Literature

Pylon of the Month - August 2017

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 This month we have a Scottish pylon from Loch Errochty, a man made freshwater loch in Perth and Kinross.  The pylons are on the Beauly to Denny power line which brings power from renewable sources in the north of Scotland to consumers further south.  It was (and remains) very controversial and the Herald Scotland reported back in 2015 that 'Its impact on the Highland landscape was compared to taking a razor blade to a Rembrandt'.  Those who planned and built it insist that it is essential if Scotland is to meet national renewable energy targets.

You can see a more zoomed out picture below.

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A few factoids from the BBC

  • The line is 137 miles long and supported by 615 pylons which run through some of the country's most inaccessible terrain.
  • The project supported more than 2,000 jobs over seven years
  • But it attracted about 20,000 objections
  • It is the longest transmission line to be built in the UK in recent times
  • Its highest point is the Corrieyairack Pass at 2,526 feet

As soon as I saw the picture (which was sent in by a fan of the website), my thoughts went to a 2009 article in the Guardian by Jonathan Glancey entitled 'The Gaunt Skeletal Beauty of Pylons'.  I wrote about it back in 2009 and it was the article that first introduced me to the Pylon Poets and Stephen Spender's poem about pylons. Rather pleasingly, the post is still number three on Google if you search on 'pylon poets' which explains why I still get a fair bit of traffic on the blog from a post that is eight years old.  Anyway, I still think that there is a kind of beauty that pylons bring to a landscape.  So did Barbara Hepworth according to this very scholarly article from the Amodern website

Likewise, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth drew inspiration from the sight of “pylons in lovely juxtaposition with springy turf and trees of every stature” seen from the window of an electric train.

The same source makes it clear that there was plenty of opposition to the pylons that the construction of the National Grid in the 1920s and 30s brought:

For others – including Rudyard Kipling, John Maynard Keynes and John Galsworthy, co-signatories of a letter to the editor of The Times – the erection of “steel masts” carrying “high-tension wires” over the Sussex Downs amounted to nothing less than “the permanent disfigurement of a familiar feature of the English landscape.”

But Reginald Blomfield, the man who oversaw the design of the new National Grid pylons was having none of it in a letter to the times:

Anyone who has seen these strange masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that [they] have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on.

I'll finish with a 1933 poem by Stanley Snaith discussed extensively in the Amodern article.

Over the tree’d upland evenly striding,

One after one they lift their serious shapes

That ring with light. The statement of their steel

Contradicts nature’s softer architecture.

Earth will not accept them as it accepts

A wall, a plough, a church so coloured of earth

It might be some experiment of the soil’s.

Yet are they outposts of the trekking future.

Into the thatch-hung consciousness of hamlets

They blaze new thoughts, new habits.

                                                                              Traditions

Are being trod down like flowers dropped by children.

Already that farm boy striding and throwing seed

In the shoulder-hinged half-circle Millet knew,

Looks grey with antiquity as his dead forbears,

A half familiar figure out of the Georgics,

Unheeded by these new-world, rational towers.


Pylon of the Month - July 2015

Pylon

 

With my summer holiday (in Turkey) looming and the usual 'holiday pylon' to follow in August, I thought that I would choose a UK pylon for July.  I have quite a backlog of submissions from fans of the website, but this rather splendid one from Essex caught me eye as I trawled back through my collection of emails from the last year or so.  This is what the email I received had to say:

I recently took these photos whilst out on a 10 mile hike near Woodham Ferrers which is near Maldon in Essex.  I thought the pylons were majestic and fascinating, hence looking on the web at other photos and coming across your site.

Woodham Ferrers itself has more than a few points of interest of which my favourite is that it was attacked during the Peasants' Revolt in 1381. This revolt, about which I knew almost nothing (the name Wat Tyler rang a bell, but that was about it.....), seems to have been about a form of Poll Tax and started in Essex and then spread to Kent.  

