Pylon of the Month - July 2021

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June was busy, so busy that it was a pylonless month, but on a walk in the Chilterns at the start of July this pylon caught my eye and it now has the privilege of being July's Pylon of the Month. It's just outside Great Missenden, a lovely town with many literary links. Roald Dahl lived here from 1954 until his death in 1990 and if I'd had more time, I would have visited the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre because I have so many happy memories of his wonderful stories, both as a child myself and also as books I read aloud to my own children. My favourite? A toss up between Danny Champion of the World and James and the Giant Peach. Anyway, David Cornwell (John Le Carré) lived there when his first book, Call for the Dead, was published and Robert Louis Stephenson spent a night at the Red Lion pub in 1874. Sadly the pub is now closed (it's now an estate agent) but you can see a few images of it courtesy of the Lost Pubs Project.

Enough local interest and back to the pylon. It caught my eye for two reasons. One was the mobile phone antennae attached to it, the other (as pointed out to me by the friend with whom I was walking) was the different insulator discs on the left and right of the pylon. For more about how mobile phone coverage works you Wikipedia is a treasure trove of information. I was intrigued by the different insulators on each side of the pylon so asked for information on Twitter as @pylonofthemonth.

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A quick check on the Open Infrastructure map confirmed that it is the 400 kV line mentioned by @IanBottomer and as a result of asking the question on Twitter I know more about reconductoring transmission lines. As do you, if you've made it this far. If that's left you hungry for more, here's a video showing live line reconductoring. That's all for now - see you in August!


Pylon of the Month - May 2021

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Over the last year, travel has been severely restricted for pretty much everyone so it seems fitting that May's Pylon of the Month comes from within walking distance of my house. The picture was taken by a colleague in West Oxford close to Binsey lane, a road that leads from Port Meadow to the Botley Road. Fans of His Dark Materials might be interested to know that Binsey lane features in chapter 11 of The Secret Commonwealth, the second novel in the Book of Dust trilogy. This part of Oxford is ideal for walking, with the added advantage of an excellent pub, The Perch, quite close to the pylon. Next time the weather is set fair on a Sunday, what better way to spend a few hours than a walk around Port Meadow followed by a pint and a pylon.

I like a lot of things about this picture, but even I've got to admit that it clashes somewhat with the idyllic water meadows and dreaming spires that might be conjured up when thinking of Oxford. It's that contrast, however that draws me in and this zone where city and countryside fray into one another is explored in an excellent book, Edgelands, by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts.

The wilderness is much closer than you think. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, unacknowledged: the edgelands - those familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside - have become the great wild places on our doorsteps. In the same way the Romantic writers taught us to look at hills, lakes and rivers, poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts write about mobile masts and gravel pits, business parks and landfill sites, taking the reader on a journey to marvel at these richly mysterious, forgotten regions in our midst.

According this review of the book in the Guardian, the zone goes

"....by different names, few of them complimentary. Victor Hugo called it "bastard countryside". The landscape theorist Alan Berger called it "drosscape". The artist Philip Guston called it "crapola".

Given how close this pylon is to genuinely lovely countryside that's perhaps a bit harsh, but enough of the peripheral, let's discuss the pylon itself.  Long time readers and pylonophiles will have already spotted that it's a terminator pylon and in this case its at the end of the 132 kV line which starts further West in Witney and makes its way to Oxford via Farmoor reservoir. At this point, the voltage will be stepped down to a lower voltage to run either underground or on lower voltage overhead lines to a further network of substations. I'll go and investigate the next time I'm in the vicinity and I'll be sure to have a copy of Edgelands with me to read in the pub afterwards.


Pylon of the Month - April 2021

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April's pylon marks a new departure for the blog - it's an Italian true crime pylon with a grisly but fascinating story attached. From the London Review of Books article which inspired the post: 

A bearded man lies flat on his back, arms wide apart, in a field. He has one leg. Nearby, some wires hang from the base of an electricity pylon, to which a box seems to be attached. The man is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, 46 years old, a political militant, publisher and millionaire. The photo was taken on 15 March 1972

Let's deal with the more usual pylon facts first before we dive into the rest of the story. The pylon is located in Segrate, a town in the Milan metropolitan area of northern Italy. According to Trip Advisor, the number one thing to do in Segrate is to visit the Palazzo Mondadori, the headquarters of the Mondadori group, one of Europe's leading media companies.

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The palazzo was designed by the legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, a revolutionary of modernism who amongst many other great buildings, in 2003 at the age of 96, designed the Serpentine Gallery in London's Hyde Park.  I probably don't need to remind readers of this website that Italy played a big part in the very early days of electricity with Alessandro Volta inventing the battery (or voltaic pile as it was known at the time) as a result of his interest in the work on animal electricity of fellow Italian Luigi Galvani.

