Goodbye Didcot A power station

The final towers of Didcot A power station are down. It’s almost the end of an era. Just the chimney to go.

I grew up in the shadow of the towers and like many others had a love-hate relationship with them. I used to hate the way they imposed on our countryside. But in recent years I came to appreciate their curves and brutal design. Just not the climate changing emissions.

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Didcot power station

The power station, commissioned in 1968, was designed by the architect Frederick Gibberd. The original plan was for eight cooling towers but Gibberd reduced these to six to supposedly limit the visual impact.

With the towers reaching 375 ft (and the chimney 650 ft) they were always going to dominate our landscape. I know I wasn’t the only child to play spot the power station on returning from days out. Even as an adult I couldn’t help looking out for the towers from afar.

Didcot Power Station 2014
Didcot Power Station 2014

The power station burnt immense amounts of coal, over 3 million tonnes in 2003. In 2006 Greenpeace demonstrators climbed to the top of the tall chimney and set up a climate camp, demonstrating against the burning of fossil fuels. Climate change campaigners climbed the tower again in 2009.

Didcot Power Station, from the Sustrans cycle route
Didcot Power Station, from the Sustrans cycle route

Despite assurances that only steam came out of the cooling towers, our washing and car would sometimes be covered in fine black dust that we attributed to the power station. And, occasionally whatever came out of the chimney, turned yellow.

Rather more fun was the phenomenon of power station snow. I recall several drives to Milton Park through a centimetre or two of snow. But oh the disappointment of reaching work and realising the snow had only come from the towers.

The end of power generation
The end of power generation

Yet it was the unseen impacts that led to its eventual closure. An EU Directive required the plant to limit flue emissions; however the owner, RWE npower, decided to close rather than upgrade the power station. Didcot A stopped generating electricity in March 2013.

Demolition of the first three towers

The three southern towers were demolished in July 2014. I, like many others, watched from a vantage point on the road between Didcot and Harwell. RWE npower were adamant that it wouldn’t be a public event and didn’t announce the exact timing of the demolition. Yet hundreds of us lined the road (repeated in many locations around Didcot) from around 4am, and an hour later, as dawn broke, the towers fell. We cheered, took photos and even drank champagne.

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It was a different story in February 2016 when the boiler house collapsed unexpectedly. Preparations were being made for its demolition and workers from the contracting company, Coleman and Company were onsite. Four men were killed, but due to the dangerous conditions three of their bodies couldn’t be recovered until several months later.  Investigations are still ongoing, three years after the collapse.

Demolition of the last three towers

The last sunrise for Didcot A Power Station
The last sunrise for Didcot A Power Station

The cooling towers nearest Sutton Courtenay were demolished at 7am on 18 August 2019. Once again RWE npower urged the public not to view it. But how can us locals ignore the towers which have dominated our landscape for the last 50 years?

I watched the final three towers fall from the road between Milton Park and Sutton Courtenay.  As before I was caught out by the power station starting to collapse before the sound of the detonation!

As we returned to our cars we were confronted with a rather scary and unexpected fire, possibly in one of the transformers.  Followed by a town wide power cut. It seems Didcot A Power Station didn’t want to go quietly.

What next?

Didcot B, a gas fired power station, continues to generate electricity. The chimney isn’t as tall but on a cold day you can still use the steam direction to work out what way the wind is blowing.

As for the land that Didcot A stood on, the jury is still out. No doubt it will be filled with commercial units,  roads and maybe houses. No iconic or controversial buildings.

After the Didcot A towers fell
After the Didcot A towers fell

What are your memories of Didcot power station? Do leave a comment to let me know.

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