Industrial inquiry

Ratcliffe 2Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottinghamshire

1. There is something perturbing about the presence of enormous infrastructure in the midst of lush countryside. In a landscape befitting of a Thomas Gainsborough painting how odd and alien the power station is.

Thomas_Gainsborough_-_Landscape_with_Stream_and_Weir_-_Google_Art_Project Thomas Gainsborough, ‘Landscape with Stream and Weir’, c. 1750. 

2. My friend did not mention the existence of a power plant on the outskirts of the little village in which she lives. But, here it is, obscuring the skyline and spoiling the quintessential English idyll of rural Nottinghamshire.

nottinghamNottinghamshire, June 2015

3. I am appalled and fascinated in equal measure by the uncompromising ugliness of this mammoth structure. The towers, like gigantic conical flasks, seem to have been plucked from another world or age entirely and deposited here on unassuming pastures.

4. The power station in question is Ratcliffe-on-Soar, a coal-fired plant located 8 miles south west of Nottingham. It was built in the 1960s and is one of the most productive stations in the UK. According to the operator’s website the station generates enough electricity to meet the needs of two million people. In its extreme efficiency, the station is hugely at odds with the seemingly slow pace of the nearby countryside where cows lazily graze and cheery barges are docked along the sleepy-still canal.


5. At home, in Ireland, we have all but one coal-burning power station in Moneypoint, Co. Clare and it is hardly a suitable counterpart for this colossal construction, both in terms of scale and output.

fog-shrouds-the-esp-moneypoint-power-plant-image-pat-flynn Moneypoint power station, Co. Clare. 

6. There is no excusing the power station – it is a highly problematic producer of energy – but it is difficult not to be stunned by the enormity of such a structure, particularly when it is so foreign to one’s native landscape. There is something resignedly un-contemporary about the coal-fired power station that enhances its uneasy appeal. It is a relic of an older British past. One might go so far even to say that it is the symbol of Britain’s industrial zenith: the architectural culmination of the nation’s conflicted and deeply entrenched coal-mining heritage.

world-war-two-coal-mining-recruitment-poster-a3-a2-print-13361-p  World War II era Coal-mining recruitment poster

7. The coal-fired power plant could soon be obsolete in the UK. Currently, nearly a third of energy in Great Britain is produced in coal-burning stations. However, by 2016 a third of these stations are expected to close. Soon, the coal-burning plant could be resigned to the wastebasket of British cultural history, unless individual plants make considerable environmental advancements as some of these stations already have done. The coal-fired power station is both fierce and vulnerable at once.

8. In its dichotomous state, I am moved by the power station. Maybe ‘moved’ is the wrong word, but I am certainly affected by the prospect of a socio-economic memory embedded in the station’s architecture. There is the history of a nation within its sturdy structure, I think, of people and labour and industry and technology, of the environment, of past versus future and old versus new, of improvement and advancement, and of the repercussions and failures of progress.

Adrian-Street-and-his-father Adrian Street and his father

9. Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller’s work So many ways to hurt you (2010) is based on a photograph of glamorous wrestler Adrian Street going back to the coal mines in Wales to meet his father in the early 1970s. Of this image, Deller says: ‘It encapsulates the whole history of Britain in that period – of our uneasy transition from being a centre of heavy industry to a producer of entertainment and services.’ I am overcome with a similar feeling of disconnect when I look up at Ratcliffe. It represents aspects of a nation that I cannot ever fully know. In an age of solar, wind and of course, nuclear power, to burn coal in these immense quantities seems archaic. At the same time, the coal-fired power station is so culturally specific that it cannot be dismissed as merely an outdated producer of energy.

battersea Battersea power station, London. 

10. One of Great Britain’s most noteworthy structures is London’s majestic Battersea power station, a coal-fired plant located on the south bank of the River Thames. Originally built in the early 1930s, Battersea is renowned for its attractive Art Deco interior style and its brick construction. In 1983 Battersea ceased production for good but it still remains an iconic London landmark, famously featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals. After multiple attempts to redevelop the site, including a failed theme park plan, now the station is being transformed into millionaire luxury apartments and leisure facilities; a culture clash similar to that depicted in the photograph which inspired Deller.

animals-2 Pink Floyd’s Animals (1977)

11. I am always drawn to unsightly feats of architecture. Brutalist towers, dilapidated high-rises, construction sites, falling down or disused buildings generally appeal to me more than any polished palatial structure fully intact. I am not alone in this. Most famously, Bernd and Hilla Becher documented the disappearing architecture of the nineteenth century in the Ruhr valley in Germany. Beginning in the late 1950s, the Bechers created a photographic archive of antiquated industrial forms such as water towers, lime kilns, gas tanks and blast furnaces, which is celebrated for its cool, dispassionate lens. Theirs is not a nostalgia project but more so a sustained and exacting study of the formal attributes of these architectural forms and how their photographic repetition may ultimately reveal some aspect of their otherness.

Bernd and Hilla Becher cooling towers wood-steel, 1959_77 Bernd and Hilla Becher, ‘Cooling Towers’, 1959-77.

12. Ratcliffe itself is in no state of decline – in fact it is the first station in Britain to be fitted with specific technology to reduce the emissions of noxious gases – yet I am still reminded of the Bechers’ artistic project. Through their stoic catalogue of forms, the Bechers drew attention to elements of a culture and a lifestyle that may otherwise have vanished from public memory. Many argue that the Bechers’ images emphasise the unorthodox beauty of these cold and crumbling yet ever steely structures.


13. My friend and I drive past Ratcliffe in the early evening. The station’s heavy towers are starkly silhouetted against an apricot and mauve streaked sky, and momentarily I can appreciate its spectacular strangeness. Yet, it is impossible to admire Ratcliffe in the comfortable way that the Bechers’ photographs might allow. In depicting industry in decline, the Bechers’ images provoke a lamentation on the passage of time more than anything else. In doing so, their photographs allow a reflection on industry at a safe remove.

14. There is no distance between me and Ratcliffe’s whirling turbines and clanking generator. In the station’s shadow, I am powerless. I can do nothing but look up at its steaming chimneys, helplessly.


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