ArtCouple started plotting the final days of Pylon 111 and its environs on October 25th, 2020. Documenting their explorations with cameras and sound recorders, they talked with local people and those who were involved with the demolition. Through a series of close encounters they began to get to know the structure intimately. The findings from this exploration will be taken forward into a larger project extending their quest to discover vitalities within the materiality of post-industrial contexts where the living and the dead intermingle through countless intermediaries.
They said she’d been there since 1941, or at least his dad had always maintained that that was the case. She certainly looked as though she’d seen some action. World World Two, for instance, when the first bombs fell on Workington, October 27th, 1940. Today, like any other day, was drizzly and greasy. Pylon 111 stood silent in the sea mist. Drifting piles of steel and concrete, floating apart in the wind. It was the cables that drew us closer than we’d been. Closer in. Have a better look. So forlorn there. Cut off from her nearest partner, 110, and the pair of them cut off from the line crossing the goit to Merchant Quay, and from there across the murky torrents of the Derwent, up towards Northside. Cut off from the power.
Originally, Pylon 111 ran a 132kV line direct from Carlisle to supply Workington’s major steel industry. After the demise of Corus, it became part of the DP/DW 33kV circuit that linked Quayside to Stainburn and Siddick. Blast furnaces, hot stoves and a mangle of rails and chimneys writhe through the archive shots of this place, going back to the early 1900s. Now, alongside a stalwart encampment of fisherman’s huts, there is a flicker of dog walkers, roads to nowhere, railway tracks sneaking under the grass, and the occasional optimistic piece of signage for the future tourist industry.
Beneath the four legs of 111, a cluster of glass insulation dishes. Taking back control of their own destiny, sipping upon the reflection of their giant Mother, the Caterpillars plot to escape the scene unseen. It is impossible to leave them there. The beautiful sea-green glass alone. Worth something. A bird bath. My mate keeps birds. Would be a treat. I’ll take one. Just one mind. Nothing you can do about it. People do these things. By the 9th of November, all the dishes would be gone. Distributed to every part of the community. Not just the dishes. A few struts here and there. Good for tables. Galvanised iron. Grey as the sky. Gentle as sand. A ‘Danger of Death’ sign, barely legible through the rubbing winds of years. Whisked away before the collapse.
So, it was all written down. Pylon 111 would meet its end on the 9th of November. Pylons 101 to 110 had been felled already. I listened to the dismembering of 109 on Merchant’s Quay through contact mics attached to the structure of 111. The Caterpillars sliding around me in the mud, the barbed wire rattling in the wind, and the sound of another pylon’s destruction. All coming through. It was as if 111 was recording the sound of its own destruction. A dystopian response to Robert Morris’s “Box with the Sound of Its Own Making”, back in 1961. ‘Pylon 111 listening to the sound of its own destruction’, 2020. Pterolaur on Instagram asked: ‘why is this making me emotional’. It’s just metal isn’t it? After all, the cranes and hydraulic shears aren’t predators, are they? I can hear them screeching, across the river. through the quivering body of 111. Her flailing cable arms swing at the wind. It’s futile, isn’t it? Just let them hang loose. Admit you’re done. You are coming down tomorrow. That’s it. By next week, your one hundred foot frame will be two and a bit skip loads of scrap. To them, you’re just 10 tons of galvanised iron. But when you are hewn, cut and snapped, you’ll bleed rusty water. Just like natural iron.
When 106 had been felled up on Northside, the starlings no longer knew where to sit. People noticed the absence too. Today, blackbirds chatter in the wild rose bushes while a triumvirate of crows flap up to 111’s outstretched arm. You’re next, you’re going, you’re gone, they caw.
On November 9th, at 11:11 am, two 2-stroke motors revved up and the Nibbler moved into position. A line was attached and the cutting began. If she had been a tree, the sound would have been the same. The buzz of chainsaws cutting through her defrocked legs. The foreman called: now! And the Nibbler pulled back. Nothing to halt the felling now. But wait. A sharp crack, and the line snapped. Gestures of disbelief and scratching of heads. She hadn’t gone down. Not yet.
Tower 111: the end of the line. It is actually a Terminal L4M, not the PL16 it was originally. The oral history elides the arrival of this replacement tower back in the late 1980s. Smoothing two individual identities into one: that pylon. The L4M crept up around the time the Berlin Wall was coming down. ‘The Berlin Wall died and dissatisfaction spread over the land’, sang an anomalous Bruno S.
