Looking north from the top of Wightman Road, two gas holders still hulk over Hornsey Park, as distinctive as St Mary’s Tower in Hornsey or the shopping city in Wood Green. They are a landmark and a reminder of industrial innovation and change. Now they lie redundant and are rusting away, the many coats of yellowy paint peeling, giving way to the red-orange-brown decay.
Few may even remember a time when the cylindrical, telescopic inner hulls used to slowly, and in ever changing constellations, move up and down like huge mechanical urban lungs, supplying warmth and light to the area with each cycle of movement. The hulls now permanently rest flaccid on the ground, leaving a lattice of vertical guides and helical girders that reflect and frame the sky when you are near, but break up the monotony of the housing estates and playfully display their geometrical mesh when you look from places afar, such as Alexandra Palace.
Alas, now the end has come for the two giant remnants of ‘old’ technology; too young, to be regarded as treasures, but too old to stand in the way of desperately needed housing in Haringey.
So it was time to say ‘goodbye’.
Coleman, the award winning specialist contractor in charge of demolition, along with National Grid, the owner of the land and the facilities–including the gas holders–did invite us (after much polite pestering and insistence) to pay our last respects. What we got was a guided tour, an opportunity to get up close to the wrinkly and creaking industrial past, take some pictures and to see if any memorabilia was available for salvaging.
Our small group of visitors, strictly limited to ten members to make sure we could be safely herded about the potentially hazardous landscape, was assembled out of various members of the Parkside Malvern Residents Association, the Hornsey Historical Society, and the Alexandra Palace and Park Conservation Committee.
For some time we thought this outing might never come to happen at all, with the vague promises and the mentioning of safety concerns, but eventually it started to come together quite quickly. Here we were at last, entering the gates of the highly secured compound, past the shiny, spiky metal fences and up to the barracks of the contractors.
Behold the behemoth!
First stop was a roll call, historical briefing and safety induction. After signing off a list of outlawed activities (no climbing on the steel frames, unfortunately) and a disclaimer, we were ready to don the protective gear, hard hat, plastic glasses, hi-viz vest. Via a specially cordoned off route we walked towards the behemoth structures.
Each gas holder is built upon a round excavation in the ground which allows the metal hull (the ‘lift skins’) to retract. To keep gas from escaping, those tanks contain water. After the steel girders have been dismantled, huge, 11 meter deep, holes will be left, from which the water and sludge needs to be removed, and those holes will need to be filled and compacted. The danger of contamination of the environment, we are told, is minimal, the site is regarded as ‘relatively clean’. Under the tanks is clay, a natural protective barrier, and the sludge inside the basins doesn’t contain pollutants or dangerous materials such as asbestos.
Once you get close to the gas holders, the size really hits you. The larger gasholder stands 43 meters tall and is made of 797 tons of steel, wrapped around 9 million cubic feet of capacity.
Lift skin and metal lip
Looking at the smaller of the two, you can not help but admire its elegant, spiral metal work, reminiscent in structure of the ‘Gherkin’. Built in 1892, this gasholder design was hi-tech and cutting edge in its day. Now the metal under the many coats of paint is crumbling. Loose flakes of paint are spread on the ground, orange-red tracks of rust run down the metal girders. The ‘lift skins’ were designed to move up and down on huge metal rollers as the holder filled with gas. Each lift skin would have a metal lip at its bottom which was filled with water from the tank to seal in the gas. Simple but effective Victorian engineering.
Demolition is planned to commence in March to continue until November 2016, and will start with the tanks; the crown of the lift skins will be removed, the reservoirs drained, and all sludge cleared out. Later the metal frames will be dismantled. Considering the size of the structure and the weight of their components, you would expect this to be a noisy process, but we were assured that noise would not be a ‘big issue’, however, for a short period we may be treated to the noises of a ‘power chisel’, which doesn’t sound very comforting and makes me think of an oversized dentist’s drill. The work would be restricted to weekdays between 8am and 6pm, no work is planned on weekends.
The disposal would necessitate, at some periods, heavy use of roads with flatbed trucks, going up Clarendon Road to Turnpike Lane and turning left and right towards the Western and Eastern directions. According to this, most of Hornsey Park Road and Wightman Road would not be directly affected.
As we continue on our route around the site, we marvel at the huge pipes and levers that once produced gas from the coal that was brought in via the railways onto the site, and fed the lamps and ovens in the locality. Now it has all been replaced by underground tanks and pipes that reach across Europe and out to the North Sea. But despite most of the hardware now being obsolete, there will still be the need for a pressure reduction station (PRS) to serve the residential and industrial gas customers in the area. The building that houses the PRS will be re-located and placed on the Hornsey Park Road side of the plot. The lime trees on Hornsey Park Road will be kept and behind them will be a pocket park and recreational area.
A missed opportunity?
The whole process of demolition will be recorded and archived. We have fought long for a solution to keep at least some parts of this historic installation, but in the end the necessities of short term economics have won through. In twenty, or even ten years, people will shake their heads as to why it was not possible to include at least the older of the two structures in the development of the new housing estate to anchor it within the history of the area and provide future generations some link to the past. Examples of gas holders being successfully integrated in new developments are available, the nearest is just ‘round the corner in King’s Cross, where an old frame is used as a park and event location, adding value and connecting the new and the bygone to stunning effect.
While the situation may not be directly comparable, the complete demolition of the Hornsey gas holders, on the other hand, brings on the sad realisation that Haringey Council and our community may just lack a similar ambition, vision and creativity to take advantage of such an obvious and unique opportunity.