There is a light that never goes out: the demise of the concrete lighting column, British Ideas Corporation, 2016

There is a light that never goes out: the demise of the concrete lighting column, British Ideas Corporation, 2016

With LED technology, the UK is witnessing a streetlighting revolution but for some, progress comes with a price. British Ideas Corporation documents the demise of the concrete lamppost and asks if our roads will ever see such decorative style again.

Crich Tramway Museum in the roly-poly Derbyshire countryside isn’t the easiest heritage centre to find, but with the sunroof open and children happily swapping Minecraft tips, there are worse places to be lost. Of course, corporation trams are all very exciting but there’s another reason why we’re skirting East Midlands hillocks. For a concrete-lamppost enthusiast – and there aren’t many of us around – Derbyshire is something of a treasure trove. There are still 14,500 concrete columns along its highways, although visits to such strongholds are now farewells rather than forays. Life expired and ravaged by spalling (crumbling concrete, the result of water rusting internal steel tubes and reinforcing rods), for concrete lampposts, this is the end of the road.

8G Alfreton

Having passed a golden-tinged, double-arm Stanton 8G of Sixties vintage on a busy junction near Alfreton (above, not the most elegant structure, but photographed nonetheless), we trundle through heat haze to higher ground and there, from a rise near the almost silent intersection of Fourlane Ends, spot the unmistakeable silhouette of a pair of ancient Stanton 6Bs. It’s a moment of quiet elation: “Quick detour, kids – it’ll be a good chance to stretch your legs.”

Towering 25 feet high, with ornately curved brackets holding aloft deep-bowl 90W low-pressure sodium lights, these 6Bs are a time-travel trip to an era when football players used public transport and policemen clipped kids’ ears. Both are set away from the A615, standing on the perimeter of a car park belonging to the 17th century Peacock inn. A senior-looking man is found who has enough patience to answer cursory questions. Facts are sparse but we’re able to build an explanation as to the columns’ enduring existence. The pair stand on a narrow strip of land, no more than a few feet wide, that neither pub nor council claims to own. It appears that these 6Bs have survived through a misunderstanding.

Nowadays, finding a 6B is like catching a coelacanth during a routine fishing excursion. They were designed pre-war at the nearby Stanton Ironworks in Ilkeston but have an almost Ancient Egyptian – rather than Erewash – aesthetic. They wouldn’t look out of place illuminating the paws of the Sphinx. Only a scattering of 6Bs remain from the tens of thousands that once lit such disparate districts as Croydon, Nottingham and Dunstable. With health and safety a primary concern, ageing columns are quickly removed and soon there may be no 6Bs left at all. If this happens, it’ll be a crime against industrial design. But does anybody care?

Manufacturers’ catalogues and photographs of long-gone columns and lamps exist but take some unearthing. This is seriously niche territory and enthusiasts are scarce. Of these, Simon Cornwell from Cambridge stands bracket and lantern above his peers. With his detailed (and well-designed) site simoncornwell/lighting, Cornwell is the guardian of the British streetlight story and thus the grand high priest of the “illuminati”. A collector, restorer and urban investigator, he’s been documenting his discoveries online since 2003.

“A streetlight installation is so old and unchanging that it’s taken as a permanent part of the environment,” Cornwell states. “This view changes once new columns go in. Residents suddenly become aware that something pertinent to their street has been ripped out for something bland. At this point, it’s too late. There have been occasions recently where people have chained themselves to columns. This is nothing new and also occurred in the Fifties, when cast-iron, decorative gas lamps were replaced by newer, more functional steel and concrete columns. But the outcome is the same.”

If we’re to secure a handful of columns for posterity, the next five years are crucial. Cornwell’s solution is simple: streetlights could pass into the collections of already existing museums. Condemned columns can be acquired for as little as £50 from council yards but survivors from the first generation of Group A (main road) concrete models, made in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, are in scant supply. They’re occasionally found on wasteland or ground awaiting redevelopment. In Adwick-le-Street, Doncaster, for instance, two further 6Bs can be spotted among scrub in a fenced-off area by a water-pumping station. Both remain perpendicular, although a swathe of new housing nearby hints at their fate.

Concrete Utilities Avenue 3D Arc 2, Southgate, London

Stanton’s great rival, Concrete Utilities in Hertfordshire, manufactured equally impressive pieces but when it comes to streetlights, executioners have no brand loyalty. Last year in Southgate, London, a CU Avenue 3D Arc 2 (above) with a serpent-like bracket was given the chop having shone its golden glow on a village-green roundabout for over 50 years. Instantly, the tone of the environment dipped. Side-street CU 2Ds, with a bracket resembling the head of a tufted duck, were still common until 2010 but have now largely vanished.

“I can’t see concrete columns being around in ten years,” Cornwell adds. “I know two collectors who have concrete columns in their gardens, so some examples will survive. But concrete is a difficult material to preserve, particularly if the strengthening rods are corroding. The real losses are the Stanton and Concrete Utilities designs that were installed en masse in the post-war years. And there were some magnificent Fifties designs, before everything became too functional.”

