Itook a book out from the library the other week about the history of pylons. Yes, you read that correctly.
It caught my eye – as naturally it would - while I was browsing the shelves. ‘The pylon is a common sight on the British landscape,’ read the blurb on the back, ‘but not many know the history of these iconic metallic structures.’ Lee Child and John Grisham eat your heart out.
It was published, I noted from the inside cover, in 1989 but was in absolute pristine condition, the pages stiff and unblemished, as if no one had ever taken it out in the 29 years since. Strange.
When I handed it to the woman behind the desk she studied me for a long moment.
‘Unusual choice,’ she said.
I was affronted. I mean what right had she to judge my taste in books? When I worked in a clothes shop as a teenager I wouldn’t have remarked to a customer buying a blouse, ‘unusual choice that madam.
“I thought it sounded interesting,” I told her.
She looked at me as if I were trying to sell her a stolen pair of trainers and said, deadpan, ‘it’s a book about pylons’.
Insulted, I had an urge to pick up the book and lightly slap her across the face with it – and in doing so very possibly becoming the first man ever to be arrested for assault with a pylon history book - but instead I held my tongue.
And I’ve had the last laugh, because I’ve got to say it’s really quite a good read.
I won’t bore you with the details. What’s that, you want me to? Oh, ok then.
The first pylon in the UK was built in 1928, just outside Edinburgh, designed by an American firm which came up with the idea of “grid towers” that would criss-cross the country, connecting power stations.
Five years later – and I just know you’re finding this fascinating, well, at least those still awake – 26,000 pylons had been built. There are now 90,000 of the blighters.
The best thing of all about pylons, though, is that there is an official Appreciation Society – that’s right, fans of pylons who go round spotting them.
The Society was set up by the wonderfully named Flash Bristow in 2005. In a recent interview with the Financial Times (it must have been a slow news day), Mrs Bristow said, ‘my husband, Mike, isn’t that interested in pylons. When we went on honeymoon to Iceland in 2006, I insisted we take a detour so I could take photographs of the unusual pylons next to a hydroelectric station.’
I’m fairly sure that by now Mike must have filed for divorce, or at the very least had a passionate affair with a non-pylon obsessed neighbour.
The group have a site on Facebook and I implore you to search it out for it is gloriously insane.
Someone will post a picture of a pylon – taken, say, from the hard shoulder of the M5 - and others will comment.
The first post on the page, for instance, is from a lady called Hilary Blackhouse, who has photographed a pylon on the horizon. ‘Just spotted this from the M42 near Tamworth. Strange shape,’ wrote Hilary, who I can only assume lives on her own and has very few friends.
Others then commented. James Rose wrote, ‘this is near Twycross Zoo isn’t it? It’s very similar to the L7 in Aberdeen’. Gordon Bruce posted a picture of another pylon along with the words, ‘reminds me of this one in Carlisle’. Then Iain Leyland, obviously very clued up about matters, weighed in to put everyone straight. ‘They are old GPO/BT towers,’ he wrote with the authority of a man who knows his pylons. ‘They were designed to accommodate very large horn antennas, hence the shape. Each one is different depending on the shape of the antenna that was mounted.’
Iain then very helpfully provided a link to a website which explained the history of the British Telecom network. I don’t know Iain personally but I’m pretty sure he’s the kind of chap I wouldn’t want to sit next to at work.
And there was more. Lower down the page a chap called Christopher Aldridge had posted a picture of two different pylons side by side, writing ‘Routes ZF and MCR near Cirencester, Gloucestershire.’ To which someone called Kriss Wadge commented, ‘L2 to the left and L3 to the right. How to tell the difference? L3s have shorter insulator units and are thinner based.’
Blimey, I felt like I’d stumbled into a parallel universe.
When I returned the book a different lady was behind the library counter.
‘That looks interesting,’ she said as I handed her the book.
I nodded, inwardly congratulating her for having superior taste to her judgemental colleague, and replied in jocular fashion, “it is - any pylon related queries you have, just ask’.
She looked at me oddly, flashed a weak smile, and claimed she had to dash off to do an urgent task elsewhere.
Hospital design is right tall tale
As there always is with every new structure, a frantic competition broke out among the top architects of the day to design the first pylon.
Which reminded me of one of my favourite design stories, involving the gentlemen behind Blackpool Tower - James Maxwell and William Tuke.
In 1872 there were plans to open a new hospital in Manchester. Maxwell and Tuke’s idea was to build the hospital on a giant pair of legs.
Asked why, they said it was so patients would be above the smog.
Quite what substances the pair were smoking at the time is not clear, but suffice to say their design was not chosen by the powers-that-be.
Which is a pity. I mean imagine wandering into Manchester today to do some shopping at Primark and being confronted with the sight of two massive steel legs with a hospital perched precariously on top?
It would have been a hell of a tourist attraction, though on the downside a right faff for nurses getting into work each morning.
The hospital idea shows how ambitious Maxwell and Tuke were, though, and the steel legs clearly came in handy when they came up with their design for Blackpool Tower 20 years later.