I recognised the name of Maldon because of the sea salt connection.  It has been harvested since 1882 because Flat tide-washed marshes and low rainfall mean high salinity.  So pylon fans heading to Essex can top up on sea salt and this series of email exchanges on whether there is a discernible difference between sea salt and other forms of salt makes for interesting reading before you make any purchases.  For literature fans, Maldon also features in HG Wells's War of the Worlds and in the Marvel Universe, the twin superheroes Psylocke and Captain Britain were born and raised in Maldon.  Science fans will be equally pleased to know that John Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, was nor in Maldon and went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1904 for:

...his investigations of the densities of the most important gases and for his discovery of argon in connection with these studies".

Perhaps more relevant to the picture above, the reason for the blue sky in the background is due to Rayleigh scattering.  I'll end on that note and if you have read this far, then I hope that you are as delighted as I am that a pylon picture can lead to so many interesting (if somewhat random) facts about Essex.  I'm always better informed after writing these posts and hope that any readers are as well.


Pylon of the Month - January 2014

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Regular readers of this blog are probably looking at this month's pylon and wondering what is going on, but for the first pylon of 2014 I thought that it would be appropriate to feature the first artist to recognise the significance of the pylon.  The picture is by Tristram Hillier and was painted in 1933.  It is in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland which has this to say about it:

'Pylons' was exhibited at the first and only exhibition of the modernist 'Unit One' group in London in 1934, where it aroused much interest. It was purchased from the exhibition by Elizabeth Watt, who bequeathed it to the Gallery more than fifty years later. In this painting the three tall pylons carry no wires and their location on the beach is deliberately enigmatic. The attention to detail and relocation of objects from their usual surroundings draw parallels with the work of Dalí and Tanguy. However, unlike those artists, Hillier does not use unlikely objects and improbable landscapes.

I was made aware of the picture when I read my copy of the Jesus College Cambridge annual report in which there was an article by a research fellow, Dr James Purdon about "how the first pylons stimulated the artistic imagination of the nation".  You can read it in the report here and so I won't attempt to summarise the article, but Stephen Spender (who has featured on Pylon of the Month before) and the poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis both feature.  I was also rather fond of another picture, Landscape with Pylons by Julian Trevelyan, mentioned in the article and shown below (image obtained from here) and the article made connections between surrealism and pylons that certainly gave me food for thought.

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Having raised Pylon of the Month to a new cultural high point, I thought I would briefly mention the fact that pylons are very much in the news at the moment in Ireland.  This recent Irish Examiner article gives a pretty good overview of the latest situation:

Throughout large swathes of Munster and Leinster, opposition has been mobilised against the proposal by Eirgrid to erect 1,300 pylons on a corridor running from Little Island, in Cork, through Wexford to Kildare. The exact route for the ‘Gridlink’ project has yet to be decided, but nobody within an ass’s roar of it is taking any chances................

If you want to follow development then twitter is a good place to start.  Search for the keyword 'pylon'and (in amongst lots of tweets from the USA where pylon refers to American Football and what we in the UK call traffic cones) you can find plenty of (mainly critical) tweets abouts Eirgrid's plans.


Pylon of the Month - December 2012

Sunrise over mersey
Sometimes, a month passes so quickly that I never get around to posting a new pylon.  As a result I often get e-mails reminding me to update the blog (really I do; you know who you are.....).  Looking back through the archives, however, I was shocked to see that there has never been a December pylon of the month and I was determined to put that right.  With recent fans offering me pylon pictures from the Grand Canyon, Maryland and other exotic locations, I was tempted to head abroad again, but instead I am returning to the roots of this website with an ordinary British pylon.  I'm also heading up North back to my roots because it is a picture taken looking out from the A50 near Warrington towards the North East and I lived in nearby Leigh for a short time and in the North Manchester area for all of my childhood.  The A50 runs from Warrington to Leicester and the most exciting thing that I could find out about it was that a section of it between Stoke and Derby was originaly meant to be a new motorway, the M64, but the project was cancelled in the 1976 and so no such motorway exists.  Warrington itself has quite a lot to offer if you are in the area.  It has been a crossing point on the River Mersey since ancient times (and the river features in the picture above) and was also the site of the last Royalist victory of the English civil war on the 13th August 1651.

The quality of the pictures on Pylon of the Month is quite variable, but this one is a real gem and well worth double clicking to appreciate in all its glory.  I'll use it as an excuse to link back to the most popular post on Pylon of the Month about Stephen Spender's poetry, because the Guardian article that described it was headlined "The gaunt, skeletal beauty of Pylons".  All over the world people seem to get set essays on Spender and his pylon poem and when you google 'Stephen Spender Pylon' out comes Pylon of the Month as the top hit. At least it did when I wrote this post and long may it continue.  Merry Christmas to pylon fans everywhere.  


