It’s not every day you see the equivalent of a cathedral being flattened, so when I found myself an hour’s drive from Didcot last Saturday evening, I was immediately on my way. Three of the famous cooling towers were due to go the following morning. Like many people I’ve always considered them beautiful structures – that lovely sexy curve at their waists! – which enhance the landscapes in which they are set. They can quite legitimately be compared with cathedrals; their architect, Frederick Gibberd, was also responsible for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (Paddy’s Wigwam to the irreverent).
I reached Didcot after sunset, and eventually found a position on a railway bridge with a fine view, about a quarter of a mile away. The towers could still be seen in the last of the light.
The bridge dates to the earliest days of the Great Western Railway, and is itself soon to be demolished and rebuilt. This place had seen the birth of a new technology, and here we were to witness the passing of an outmoded one.
The demolition company had taken the unpopular decision to destroy the towers during the hours of darkness, hoping to discourage spectators. However Didcot was not to be deprived of its fun, and within an hour my railway bridge was packed. So was every other viewpoint in the town, as well as the Ridgeway where at least a thousand people held vigil – or rather an all-night party.
About midnight the towers were illuminated – for safety rather than for our benefit.
It was to be a long night. All anyone knew was that demolition was scheduled some time between 3am and 5.30am. We chatted, shared coffee and chocolate, read and gazed at the towers. I thought of the crowds who must similarly have gathered during the dissolution of the monasteries, watching as another set of old certainties were buried under the falling masonry. Four o’clock – a possible time for the blast – came and went. We watched the railway workers preparing to clear up debris. For once First Great Western might have a reasonable excuse for delay – ‘cooling towers all over the line’.
Five o’clock, and a grey dawn. Suddenly the middle tower appeared to slip quietly sideways, and an instant later we heard and felt three huge blasts. As each tower collapsed in on itself it blew a series of colossal smoke rings in its own shape, which hung for a moment in the air.
The view vanished into what looked like a sandstorm. Those of us with (expensive) cameras ran for the shelter of their cars, and in a couple of minutes little could be seen except streetlights glowing through the dust cloud.