Back to the true crime story and the body of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli which was found at the foot of the pylon. Feltrinelli is most famous for translating and publishing the novel Dr Zhivago in the west after the manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union. It led to Boris Pasternak being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Feltrinelli's death was apparently as a result of trying to blow up the electricity pylon as part of his involvement with ultra-left politics. You get a feel for how complicated a man he was from this review of a book, Senior Service, by his son Carlo.

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli's life reads like an intellectual thriller in which books and bombings collide, a life fuelled by money, passion and politics, where mansions and libraries are ransacked for clues. Feltrinelli was, according to his son, "a difficult man devoted to a certain type of risk, together with a surprising form of irreverence that speakers of Yiddish [know] as "chutzpah". This was what made his every gesture inexplicably charismatic, even when it wasn't". He wore "stupendous ties", smoked cigarettes that give this book its title, and, even in the words of a conservative American enemy, "conditioned the history of a decade".

That's quite enough action for one month. For readers with a more delicate disposition, I can assure you that May's pylon will almost certainly not involve dead bodies and hard left politics.


Pylon of the Month - February 2021

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February's pylon comes all the way from Melbourne, Australia and was taken during August last year in the suburb of Park Orchards, some 17 km from the city centre. It really is a stunning photograph that captures the night sky beautifully in a 5-second exposure shot at ISO 2000 with a 14mm f2.8 prime lens and Canon full frame camera. Details like that in the email to which the photograph was attached tell me that this was taken by an accomplished photographer and you can verify that for yourself by going to Instagram @pk____photography. The email continued:

"Since we are presently in Covid lockdown here in Melbourne and can't go more than 5km from home, my photographic opportunities are limited. We did have a fairly clear night recently with a new moon, so I thought I would try this shot to contrast human vs cosmic power"

Increase in astronomy has increased significantly during lockdown and for any UK pylon fans looking to learn more, I would highly recommend the Society for Popular Astronomy.

One of the great things about writing this blog is that the pylons I post lead me down interesting internet highways and byways and I always learn something new. In this case, a quick look at the fascinating 'Guide to Australia’s Energy Networks', led me to the discovery that Australia has some 500 kV overhead lines as part of the transmission network (compared to the UK where we only go up to 400 kV). A bit more digging led me to Moorabool Shire Council's September 2020 'Comparison of 500 kV Overhead Lines with 500 kV Underground Cables' which is part of the Western Victoria Renewable Integration Project whose aim is:

to address transmission network limitations.....the driver and benefits of this Project are to unlock up to 6GW of renewable energy sources, predominantly wind and solar generation, in North West of Victoria.

Reading on (it really is quite a fascinating report.....) led me to the discovery that Ultra High Voltage (UHV) AC power transmission is defined as 500 kV or over. The UK's 400 kV lines are merely EHV (Extra High Voltage) and I assumed this was because the distances over which we have to transmit electricity in the UK are considerably shorter than in larger countries.  The countries that are currently operating transmission network at UHV levels are Ukraine and Poland at 750 kV, South Korea at 765 kV, Brazil at 800 kV, China, Japan and Russia at 1,000 kV, with India is currently conducting experiments and planning for a transmission network at 1,200 kV. That theory about UHV corresponding to longer transmission distances holds up in some cases, but a quick Google tells me that that the UK is 144% larger than South Korea. More work is required here at some point because when I Googled "UHV South Korea" I was met by a wall of information and if I'd dived down that internet rabbit hole I might not have emerged for some time.

The Moorabool Sire Council report also includes this moving picture ( amongst others) of a fallen 500 kV pylon, felled in its prime by a storm in January 2020.

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The conclusion of the report includes this assessment:

A feasible alternative to the proposed 500 kV double circuit overhead line would be 500 kV double circuit underground cable. Whilst this would be approximately ten times more expensive than an overhead line, the overall cost impact could be reduced by placing only the most sensitive sections underground. Although using underground cable for a portion of the route is not a simple solution it appears to be technically feasible.

Plenty to chew on there for the next few weeks so that's all for this month. See you in March!

 


Pylon of the Month - January 2021

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The first pylon of 2021 comes from Boars Hill just outside Oxford and was sent to me by a friend after a walk with his wife during the recent cold snap.  The hoar frost on the hedge and the fog1 made for a wonderfully atmospheric scene that can surely only have been enhanced by the pylon's presence. Boars Hill is a beautiful area for a walk if you are in the Oxford area and was where Matthew Arnold was inspired to write Thyrsis, the poem in which the famous lines that have come to define one misty-eyed2 perspective of Oxford.

