I began writing this in the attic bedroom of a 300 year old farmhouse in the Forest of Dean.  After dark, I looked out from a dormer between the oak beams: clouds flitted across the moon and night birds called from the Severn mudflats.  It was an idyllic place, although its peace was bought with remoteness.

The farmhouse sits at the end of a long, bumpy track which begins with a BT payphone.  The phone box is filled with giant nettles, and the glass is opaque with mould, but at least the handset is still working.  The callbox is a reflection of what happens when nationalised industries reach the private sector: the unprofitable bits are pruned or left to wither. 

In the hazy distance are pairs of giant pylons which carry power lines in a graceful arc across the Severn – in this rural context, they’re a first hint of the industrialised countryside – and a few miles up the road lies the former Coal Research Establishment.  The CRE was the research & development arm of the mighty National Coal Board, which once employed 700,000 men and kept British industry alive.

Perhaps our minds are wired such that we recognise cognate facts and repeating themes, but every few months I come across the work of CRE’s unlikely leader, Jacob Bronowski, in unlikely places.  Bronowski came to public attention as one of the surly academics who Newman & Baddiel later satirised in their TV series.  “That’s your best idea, that is…” was loosely based on The Brains Trust – a series of televised debates during the 1970’s in which academics battled each others’ rhetoric. 

In fact, those debates epitomised the way in which some academics take facts and spin them into whatever argument they want to make.  They then spend their working lives arguing with fellow academics over who is right, and who is wrong.  Arguably, The Brains Trust did individual reputations a great deal of good, but confirmed that academics in general often pursue a personal rather than a socially useful agenda.

However, Bronowski came from a different tradition.  His influence grew from his work during World War Two, and its reinvention in the post-war Socialist world.  The wartime work was known as “Operational Research” – which I wrote about previously for Urban Realm in the context of the Glen Fruin Torpedo Tank.  His later career was with the Coal Research Establishment, where the National Coal Board developed things like “fluidised bed” combustion, which is now used in power stations across the world. 

Another project was a coal-powered motor car…  I know that I wasn’t the only one to pass through the village of Stoke Orchard in search of the mythical coal-burning Torano, and now that the CRE has been demolished, I can safely admit that someone within my circle took an adjustable wrench and unbolted several doors – but left no further forward in his search.  Presumably it was locked in a shed somewhere.

While the CRE experimented with coal liquefaction, its counterpart in Scotland known as the Westfield Development Centre, developed coal gasification.  Using a so-called Lurgi plant, low-grade coal was converted into gas and coke under steam pressure.  Like the CRE, Westfield now stands abandoned, a rotting hulk on the road to Cardenden which belies an investment of the hundreds of millions of pounds.

The Brains Trust had long since gone by the time I started architecture school.  Instead, we watched Bronowski’s later work, The Ascent of Man, a magisterial series of documentaries about mankind’s evolution.  I imagine it was screened in an attempt to make rational humanists of us; I fear that was only a partial success.  Our history lecturer – a wry bearded man who gently communicated his disappointment in how thick we were – left us to make our own connections between Bronowski’s broad canvas, and the task at hand.

Jacob Bronowski clearly understood the dilemma of the Two Cultures, how art and science often conflict, and occasionally come together, as in the case of architecture.  Bronowski also fought to escape from the long shadow of Arthur Koestler, whose “The Ghost in the Machine” was one of the post-War world’s most influential books and the bane of other émigré thinkers.  He succeeded: Bronowski became a coal-powered philosopher who showed us the limits of history.

History does sometimes change things.  Stuff is dug up, secrets are revealed - but the careless reinvention of history is dangerous, because all too often it uses modern thinking and applies it to the same facts in an age when people did not think in a modern way.  Some today, for example, argue that the huge post-War expansion of coal mining was mistaken.  No-one thought that at the time.  That’s the power of post-rationalisation.

In defence of history, we can use it to explain why previous generations pursued aims that we now deem to be wrong … and perhaps it would be wise for us to think more about what we are doing now, and how history might judge that.  The past does have lessons for the future.  In the case of Bronowski, he applied the wartime methods of Operational Research to the peacetime extraction of coal.

O.R. studied the scientific and economic context of coal production and combustion, but largely ignored the surface traces of coal-getting.  As an example, look at what happened to Selby: the largest deep coal mining complex in the world.  A vast seam of coal sat under the Vale of York, but locals cried out that the countryside would be “industrialised” if collieries were constructed in it.  So the NCB built collieries which were disguised so that they didn’t look like collieries at all.

By the 1950’s, the skeletal frames of colliery headgear which we associate with Victorian collieries had been supplanted by giant concrete shafts.  As elements in the landscape, they echo church bell towers and the keeps of medieval castles.  The arrangement at Selby was the next step in the winding tower’s evolution, and each steel-framed winder was clad in mellow-coloured brick, in order to sit harmoniously within the rolling farmland of the Vale of York.  I suspect the winding towers were designed by the PSA (Property Services Agency).

Mining was controlled by a system called “MINOS”, running on Ferranti computers – its designers pursued the Coal Board’s dream of automated coal mining, which was first tried out in the late 1950’s remotely-operated loading face (ROLF) projects in Nottinghamshire.  ROLF was a good example of Operational Research being applied to technical problems; perhaps it should have considered architecture and landscape, too. 

The miners of Fife, the Welsh Valleys or South Yorkshire may have scoffed – but fitting a new deep mining complex into a rural setting was a constraint, much the same as geologists struggled with cyclic deformation of the rock strata at Selby, and British Coal’s sales teams fought to win markets for the coal won underground.  The visual impact of the Selby Complex, as the cluster of deep coal mines was known, consisted of a number of satellite pit heads which were used to take men, materials and machinery down to the working faces.  However, there was only one spoil heap and one coal washery, sited next to the main drifts at Gascoigne Wood.  Haulage by rail lessened the destructive impact of heavy lorries on rural roads, and all the sites were screened by berms and planting.

Sylvia Crowe was perhaps the first designer to look critically at how industrial developments could sit happily beyond the urban edge.  Crowe looked at building in the context of wilderness, such as Basil Spence’s nuclear power station at Trawsfynnyd in Wales, as well as cultivated landscapes similar to the Vale of York.  Half a century later, we recognise that extractive and generating industries must have their place, but a combination of pollution laws, pressure from environmental groups, low prices for coal and a lack of subsidy, plus the politics of the 1980’s mean that deep-mined coal has shrunk to a rump of half a dozen collieries.

Selby was the last great gasp of King Coal: when it closed a decade ago, a couple of billion tons of high grade coal were abandoned underground.  Perhaps we’ll go back one day to recover it.  A few years later, after a series of visits to coal mines throughout Britain, I had a better appreciation for British Coal’s architecture.  I wrote about Longannet, Harworth, Clipstone and Tower on scottisharchitecture.com – although like the miners’ jobs, those pieces have long since disappeared.

Just like the overgrown phonebox at the end of the bumpy track, the coal industry suffered once it left the public sector, after which a promising line of inquiry into how to integrate industrial buildings in the countryside stopped dead.  Meantime shale gas comes from a similar geology to Selby’s coal, and its extraction inevitably means building industrial plant in rural areas.  The new coal mines of the 1980’s, like the windfarms of the 2000’s and the shale gas operations being planned today for the 2020’s, all have that in common.

Perhaps we need to apply Operational Research to the “problem” of extractive design in the landscape?  That we don’t have a solution to the industrialised countryside is Thatcher’s legacy to the formerly Great Britain.  But, thanks to Jacob Bronowski, we do have the tools we need, should coal enjoy a renaissance at some point in future…

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