Country diary: vanished giants of the age of coal

Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire: There was something monumental about these terracotta-coloured funnels, these magical vessels of rain-river-cloud

And there they were, gone. We stood on the boathouse steps in Dale End park below the Albert Edward bridge, staring over the river into trees above which the four cooling towers of the power station loomed. Except that, now, they didn’t. We had come to see their absence, to look into the space where they had been, as had others. A small group of folks gathered at the riverside; I’m not sure what we expected to see. There was nothing to witness; the crowds that assembled to watch what television news showed as synchronised explosions wobbling the great towers like sloppy clay on a potter’s wheel had long gone. Dust had settled; lumps of Buildwas power station concrete were already on eBay; rain fell into the void.

Perhaps we had seen them as landmarks, heard stories about construction workers falling to their deaths; stories about coal-fired pollution causing acid rain in faraway forests. Perhaps we had come to ponder dismantling symbols of an engineering genius that began here in Coalbrookdale in the 18th-century birthplace of the Industrial Revolution to become the leviathan of 21st-century climate chaos and ecological crisis. Buildwas power station was the last big working industrial structure in the Ironbridge Gorge, once fed by local coal and local people who spent their entire working lives here until it closed a few years ago.

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