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0 "The wise man does not tilt at windmills - or pylons"

  • Thoughts
  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 27-05-2011
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I doubt if anyone in the 1930s who protested about the pylons going up across the countryside to form the first National Grid imagined that the same battles would be fought more than 80 years later. Opposition to the first pylons was, in fact, quite muted. Electricity was then still a novelty for a large part of the population and it was the grid which would make it both cheaper and more widely dispersed. If you wanted electricity in your neck of the woods than you had to put up with pylons. They were a novelty then, too, symbolising what the poet Stephen Spender called "the quick perspective of the future." Some saw in them a kind of grandeur.

When, in 1929, there was huge controversy about the prospect of electricity pylons scarring the Sussex landscape the artist Eric Gill sent a letter to the Times: "I write not only as an artist but as a Sussex man–born and bred­–to whom love of the South Downs is as natural as it is enthusiastic. Anyone who has see the aqueducts striding, almost galloping, across the Roman Campagna must have been struck by the inexorable majesty of them, and the need of Rome for water is analogous to the modern world's need for power. In France I have seen these great electric standards striding across the country–delayed by nothing. In England, in Buckinghamshire, on a small scale the same thing may be seen. Are we to suppose that beauty is only to be found in certain recognised 'styles' of architecture? Is the Forth Bridge ugly because it is not built of stone? Is the Tower Bridge beautiful because the citizens of London, remembering the proximity of the Tower, saw fit to clothe its iron work in machine-made Gothic? Such an attachment to 'Nature' which goes with a refusal to see beauty in engineering, while making use of engineering and making money by it, is fundamentally sentimental and romantic and hypocritical. Let the modern world abandon such attachment, or let it abandon its use of electric power."

The distinguished architect, Sir Reginald Blomfield, irritated by the constantly repeated view that he was the designer of the pylons that were causing so much controversy, also sent a letter to the Times in 1929: "The masts were not designed by any architect, 'eminent' or otherwise and the plain facts are these:–The masts were designed by the very competent engineers of the Central Electricity Board, and when the designs were completed the Board consulted me as to their general form and colour. For colour I advised green; in regard to form I suggested an alteration in outline which was impracticable on account of the costs, but another modification proposed by me was adopted by the Board..........

All who know Sussex and are interested in it, as I am myself, would sincerely regret any injury to the scenery of that beautiful country, unless there are compelling practical reasons, but I would suggest in the first place that such reasons may exist, and that this is a point which can only be decided by expert opinion and secondly that the overhead method of transmission has been generally adopted all over the Continent, and anyone who has seen these strange great masts and lines striding across the country, ignoring all obstacles in their strenuous march, can realise without a great effort of imagination that these masts have an element of romance of their own. The wise man does not tilt at windmills – one may not like it, but the world moves on."