Pylon of the Month - October 2012

Karol tattoo
This month's Pylon is different for all kinds of reasons as I am sure all but the most unobservant of readers will have already have spotted.  After quite a few years of real pylons that you could actually go and visit if you were so inclined, that might prove more diffcult this month.  I have also kept the contributors to the website anonymous, but this month I'm happy to report that the pylon is tattooed on the arm of Karol Michalec from Brighton (as always, click on the photo for a larger version).  You can find out more at his website.  Although if you do go down to East Sussex to visit Karol, you could also visit the Patcham pylon that I mentioned only last month.  I've never really been tempted by body art myself, although as I'm due a mid-life crisis perhaps I should pre-empt it and visit my local tattoo parlour.  If I did, I'd be very tempted by a bubble chamber tattoo, although perhaps this equation for the momentum/position version of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle might be a bit more understated and stylish? 
Tattoo-heisenberg
Anyway, the other bit of pylon news this month relates to a book, The Beauty of Electricity Pylons in the Dutch Landscape, that I mentioned back in November 2009 after it featured in Alain De Botton's fantastic book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.  One of the authors of the Dutch book (Anne Mieker Backer) has got in touch and so I now know that is published by De Hef in Rotterdam. So if you are looking for an unusual Christmas or birthday present for a Dutch speaking friend or family member then your search is over.  Full details here.

Pylon of the Month - May 2012

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I've been meaning to feature a pylon like this one ever since reading Alan de Botton's splendid book 'The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work'.  It has a chapter on electricity transmission and pylons and in it, he has this to say about pylons:

"In different species, I noted varieties of modesty or arrogance, honesty or shiftiness, and in one 150-kilovolt type in ubiquitous use in southern Finland I even detected a coquettish sexuality in the way the central mast held out a delicate hand to its conductor wire"

Judging by the interview in the Independent from where I grabbed this quote, I wasn't the only person to be rather surprised by the use of the word coquettish in relation to pylons.  In the dictionary, "coquettish" is defined as flirtatious or sexy and these are not the first words which spring to mind when thinking of pylons.  But then again (and at the risk of sounding a lot weirder than I actualy am), I can kind of see what he means when I look at this month's pylon with its rather provocative lack of symmetry.  

On a more prosaic note, the picture was taken from the car park of Millets Farm near Abingdon-on-Thames (Britain's oldest continuously occupied town) in Oxfordshire. So it is easy to visit and you can do a bit of food shopping and visit the garden centre at the same time. So if you are looking for a fun day out for all the family now that  summer now icumen in you know where to go.


Pylon of the Month - August 2011

Pylon

After a break from pylons in July, Pylon of the Month is back again and as summer is with us it is time for the pylon picture taken on my holidays.  This year, it comes from Greece and it was taken in the village of Agios Floros just north of Kalamata (famous for its delicious olives) as we drove back to Athens after a wonderful two weeks on the Mani peninsula.  We stayed in Kardamili, a small but beautiful village that until recently was the home of the famous travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.  His book, Mani, is well worth a read if you want to get a feel for this part of Greece as it was in the 1950s.  His most famous book, however, is probably 'A Time of Gifts' which tells the story of the first part of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s.  He fought in the Second World War and led the raid that captured and evacuated the German Commander from Crete as made famous by the film ''Ill met by Moonlight'.

On one day trip we went to Pylos and it did occur to me that there might be a link between Pylos and pylons.  If there is I can't find it, but I did stumble across an excellent discussion on the origin of the word pylon (meaning a tower carrying electricity cables).  Keen pylon fans will already know that the original use of the word was to describe the gateway to an Egyptian temple, but the first use in the modern sense cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1923 (pre-dating the building of the National Grid which began in 1928).  