Avenue 4 D _ Morecambe

In past times, lighting columns served a dual purpose: to illuminate the street but also to please the eye. Although the Stanton 6B has glorious lines, it pales into insignificance next to the extinct Concrete Utilities Avenue 4D Special (above) that was erected along Morecambe’s seafront after the war. Its bracket was a stylised dragon perched on a post, clasping a lantern in its jaw. Britain’s tragedy is that we’ll never see such visionary imagination again. The 4D stands in stark contrast to what you’ll find in today’s Battersea. Take a stroll down Queenstown Road and you’ll endure grubby metal poles carrying high-pressure sodium lights housed in late-Nineties upturned sick bowls, all liberally splattered with pigeon droppings. We’ve lost the art of streetlight design.

“I’d agree with that,” says Nigel Parry, past president of the Institution of Lighting Professionals and principal at LED lights manufacturer OrangeTek. “Almost everything now is functional. Westminster spends a lot making sure the look is right. Many high streets have fancy ones – Southwark’s a good example. We’re moving towards lightweight aluminium columns as well. It’s a safety issue. If you crash into a lighting column, you don’t necessarily die on impact. The column is meant to collapse or at least allow you to run into it at some speed and not lose your life.”

Remaining ageing concrete columns will have been uprooted and ground to grains by 2020 as part of a streetlight revolution that’s sweeping Britain. LEDs are the future, providing pure white illumination while eradicating problems of light pollution that blighted old systems. Ten years ago, LEDs were first installed in traffic lights, quickly followed by white-light trials on major thoroughfares. By 2008, LED lights gave the same output as regular fluorescent lanterns – 90 lumens of light for one watt of energy. Today, LEDs give 140 lumens of light for one watt of energy. But it isn’t better light quality and an increase in road safety that’s forcing change. It’s cost.

“You’re halving your energy by turning to LEDs and as long as they’re constructed in a luminaire fit for purpose, they’ll last 20, 25, even 30 years,” says Parry. “The UK is going for this in a big way because energy prices are high. When you look at a rural authority, half their budget is spent on energy and the other half on maintenance. What they’re doing is borrowing money and halving their energy payments for the foreseeable future. That’ll pay back in five or six years. That’s why we’re seeing a tsunami of change.”

Britain is blazing a trail with LED streetlights while the rest of the world watches. But where there is boom, bust follows. With a total transition to LEDs, the UK streetlighting industry is expected to burn itself out. Once every road is illuminated with LEDs, there’ll simply be no market left. Foreign nations are expected to switch to LEDs soon but are likely to use their own manufacturers or buy cheaply from China. Low-maintenance LEDs will also be bad news for streetlighting departments – staff numbers will be decimated. The job spec will change too; as lampposts are increasingly packed with mobile-phone and Wi-Fi tech, future engineers will be communications experts.

While the future is sealed for LED streetlights and barely perceptible “hockey-stick” columns, surely it’s a civilised proposition to safeguard the past as well. What we need is a national repository for street furniture, a place to contemplate and revalue. Imagine strolling down vintage avenues, gazing at pre-Jock Kinnear/Margaret Calvert road signs, SGE two-colour traffic lights and elegant lampposts. It’s an idea shared by Andrew Staton, whose Quadhurst project aims to recreate a living Fifties village.

Down B Lane 1

“The idea for Quadhurst came from a life-long interest in how our streets looked,” explains Staton. “As a child, I perceived that things disappearing were replaced by equivalents that were aesthetically inferior. It was also clear that these elements, principally streetlighting, telegraph poles and road signs, were uniquely British and set us apart in the same way as pounds, shillings and pence did.”

If Staton can attract investment, his prime aim is to buy land and present us with a post-war idyll. The major problem for Quadhurst will be finding and purchasing artefacts. Few road signs, telegraph poles or lighting columns reached private collections but there is enough surviving documentation for skilled craftsmen to produce authentic copies.

“As a nation we’re rightly proud of our heritage and keen to preserve it,” Staton says. “We do Victoriana and Edwardian very well but what we’re bad at is recognising the prosaic and more recently departed heritage as meriting conservation. There has been an imperceptible disappearance; people simply aren’t aware. We’re in danger of losing a massive part of our industrial and technological past. This was the idea behind Quadhurst, to develop a setting where people can experience what our streetscape once looked like.”

There’s no backing yet but there’s little doubt that Quadhurst would prove a tourist sensation in much the same way as people flock to Portmeirion, the Italianate village made famous by Sixties spy show The Prisoner. Staton believes Longleat in Wiltshire might benefit from such a folly; his alternative plan is to build a coastal attraction that offers Fifties-style holidays, transporting guests back to a time of gentility, manners and grand sandcastles.

For now, lighting columns, even spectacular examples, are deemed too monotonous for our heritage collections but if the subject were presented in a suitable setting, along with a wider selection of street arcana, we might even grow to love our aged lampposts. If design students can see that streetlight style flourishes once had the power to propel civic pride, in years hence, our roads may become more attractive places once again. LG