Friday, 27 March 2015

27/03/15 - Gas Holders

It took me quite a few years to work out what gas holders were. Or, more specifically, to work out that they actually were moving up and down, and I wasn’t just imagining it.
These gasometers are colossi of the industrial age – vast metal frames with a telescoping cylinder in the middle that rises and falls depending on how much town gas is being stored at ambient temperatures within. The way they work (on a very basic level) is that there’s a reservoir of water at the base, and a series of interlocking layers that form the collapsible cylinder; gas enters via pipes from the bottom and the cylinder rises as it fills, with the water acting to keep gas in and air out, thus ensuring that the whole thing doesn’t explode. Because igniting 50,000m² of gas would singe quite a few eyebrows. They fill up during quiet times of the day, then get lower at a noticeable rate when people start using loads of gas – e.g. when they come home from work, flick the heating on and start cooking dinner. So I wasn’t imagining it, they actually were moving up and down. It’s like they’re breathing – an integral part of the respiratory system of urban co-existence, pumping life into the hearts of our homes. When I first realised this at the age of eight or nine, it was quite a revelation, as you can imagine. What a day that was. I told everyone.

Now, you might think that gas holders are an eyesore; a tangle of metal that blights our otherwise brick-heavy townscapes. But I’d disagree with you there. I think they represent an ingenious solution to energy distribution that exponentially altered the landscape of modern life (both literally and culturally); an essential ingredient in the recipe for easy living. But whatever your view, now’s the time to start getting nostalgic, because they’re all coming down…

These days, all but a few of Britain’s gas holders are obsolete anyway. Natural gas from the North Sea usurped the town gas that lived in the holders (town gas being coal gas, i.e. produced from subjecting coal to chemical reactions to create a gas fuel, rather than using natural gas which just, er, exists anyway without us having to do much to it), as it could be piped directly from source without the need to store it in massive hoppers. The gas holders’ cards have been marked since the mid-1960s. By the ’90s, most local gas networks were able to function perfectly well without these mighty reservoirs, and in 1999 the decision was made to start dismantling them all. Given that a lot of them sit on prime urban land that can be sold for juicy premiums – check out the size of the gas holder site near Chelsea Harbour, for example, or the one by the Oval cricket ground – the National Grid is more than happy to cash in on the land sales. Selling off the frames for scrap probably pays for a few decent lunches too.

The dismantling process is taking quite a while, though – sites need to be secured and decontaminated, legal loopholes require closing, oodles of red tape needs to be hurdled. Gas holders across the land have been variously dismantled over the course of the last fifteen years, although it’ll take as long again before they’re all gone. And while this is going on, the National Grid has to keep paying out to ensure that the defunct structures are kept secure and solid, simply because people keep breaking in and climbing them. The last thing you want is for someone to be swallowed up by a vast, rusting cage that’s got your name on the title, trespass or no trespass. So the dismantling process is quite an expensive affair from a number of angles, and you’ve still got a little while to enjoy the angular majesty of your local gas holder (assuming that it’s still there).
Even when the guys with the cranes do arrive, it’ll take a long time – the methodical process of unbolting the frame can take a year, which is plenty of time to mourn the loss of these majestic edifices, so evocative of the cultural shift that saw Britain’s homes perennially flooded with warmth and light.


But don’t feel too sad. English Heritage have already green-lighted the protection of a dozen gas holders, with the potential for more to be added to the list. So when I say ‘they’re all coming down’ and ‘before they’re all gone’, that’s just hysterical hyperbole. There will be a few of them left, which we can treat as monuments to a simpler time when we used to, um, burn a slightly different type of gas. The sites will be few and far between, but we’ll still be able to take our grandchildren on a pilgrimage to see one of these mighty icons of the industrial age. And they’ll look at it with mild indifference, shrug, and say ‘Huh’.
Until it starts to mystically rise up, that is, like a mighty steel phoenix. If English Heritage have any sense, they’ll construct some kind of lightweight inflatable cylinder within the old gasometers so we can still see these glorious landmarks inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, exhaling, echoing the lifecycle of yesterday’s communities. So you can say ‘Look, kids – that’s what they used to do when we were little. See, it’s v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y going down, as if five thousand people have simultaneously switched on the hob. Ah, nostalgia…’
And they’ll say ‘Huh’ again.









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