The Lister Drive towers were 39.6m high and with 30.5m base diameters –small by modern standards. The hyperbolic shape allows the reinforcing bars to be straight though sloping. The base sides at Lister Drive were 368mm thick but the top sides were 165mm: the higher the tower, the thinner the wall. Towers can be very strong but, in high winds, towers can collapse. This happened at Fiddlers Ferry in 1984; the tower was rebuilt.
Fiddlers Ferry- opened in 1971- originally burnt Lancashire coal. It now uses imported and Yorkshire coal, and some biofuels. It has eight 114m towers. Cooling towers have been used as symbolic structures in popular culture: Fiddlers Ferry featured in the title sequence of BBC3’s Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps.
But many local towers have gone. Agecroft power station, built for Salford Corporation in 1925, had four towers. It was in Pendlebury, linked to Agecroft colliery, on the site of HMP Forest Bank. The coal mine closed in 1991 and the power station went two years later. The towers were demolished on May 8, 1994. The four colossal towers dominate a marvellous 1983 photograph by John Davies: it shows tiny figures playing football beneath the Agecroft towers. Photographers, like Davies, have recognised the powerful images and somehow disturbing authority of the great towers. Bernd and Hiller Becher’s photographs of cooling towers are striking and strangely absorbing.
John Piper’s black and white photograph of Build was power station cooling towers, near Ironbridge, was daringly included in Michael Moulder’s 1973 Shropshire: A Shell guide, among pictures of cottages and country churches.
In Manchester Stuart Street power station’s five towers dominated Bradford and Clayton. They were linked to Bradford colliery which closed in 1968. Stuart Street closed in 1975 and the towers went in February 1978. The site is where the Velodrome is now.
Stockport had a splendidly imposing tower at Portwood. It went in the early 1980s but I can recall its bulk at the end of Merseyway: complementing the brick rail viaduct as symbols of Power and Industry; industrial yin and yang. It was shocking when it went; could something so enormous simply collapse in a rumble of dust and shattered concrete?
But maybe attitudes are changing? Sue Clifford and Angela King included cooling towers in Common Ground’s 2006 England in particular: “landmarks bold enough for giants” they called them.
In their Edgelands: journeys into England’s true wilderness Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, (Cape, 2011) the flaneuring poet and writer, enthuse: “Cooling towers distort our sense of scale in the English landscape. They also introduce a new spectrum of available visible effects to this thing called the countryside. Seen on a cold dawn, they seem to shimmer over the frozen landscape, mirage-like; while the last late light of June catching their upper reaches 300 feet up can find in their grey concrete a warm range of pinks and purples like a mesa sunset.”
They have looked up inside towers: “Silent from a distance, as you approach a cooling tower on foot, you’re aware of rising white noise, a watery roar. Looking up a tower’s skirt is a revelation. The view inside is of hundreds of piers standing in a heavy downpour, so powerful you can barely see the daylight across the opposite side. It looks like some vast drenched film set; the industrial, warm, interior rain that falls in Stalker or Blade Runner.” Isn’t that thrilling? Isn’t it time we respected our big, bold, steaming towers, where “clouds are made”?
© Aidan Turner-Bishop
This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 1 'BOLD'.