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires

She needs not June for beauty's heightening

It is clear from the pylon design (PL16?) that this is a 132 kV line and a quick check of the Open Infrastructure Map confirmed this and also showed the lower voltage lines that you can see in the foreground of the picture. In the UK, three phase supply on wooden poles is usually either 11 kV or 33 kV but sadly, the map doesn't specify the voltage on such lowly lines. Interestingly, the 132 kV tower only seems to have a single circuit (3 lines - one for each phase) with two lines on one side of the tower and the third on the opposite side. I'm not sure why so I'll seek out the answer when I tweet this out as @pylonofthemonth

For more about Boars Hill, the Oxford Preservation Trust website is wonderfully informative.  The literary links to the area are legion, with four Poets Laureate having lived there; Robert Bridges, John Masefield, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden. Elizabeth Daryush, the daughter of Robert Bridges, was also a noted poet and the garden of her house on Boars Hill is managed by the Oxford Preservation Trust. A visit there would be just the ticket for any pylon fans with a literary bent.

 

  1. I was going to call it mist until I looked up the difference and according to The Met Office, it turns out to be fog because you can see less than 1,000 metres.
  2. Foggy-eyed just doesn't work here.

 

 


Pylon of the Month - December 2020

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December's pylon is from Scotland, but this month marks a first for the blog because the article below is written by the first ever guest editor. If it's good enough for BBC Radio and Vogue then Pylon of the Month is going to jump on the bandwagon and hand over the reins to India and her Dad for the final post of 2020.

 

Dad’s and my Scottish Highland Roadtrip was the highlight of 2020, which doesn’t quite put it into perspective, considering the year we’ve had. The Highlands are littered with pylons, a monstrosity to some but a magnificence to others. Dad and I fell into the former category until we found Pylon of the Month, which allowed us to see pylons through the eyes of the fanatics – we are now pylonophiles.

As we drove away from the ferry port and onto the main stretches of the Isle of Skye we were met with a dramatic landscape. Undulating lowlands, fertile straths and broad estuaries – the perfect backdrop for a pylon picture. We rounded a bend and there it stood, unwavering in the gust. I was reminded of the infallible lyrics from ‘The Monster by Welsh Rock band, The Automatic:

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster?

This hit single from their album, Not Accepted Anywhere made me think that The Automatic might also be pylonophiles. As you can see at change.org, pylons are all too often Not Accepted Anywhere – perhaps someone should ask Robin Hawkins?

The next morning, we woke to find the true meaning of the word, ‘rain’. We had been informed that rain isn’t rain unless the droplets were smacking you in the face horizontally, not falling vertically.  Nevertheless, ever the optimists we jumped into the car to take in the scenery. As we turned out of Broadford, through the frantic windscreen wipers we saw, in all its black skeletal glory, a pylon. We stopped in a Passing Place, and Dad, throwing caution to the wind, leaving the waterproof trousers behind, launched himself out of the car, grabbing his camera in one fluid movement. Not all heroes wear capes. In a few swift clicks, we had, as many millennial YouTubers say, ‘GTS’ (translation for anyone born before 2000: ‘Got The Shot’) and were safely back in the car, off to find our next niche-blog obsession.


Thumbnail_P1440367 A forest of pylons on the approach to Minster

October's Pylon of the Month is a readers' choice. Look at the amazing image and the "three parallel parades of pylons" as the fan who sent the picture in called them in a pleasingly alliterative phrase. Once you've looked for long enough to appreciate the beauty of the image, choose the one you want to be your own personal pylon of the month - I'm avoiding the obvious 132 kV choices in the foreground and going for the 400 kV wide boy on the far right of the picture with two lines on one cross arm.  Why it's constructed like that is something that I'd like to find out more about.

The pylons can be found in the fields between the villages of Plucks Gutter and Minster.  The hamlet of Plucks Gutter is, according to Wikipedia:

..named after a Dutch Drainage Engineer called Ploeg, whose grave is in All Saints Church, West Stourmouth. Ploeg, being the Dutch for a plough, the hamlet takes its origins from the Dutch Protestant tradition of draining marshland by creating a ploughed ditch

In this era of fake news, I'll mention that the Wikipedia page notes that a citation is needed to substantiate this story and as this note was made in September 2016 and no verification has been added, caution is needed if you are ever tempted to hold forth at a party about the origin of place names in Kent.

The fan who sent the picture spotted them whilst walking the Augustine Camino, a new pilgrimage route in Kent from Rochester to Ramsgate.  A quick look at the open infrastructure map for the area shows the parallel lines very clearly with the 400 kV Richborough connection in purple and two 132 kV lines (Canterbury North - Richborough and Richborough - Monkton). 

