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Pylons and Protest – invoking the Marmite metaphor of Britishness

by Kayt Button

Whatever the period of history, Pylons seem to provoke the marmite response – either love ‘em, like The Pylon Appreciation Society, or hate ‘em like The Friends of The Lake District who are currently protesting against pylons planned for Ravenglass in Cumbria. Curiously enough, Marmite was invented in the late nineteenth century, around the same time Electricity first became available to the public as a commodity.

The word pylon, originates from the Greek for “gateway” and was the term given to large Egyptian towers, and later was used as name for tall towers which helped guide aviators before it became the name for the tall steel towers carrying the high voltage cables round Britain.

Pylons were gateways offering people entry to a future where power in the form of electricity would be accessible and affordable to everyone. This interconnected web of towers and cables reduced the production costs of electricity and distributed it to all households. However, stepping into this future meant everyone would have to share the places they lived with the many pylons stretching across town and countryside alike. From 1927, Wayleave officers, many of whom were ex-servicemen, were recruited to go out to speak to land owners about having one or more pylons on their properties. Pylons were a brand new concept in Britain and, even if a landowner hosted the pylon, many rural households would still not access electricity for twenty years or more. Hundreds of agreements for wayleaves were entered into and where no agreement could be found the wayleave could ultimately become compulsory. The use of phrases such as “invasion”, or “march of the pylons” suggests that pylons were not welcome and were imposed on the population during the construction of the National Grid. However, there were only a few locations where such pylon routes were bitterly contested in the late 1920’s, including the Lake District between Penrith and Whitehaven, via Keswick, just an hour away from the current protests. According to G.E. Moore, writing about the completion of the Grid, in Saturday Review, in 1933, “It is noteworthy that in only 594 instances (out of 21,026) were compulsory wayleaves required for such erections as pylons.” This turned out to be just 2.8% over the whole grid system.

Statements from protestors, such as “Local authorities will be given opportunity to be heard and careful consideration will be given to any representations they may have to make”, and “Preservation of the character of the scenery” alongside, “The local committee of residents formed to resist the scheme, resolved last week that a deputation should be sent to the Minister” and “We do not want them to come in like a demolition fleet – every aspect of life in the village will be effected if this goes ahead” could originate from any time between the first pylons of the 20’s through to current protests. In fact, the first three are from newspapers in 1929, when the first pylons (or “small Eiffel Towers”) were installed, and the last is from a Guardian report of April 2016, nearly nine decades apart.

The latest battle over pylons, has brought up many of the same sorts of phrases relating to the “beauty of the scenery”, the “amenity afforded by the landscape”, and the “disruption” the pylons and cables would bring. Contemporary protestors have the advantage of ready access to large amounts of evidence, and are able to provide more robust opposition to such schemes using objections from amenity, the aesthetic, and the environmental and location specific information.

P.Redfern wrote a letter to the editor of The Manchester Guardian in 1932. In describing the result of placing pylons in a park, he stated the need to “be contending for a beauty which is the last natural heritage remaining to the millions in and around Manchester”. Reports in papers in 1929 drew attention to “the preservation of the natural beauties” or “Safeguarding the natural Beauty”. These phrases could be interpreted as being simply about the aesthetics, but the use of words like “preservation”, “safeguarding” and “natural” could easily suggest the writers were referring to looking after the natural, or nature rather than just preserving their view. The vocabulary of environment, pollution, and conservation were not used until after the Grid was well established, and can be seen on the NGram viewer:Untitled

While we need electricity, we need cables. Wires are necessary to transmit and distribute electricity from its point of generation to the end user so we either fight against the gateways or we accept the towering infrastructure needed to maintain and further develop the electricity supply system fit for purpose 135 years after the first public lighting was powered by electricity. The costs of placing cables underground is often debated and various reports suggest it is roughly five times more expensive than traditional overhead pylons. (Guardian article, FOE Breifing) It is very unlikely that the whole of the grid will ever be routed underground and cables have to go somewhere. Whether protesters are fighting for the greater good, or whether they are all NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) is a different debate. However, while over the lifetime of the grid, the debates have continued to rage, and the argument vocabulary has expanded, the marmite nature of the pylon remains – love ‘em or hate’em.

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