The four stumps presented themselves in their raw state, cut and snapped. Ripe for a ritual lattice of rope, wool and string. A square of remembrance on the day after Remembrance Sunday, her last whole day as a single entity. Eventually, she would return to a molten state: industrial recall. Perhaps to become part of a bridge to another side.
It lay there, stretched out, that pylon, and now it looked like a crocodile, with its three pairs of arms on its sides, like legs that have walked the land. It could also have been the scene of a plane crash, with its metal structure that had hit the ground, and wings on either side that had once flown in the air. When it still stood, those wings were its arms to carry the electric lines that it held up. Wings like branches of a tree, with idolaters in them like fruits. It stood there, still. With its triple arms it also resembled an orthodox cross. Others have said pylons look like giant people. Standing under one, associations might change once more and you might think of something like ‘Eiffel Tower’. It’s so tall! Taller than a lighthouse!
One thing we hadn’t seen before is how one of them was felled, dismembered, removed from the landscape. This was what was about to happen to this pylon. We found out about this when seeing another pylon being dragged to the ground by a crane – an odd sight, as if the crane crushing the pylon was some kind of predator, perhaps a bear, eating up its catch.
We visited the last two pylons still standing. One smaller, with two arms to carry electricity lines, and this bigger, number ‘111’, with three. Its felling date was scheduled, inadvertently, to coincide with the day the Berlin Wall came down 31 years ago. As if yet another age was being toppled. Strange perhaps, because electricity is not redundant! Underground lines must have been made. What we need no longer hung in the air. Things are more subtle now, more subterranean.
‘111’ now impressed the horizon with a peculiar look of lines hanging off it. Its electric lines had been cut but were still attached to the pylon, making them dangle freely in the air, as if it had hair. The windier it was, the more did the lines dangle.
Walking towards it was like a little e-pilgrimage. Trees and pylon would interact in view when you look up, on the way past Workington Marina. If you approach from another side, the sight of the pylons would mix mostly with bushes of sea buckthorn. With its glowing bright orange berries, sea buckthorn seems to be widespread only along the shores of Workington, as far as the Solway coast goes. Trees are the most common elevations around here, providing frames and undergrowth for pylon-behind-bushes. It’s funny how plants and pylon work together. It’s nature versus the machine, after all, two parties in opposition. And for those living near it, it’s high tension. So maybe the removal of the electricity was a good thing, but they should have left these iconic pylons standing as relics, like old mine heads, which might be able to serve some other function in the future. Maybe some could have become experimental art galleries, or sheds for machinery. With the pylons gone, there’s no more ‘highlights’ left to look at.
Exposed to the pylon underneath it, you can see the structure is tall indeed. If there was a staircase here, we would see how it has got enough space for maybe five floors and an attic, from bottom to top. So you could make a pylon into a spacious house! It’s so easy to underestimate its vast size.
On the ground underneath its structure, we also found some of its dropped insulators, made of glass. They looked beautiful, like large salad dishes – insulators that look like fruits of this metal tree when being in their position between the electric lines. Down here on the ground, they appeared to be bigger. Even these small parts aren’t really small, and not light either, but very heavy to lift up.
Revelations in this space that’s too often regarded as a non-space. With our walks towards it, we turned non-space into space. I brought objects to it for intervention. One was a part of a plastic fence I had found abandoned in a wood land. With its soft plastic grid it reminded me of a DNA pattern, and so I found it fitting to take to pylon, illustrating how they ripped pylon’s heart and life out. I took found fishing tackle to pylon as well, to illustrate how it had been caught. Yarn to illustrate the domestic aspect of the use of electricity, shells for its after-life, large pieces of fabric to clothe it.
Little Eiffel Tower, with its lattice structure typical for the industrial age, just like the way metal bridges were made. Electric Tower, transmitting the juice that we need. For gadgets, appliances, lamps, light, bulbs. Who would have thought it would come down when our electricity is still running. Where is it now?
How many pylons does it need to keep us going? The first pylon in this line we saw being felled was before Halloween, which coincided with the full moon, like it did before in 1944. That was when ‘Our Pylon’ was three years old, and saw nothing but war – before being sawn off three decades and a years after the Berlin Wall fell. On the 11th hour. Triangulations, dangling between what had been electric lines. Read between them, imagine making links between them and other lines, only to be dropped. An electric time this had been. Charged. Even that charge was dropped, of course. Lost lines, lost space. A pylon time bygone. Now the horizon is empty. Is the new system of supply any more environmentally friendly?
Thanks to RE Drift, and PLPC staff for making this possible.
Simon Bradley and Ursula Troche