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It also shows Richborough power station which closed in 1996, although the national grid interconnector from the original power station is still in place, and is now the grid link for the offshore Thanet wind farm. The 1000 MW HVDC from Belgium also makes landfall on the site and is known as the Nemo link.  As a Physics teacher, High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) is pretty high up the list of things that I want to understand better and this article from the Powermag website looks like a good starting point.  The icing on the electrical cake is a couple of nearby solar farms - plenty to see if you fancy a pylon field trip to the area.  I certainly do - Kent is one of the areas of the UK that I know least about so I'll add it to my growing list of things to do once normality returns.

 


Pylon of the Month - September 2020

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September's Pylon of the Month is a bit of a retro photograph that I took myself on a Holga camera which is a "true cult classic of analogue photography" according to this Lomography website. I'm still experimenting with it as you can see from the fact that the image above includes part of the preceding and following frames and I decided to keep that in the (probably vain) hope that it would look a bit more arty and experimental.

Anyway, the picture is of the Cowley substation near Oxford (and Didcot power station) where the 400 kV lines from Didcot get stepped down to 132 kV.  The marvellous 'High Voltage Substations in the United Kingdom' is your go to source for information if you are looking for something similar in your part of the UK.  The Electrical Engineering Portal tells us that High voltage substations

are points in the power system where power can be pooled from generating sources, distributed and transformed, and delivered to the load points. Substations are interconnected with each other so that the power system becomes a meshed network. This increases the reliability of the power supply system by providing alternate paths for flow of power to take care of any contingency so that power delivery to the loads is maintained and the generators do not face any outage.

I particularly like the busbars that can be seen in the background and they give the picture a futuristic vibe. As you approach the site, the contrast to the green fields sloping down to the nearby River Thames is particularly striking.  The Cowley substation has also been in the news recently because it the site for the largest hybrid battery ever deployed. The 50 MW battery will power a 10 km network of electric vehicle charge points. This energy superhub is needed to support the more widespread use of electric vehicles and the charging points they will need in Oxford. It should be completed by 2022.

 


Pylon of the Month - July 2020

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July's pylon of the month is a splendid model made by a pylon fan who had this to say:

The structure of the pylons is a very interesting design to me and I have recently made an “organic pylon” out of twigs and branches which were gathered whilst out walking my dogs......I am not sure if there will be a demand for this as an artistic statement, but it is something I enjoyed building even though it took longer than I initially thought!

The shadow cast by this month's pylon is also a thing of beauty and the level of attention to detail is quite something.

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The vast majority of pylons that feature on the blog are real life pylons that can be visited, but over the years there have been a few models or other artistic offerings. There was a pylon tattoo back in October 2012, followed in December 2013 by a Meccano pylon as well as others that have the 'Art' tag attached to the post.  

Now for a bit more technical detail about the use of wood in real life rather than in model pylons. Wooden poles in the UK are used for lower voltage lines (33 kV and 11 kV) and you see them alongside paths and near residential areas where the voltage has been stepped down from the main transmission network.  For pictures and details of the different types of power lines, this website is a good and fairly straightforward guide.

That's all for this month. More pylon action here next month or if you need more frequent pylon action in your life then go to Twitter and Instagram @pylonofthemonth.


Pylon of the Month - May 2020

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After a pylonless April, I decided that May should be a pylon picture that I had taken myself rather than one of the many sent in regularly by fans of the website.  Near where I live a few miles south of Oxford is part of the National Cycle Route 5.  A mile or so north along the (newly improved) route from Sandford Lock you pass within a few metres of the beauty in the foreground of the photograph acting as a frame for the next two pylons in the line.  You can pause and admire the size and scale of it from up close (and underneath for that matter) before you continue alongside the River Thames to Oxford.  Look more carefully at the picture however and you will see that there are four pylons and this whole area is a pylon rich environment because of the proximity of Didcot Power Station.  If it's a hot day and you decide to cool off in the river as part of your day out, be careful about taking a dip without being aware of a nearby hazard.

Sandford Lasher, or weir, is on the left bank well upstream of Sandford Lock. The pool below the weir has been notorious since the 19th century because of the number of individuals who have drowned there.

Despite having lived there for 16 years, I'd never heard of it before but it's famous enough for the J. Paul Getty Museum to have a photograph from 1872 in their collection.

I'm not as good at identifying the different pylon designs as I should be, but I think these are L6 pylons but I would be delighted to be corrected if I'm wrong.  This page from Flash Bristow's website is a good place to start if you want to know more about the different kinds of pylons. A quick check confirms that it is on a 400 kV line as shown on the open infrastructure map, another excellent source of information about the electricity transmission network in the UK.  At the nearby Cowley sub-station, the 400 kV line gets stepped down to a number of 132 kV lines and another rich source of information about sub-stations in the UK is the Wikipedia page on High Voltage substations in the United Kingdom.  So there you have it for another month; local history, a dash of culture courtesy of a Los Angeles museum and arcane technical information about pylons and electricity transmission networks.  Come back for more next month!