"A tall tower-like structure erected as a support for a cable, etc.; spec. (now the principal use) a lattice-work metal tower for carrying overhead electricity lines. 
1923 E. SHANKS Richest Man iii. 52 Half a mile up the mountain, a cable, a thin black line, traversed the crystal air, borne up on pylons"   

It is not clear how 'pylon' came to have this meaning but there is much interesting etymological discussion to had here for those keen to expand their pylon knowledge.  The Pylon Poets (see this previous Pylon of the Month post for further details) do get a mention in the OED as well and one contributor to the discussion wonders if they played a part in popularising the use of the word with a deliberately ironic reference to ancient monuments.  Fascinating stuff and if you ever meet anyone who thinks that pylons are boring, do enlighten them.


Pylon of the Month - June 2010

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As June is now with us and summer really does seem to be 'icumen in' I was drawn to this rather bucolic photograph submitted by a fan of the website.  It is just off the A38 (aka the Devon Expressway) between Exeter and Okehampton in Devon and so would be an ideal stop off for pylon fans heading to the West Country for their holidays this summer.  As far as I am aware, the cows are the first animals to feature in a pylon photograph on this website.  Another first for Pylon of the Month.

Other than this month's pylon, my cup really does overfloweth with othyer pylon related news.  First up is a campaign to rebuild the Skylon.  Its not quite a giant pylon, but fans of large steel erections might want to vote on a suitable location for it if it does get rebuilt to mark the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. It would certainly be a very visible reminder of the wealth of engineering and design talent in the UK.

The second bit of news I discovered by looking at the sources of traffic for this blog.  It is mainly word of mouth (so people google 'pylon of the month' having already heard of it), but I do get the odd mention elsewhere.  One of the blogs that has been sending traffic my way recently is Wartime Housewife, which in a recent post discusses the origins of the National Grid and Sir Reginald Blomfield who was charged with deciding on pylon design.  The quote below is from Pastoral Peculiars by Peter Ashley (via Wartime Housewife above).

If you had to design a tower to carry 400,000 volts worth of electricity, the pylon is not a bad solution.  Even at the start of the National Grid,  there were sensibilities about the impact of such things and they brought in Sir Reginald Blomfield to look at the design possibilities.  Blomfield had been on the Royal Fine Arts Commission that had chosen Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the red telephone box and Scott, architect of Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, has always been associated with the pylon project.

I am going to make it my mission to find out more about the genesis of the pylon.


 

Pylons and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

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As December looms, I thought I would mention a book that pylon fans could add to their Christmas list.  The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton has a whole chapter (called Transmission Engineering) dedicated to pylons.  The author and a member of the Pylon Appreciation Society follow a pylon line from the nuclear power plant in Dungeness all the way to Canning Town whilst musing on life, work and other subjects.  It is really is an excellent book.  One section particularly caught my eye.  It refers to a book (originally published in Dutch although I can find no reference to it) called The Beauty of Electricity Pylons in the Dutch Landscape by Anne Mieke Backer and Arij de Boode.  They make the case for appreciating the beauty of pylons and apparently note that windmills were as unpopular once as pylons are now.  They were occasionally burnt to the ground and denounced from pulpits before the painters of the Dutch Golden Age started including them in their landscapes thereby contributing to their acceptance.  Perhaps the same will be true for pylons in the future.

 


Pylon Poetry from Stephen Spender

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Thank you to Johnathan Glancey in the Guardian for bringing my attention to poetry about pylons in this article about 'The  gaunt skeletal beauty of pylons'.  Knowing that well known poets like Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis were inspired by pylons somehow makes this whole blog seem a little less geeky.  In fact, according to this glossary of poetic terms, 'pylon poets' is a term for a 'group of 1930s left wing poets known for their use of industrial imagery'.  See this Guardian article, 'Sacred Indignation' for a lengthy but fascinating discussion of the pylon poets and the similarities between the 1930s and the current economic situation.
 

The Pylons – Stephen Spender 

 

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages 

Of that stone made, 

And crumbling roads 

That turned on sudden hidden villages. 

 

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete 

That trails black wire; 

Pylons, those pillars 

Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret. 

 

The valley with its gilt and evening look 

And the green chestnut 

Of customary root, 

Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook. 

 

But far above and far as sight endures 

Like whips of anger 

With lightning's danger 

There runs the quick perspective of the future. 

 

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek 

So tall with prophecy: 

Dreaming of cities 

Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.