Shropshire Star

The final countdown: Get set to say farewell to beloved Ironbridge towers

Today you see them, tomorrow you won't – the iconic Ironbridge cooling towers are finally set to be demolished after months of waiting.

This stunning photo of the Ironbridge cooling towers in the mist was taken this week by a pilot from the University of Birmingham Air Squadron

Crowds hoping to see the giant towers fall are expected to gather outside of the 350m exclusion zone before the explosion at 11am.

Residents have been advised to close their windows, avoid hanging washing out and to keep their children and pets indoors ahead of the explosion.

Tom Eley, of Eley's Pork Pies, said he was sad to see them go, but that there was no other choice.

Time to say ‘pie-pie’: Tom Eley and Mick Hill from Eley’s Pork Pies in Ironbridge, ready for the demolition which is scheduled to take place on Friday at 11am

"My dad has been been here for 50 years, he helped build the cooling towers," Tom said. "It's been here all his life, it's been here all my life. We get people coming into the shop after seeing them – it's a bit of an Ironbridge landmark.

"I think it's a shame they are going, but I understand why. You have to move on. It's going to change the landscape of Ironbridge."

The demolition will leave the area looking slightly greener for the time being, but over the next year, power station owners Harworth will be applying for planning permission for thousands of homes on the site.

The cooling towers in sihouette. Photo: Jae Veal.

"It will be good for the town," Tom said. "It will bring many more people to Ironbridge and better local trade. At the moment we just have tourists in Ironbridge. The more trade for Ironbridge the better."

Buildwas Road will also be closed to traffic from 7am on the day of demolition. A diversion will be in place until shortly after the blow-down.

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Homes within the exclusion zone will be evacuated shortly before 11am.

A live stream of the demolition has been organised by Telford & Wrekin Council.

'Those four magnificent blots on the landscape'

Well, they lasted. Sir Terry Wogan once said you should never mistake longevity for merit, but having stuck around for over 50 years those four magnificent blots on the Ironbridge Gorge landscape have become an accepted part of the scene.

Had you told somebody back in the 1960s that those pink monsters would grow to be held in affection among many locals – and for there even to be calls for them to be preserved – they would have raised both eyebrows.

The towers in their operational heyday, masked by cloud but spewing steam high into the sky. This stunning image was taken by Star reader Nick Ward from the Wrekin.

So it's not impossible that there might be a few tears when they meet their end tomorrow, including from pilots who have found them a helpful landmark for navigation over the years.

Somebody – a trained demolitions expert, we are told – will press a button, flick a switch, yank a handle, or whatever, and it will all be over.

Those cooling towers, together with the rest of Ironbridge Power Station, lived long past their sell-by date. The original design life of the power station was only 25 years. As it started generating in 1969, then by rights it should have shut down in 1994.

In the end thanks to investment and upgrading it lasted until November 20, 2015, when it closed forever.

November 2015 - Pushing the buttons to shut down the power station are engineer Dave Glover and Mike Smith, who was invited back to turn the plant off after it was discovered he was the worker who turned it on in 1969

Let's cover some facts. The cooling towers are much bigger than you think. Their heights are either 374ft, 375ft, or 381ft – somehow we don't think anybody will be doing a last minute check to verify which. Anyway, you could put in Nelson's Column (which is 170ft), stand another Nelson's Column on top of it, and you still wouldn't see his hat poking out of the top.

November 2015 - Staff gather for the closing down of the power station

While they were being built in the mid-1960s, there was alarm when three similar cooling towers simply blew down in a gale at Ferrybridge power station in Yorkshire. So they significantly increased the thickness of the two Ironbridge towers still under construction.

In 1990 a Middlesbrough company was called in to do work on the main chimney and do a survey of the cooling towers – which turned out to be seriously weak.

"How they stood up for 25 years in the Ironbridge valley was a minor miracle," said the company boss, 85-year-old Mr John F. Richardson, speaking a couple of years ago.

The cause, said Mr Richardson, was the special pink colouring in the concrete mix. This had been given in an attempt to help the cooling towers blend into the local scenery, the reddish tint reckoned to be evocative of newly ploughed fields in the area.

Core samples were taken from all the towers and tested for compressive strength, and the results showed that adding the pink colouring to the concrete had resulted in a very weak overall concrete strength in all the towers.

"As a result all the cooling towers were reclad externally with concrete to strengthen them – quite a costly mistake!"

Work had started on the Ironbridge site in August 1963, not far from the original 1930s Ironbridge "A" Power Station. The new power station became fully operational in 1970, although for some years the old station continued to generate.

In later life the power station came under attack from environmentalists and its operating hours were restricted in 2008 under a European Union-wide law that imposed a pollution threshold on power plants.

In 2012, it was given the permission to trial the use of biofuel, until EU emissions standards put the final nail in its coffin.

Gone - at a cost of £10 million

Work to demolish the wider power station began in May and is expected to take 27 months to complete.

But the most important part – and the loudest – will be the demolition of the cooling towers.

Waiting for their fate, the pink power station towers peak out from around the corner alongside the River Severn in an image taken during an early morning frost this week

The four 120 metre high cooling towers will cost more than £10 million to destroy. Layers of asbestos have already been removed, as well as hundreds of concrete posts.

Explosive charges will be planted on a black ring close to the bottom of each tower, each with sufficient power to blow away the metal-framed legs which hold the tower up.

Although there are no official viewing points, crowds are expected to gather as close as they can to see the spectacle.

A poster announcing the towers' demolition

Developer Harworth say it is important the integrity of the exclusion zone is maintained.

On a sunny day, people may be able to see the towers come down from the Iron Bridge itself, or from paths through the town. There will also be people gathering on the Wrekin and other higher areas of the borough.

Residents who live close to the cooling towers have been advised to close their windows, avoid hanging washing out and to keep their children and pets indoors ahead of the explosion. Some dust is expected to travel. People with respiratory conditions are advised to stay away from the blowdown and to stay indoors.

Despite more than 60 people putting their name down to press the button on the demolition, Harworth confirmed a qualified explosives engineer would need to do the job.

He helped build them – and now Vic prepares to see them blown up

He was instrumental in their construction, and now Vic Thompson has booked himself a ringside seat for the demolition of Ironbridge’s cooling towers.

Mr Thompson, now 86 and living in Ferndown, Dorset, was a key part of the project, initially working for Kier setting out the piling for the structures in 1964, then taking over as site manager until 1968.

He managed to document much of the work on the towers, taking his camera to the top when health and safety was more relaxed than today.

Vic Thompson with his trusty camera at the top of the towers

After hearing of the confirmed date for the demolition Mr Thompson booked a room at the Valley Hotel so he can get a last look at the landmark structures.

He said: “I had known for some time that it was in the offing but I was determined to come and see it.

“I got word on Sunday so got booked in to The Valley and will be there by hook or crook.”

One of Vic Thompson's iconic black and white images of workers at the power station

He said it would be an emotional experience seeing the towers come down, and that he has had a picture of them hanging on the wall of his house as a reminder of his link to the Ironbridge Gorge.

He said: “They were a big chunk of my life and I will be sorry to seem them go. It is a shame they can’t be kept but as they say, that’s progress.”

Report by Mat Growcott, Toby Neal and Dominic Robertson