at the bottom it was like this enormously powerful waterfall.

As Rachel mentioned already, the control room could have been straight out of Kubrick. I was fascinated by the 70’s dials and switches, and how they were arranged within diagrams and circuits, as a way of visualizing the mechanisms. It was amazing to think that you could turn a dial and it would actually change something on a vast scale in the turbine hall. The turbine hall really seemed to be the heart of Didcot A, where the power is actually generated. Like so many other things connected with Didcot A, but even more so, I was totally unprepared for the scale, complexity and power of what was there. The hall itself is vast, and divided into 4 units, all of which can generate power.

It was interesting talking to Wendy and Emma (community relations co-ordinator) about the changes in the plant over the last 40 years. When it opened it was part of nationalized industry, but was privatized around 1990. This led to a different relationship with other comparable power stations that might be owned by other companies. When looking through some archive photos, some were of activities in the sports and social club. As Wendy said, ‘any nationalized industry would have had that built into it.’ There would have been competitions between different power station teams for sports such as badminton, and also more practical things like first aid and fire warden’s activities. In the earlier days of the plant there would have been 1000 employees on site at any one time. Now a combination of privatization and computer technology has meant that number is more like 200. So they don’t provide the same facilities for fewer staff. One of the things that is interesting us in this project is the relationship of the power station to the town of Didcot, and how this really dramatic landmark becomes part of people’s sense of belonging to a place. Before we left Emma showed us an archive drawing that played with different arrangements for the cooling towers. It was interesting to see how much care had been taken to make an aesthetically pleasing relationship to the landscape. Emma thought the drawing might have been done by Gibbard, the architect of the Didcot A.