Girdee spree: the secret life of the electricity pylon, Jack, 2003

Girdee spree: the secret life of the electricity pylon, Jack, 2003


[Some of my best work came at Jack in 2003-04, a magazine which was the idea of James Brown, the former Loaded editor. I started on the subs desk the week after Brown had departed, and to my astonishment Michael Hodges had been appointed editor in his place, who I knew from the football titles at IPC magazine. In fact, we used to play five-a-side together. Within a few weeks I’d been offered a full-time job but even so, I had to win ‘Hidge’ over – and this short article went someway of doing that. When Jack collapsed in summer ’04, I went to NME and the chief sub said that his favourite thing in Jack had been a crazy story about electricity pylons. ‘Ah,’ I said. ‘That was mine.’]

Jack, 2003

Since the completion of the National Grid in 1935, the lattice pylon has become as recognisable a part of the British landscape as gnarled oak trees, red pillar boxes and silhouetted old men bursting kids’ footballs with a penknife after having their greenhouse windows put-through. Now our British pylon is under threat and a French invasion is underway. Regular travellers in the Midlands will have been struck by the recent sight of French-looking pylons across the countryside, the sort of structures you might spot through the window of a Gallic train as it glides through France. It’s a shocking development and one that needs its wings clipping.

As you read this, East Midlands Electricity is erecting new French pylons close to Burton-on-Trent, and at another location nearby in Derbyshire. “They’re known as ‘Petit Jean’,” Rebecca Middleton from Powergen tells us. “The poles are manufactured in France and brought over. We use them because they can take a greater strength of conductor, but the work isn’t part of a continental-style makeover.” Don’t care! It’s wrong!

Have you ever stood near a British pylon when you’ve been on your own? They’re quite majestic. On a breezy day, with its cables whining, a pylon can seem an invincible creature. Looking up, you wouldn’t be surprised to see its girder-head twist round like Talos to get a better look at the feeble human by its feet. Those who care little about the world simply say that pylons “do ’lectricity”. But there’s more to these beasts than merely carrying power across the country as part of the National Grid.

High voltage lines have 400kV or 275kV zizzing through them, adhering to the CSE physics rule that electricity travels best between areas of greatest “potential difference”. Hanging down like a barmaid’s earrings from a pylon’s prongs are conductors, suspended from glass or porcelain insulators. Conductors speak to electricity. They say, “It’s lovely over here!” Electricity is a serial philanderer – the grass is always greener – so it leaps quickly from pylon to pylon.

The most common pylons in Britain are the L2, L6 and L12 models, and each has a life expectancy of 60 years. The L2 is of Fifties vintage, but once heavier conductors were introduced in the Sixties, the L6 was designed to cope with the extra weight. The Eighties brought forth lighter aluminium alloy conductors, so the L12, a scaled-down version of the L2, was often the favoured model. Now you’ll find the L2 carrying 275kV lines, while the L6 and L12 support 400kV cables.

Within each type of pylon there are “suspension” and “tension” pylons. The most common are suspension , and resemble space invaders, They simply suspend insulator strings vertically from the arm. But where corners need to be turned, hills passed, buildings rounded general zig-zagging, then “tension” pylons often have to be used. They have two strings of insulators per arm, held horizontally. A tension pylon keeps those cables taut.

Not surprisingly, the pylon has many enthusiasts in the UK. There’s the British Insulator Collectors’ Club (BICC) based in Wolverhampton, with an interest in all aspects of overhead power lines. But few are more knowledgeable about pylons than Flash Wilson, 27, an IT consultant from London who also runs a pylon website. “Pylons remind me of people in form,” she explains. “I always liked the shape, then I noticed that the UK has two designs [suspension and tension]. I think I should start a pylon society as I get emails from kids who love pylons. It’s funny how people think it’s geeky but send me photos anyway.”

If you need convincing how great British pylons are, then visit a pair that span the Thames at Thurrock in Essex next to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. They’re the Gordon McQueens of UK pylons and at 630ft, the tallest in the land, 10ft higher than the Post Office Tower. They’ll bring on a wave of pride in any right-thinking Briton.

But the most famous pylon in Britain is ZP226, to the north-west of Rochdale. It’s a pink pylon and starred in the below-par, pylon-painting comedy-romance Among Giants in 1998. ZP226 was given its pink hue as a gift in the film. Sadly, 226’s days are numbered. “That whole line of pylons is being taken down,” gulps David Scott, a web designer and photographer from Rochdale. “By the time your story comes out that line may be gone. There are no plans to replace them. They want to build a wind farm but there’s a campaign against it. If they do build it, perhaps they could paint one pink.” The French sometimes paint pylons in pretty colours, but that’s enough about them over there. Lee Gale

Davis Scott’s site featuring the pink pylon: www/ Flash Wilson’s pylon mecca: The BICC is at: PO Box 3275, Wolverhampton, WV4 6XU. Thanks to Stewart Larque at National Grid Transco.