IT has dominated the local skyline for over 50 years. But now, bit by bit, Fawley power station is being taken apart.
The giant grey industrial buildings are set to give way to a proposed £800m development that its creators hope will bring “beauty and life” back to the 300-acre site beside Southampton Water.
Fawley Waterside Ltd, which is backed by a consortium of investors, purchased the site in 2015. It is headed by Aldred Drummond whose family’s historical home Cadland House was destroyed in 1953 after the land was compulsorily purchased by the government to build the huge oil refinery.
More land was subsequently taken for the power station and he more than anyone would like to see “something very beautiful in its place”, says Tamsin Pearce, communications manager for Fawley Waterside, during a tour of the site.
Just weeks before a detailed plan of exactly what the company wants to build is submitted to planners, the A&T was given an exclusive look at how these historic buildings are being demolished to make way for the new.
Described as a “totally unique project in the UK”, it is a complicated, painstaking task.
Demolition project supervisor James Farr said: “It really is a one-off. It is quite difficult in many ways, a real challenge but very exciting to work on.”
Undertaken by demolition experts Brown and Mason (B&M) it has already been going on for two years and is scheduled to end in 2021 when construction is expected to begin.
One of the biggest tasks for the army of B&M workers has been the clearing of the gigantic turbine hall which used to house four Parsons 500Mw turbines.
Four times the size of Battersea power station which now houses the Tate Modern gallery, it was once the power house of the plant. Its cooling pumps were, at the time of construction, the largest in the world pushing out 17.5 tons of water per second.
A blue plaque on a wall near the turbine hall pays testament to the station’s efficiency stating that Fawley had achieved the remarkable feat of supplying 100-billion kWh units of electricity to the national grid.
In use, the hall was a noisy, busy place where dozens of men patrolled the walkways and climbed above the humming machinery that reached halfway up the walls of the building.
Now that machinery has all gone. In its place are just mounds of twisted metal, shattered glass and debris. Light pours through the glass roof of the turbine hall highlighting a scene that looks like something from a disaster movie.
Fawley, which was oil-fired, was the fifth of 13 huge power stations commissioned by the Central Electricity Generating Board in the late 1960s.
A few hundred yards away from the turbine hall is the legendary control room. A circular building sitting on concrete pillars it was dubbed “the Flying Saucer”.
It still houses the once state-of-the-art computers and control boards full of screens, dials and switches. For years they were a flashing, flickering kaleidoscope of colour – now they lie silent.
A movie location scout’s dream, the site was where Tom Cruise filmed Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, marching around the control room before abseiling down the turbine hall.
The control room has also featured in Star Wars movie Solo and TV series Red Dwarf and Green Wing. Standing in the eerie, empty room it seems a tragedy that it has to be demolished but at least the control boards will be preserved.
Removed painstakingly piece by piece, they will be stored for a museum which is planned to be part of the Fawley Waterside development to showcase the glory of the former power station.
Tamsin said: “We are very keen to retain as much as we can of things like the former controls. They are just so iconic. The museum will feature some of the boards along with other equipment, plans, that kind of thing.”
Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman spoke out against the station before it was built claiming that it would be a “brooding presence” that would dominate the landscape.
He may have been right in some ways but in others the power station become very much part of the community’s lifeblood. Generations of families came to rely on it for employment and over 700 people worked at it every day.
It went online in 1972 and a year later was listed as the UK’s most efficient power station. But by 1992 that title had changed to the country’s dirtiest. It closed in 2013 after failing to meet modern environmental standards.
Completed in 1971, the power station took six years to build. To avoid pylons, a two-mile tunnel took high-voltage electric cables across Southampton Water.
The tunnels were laid by an army of workmen who had to sit in decompression chambers to adjust to the high pressures of working so far beneath the water. It was completed in October 1965 when men from both sides met in the middle and politely shook hands.
It will take almost as long to demolish Fawley as it took to build. The first explosive demolition will take place in August when the roof of one of the industrial buildings will be blown off.
Next year three more detonations are scheduled including that of the iconic 650ft high tower which will be razed to the ground in September 2020.
There were attempts by Fawley Waterside to keep the tower, with plans to create a glass-sided restaurant and viewing terrace at the top.
But the New Forest National Park Authority pressed for it to be removed, even though in a consultation 72% of respondents said they would like to see it retained.
Now a new, smaller tower will form the centrepiece of the development which will rise over the next 20 years to totally obliterate any trace of the power station. A canal will flow where the huge turbine hall once stood.
Planned to be built in phases, the development’s future will be dictated by two bodies – the New Forest District Council and the NPA. As the site straddles both jurisdictions, planning applications have to be made to the two organisations.
On the NFDC side there is expected to be 25-30% affordable housing while in the NPA it is 50-50.
Tamsin said: “This is not going to be a giant West Quay. We want local shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Not lots of chains. That is very much what this development is about. Giving people somewhere they can live and work – we hope to create around 2,000 jobs here.
“There will be 1,500 homes of which 1,380 are on the district council side. At the heart of the town will be one-bedroom apartments and three to four-bedroom homes. There will no high rise buildings.
“On the NPA side it will be very much a village feel, houses that look like they could be in Buckler’s Hard with ponies grazing outside them, something we are hoping to encourage in the future.
“At the moment there are horses and other animals that graze near the beach and we are investigating ways of allowing them access to the village – one way is with the use of tunnels.”
In the southern quarter area there will be homes similar to those you find in Captains Row at Lymington. Nearer the centre of the development they will be more modern.
Tamsin said: “The key to the success of the development is a really good mix of people – old, young, singles and families.
“This is not aimed at second home ownership, that isn’t what the investors want. They don’t want it to be like Cornwall where you get villages that are virtual ghost towns in the winter.
“They want this to be for everyone. The existing footpaths around the plant will be improved and cycle paths will be a big part of our infrastructure.”
Apart from the retail units and homes there will also be industrial areas, work stations for start-ups and small businesses – high-speed broadband is considered a vital part of the development – a hotel and luxury marina.
At the moment only one main road services the site – the busy A326 which locals fear will become even more congested once the development starts.
Tamsin said the company is working with Hampshire County Council on ways to improve traffic flow.
“A worst-case scenario shows that in 20 years’ time there will be 5% more traffic on the road. Junction improvements is one solution being discussed. We are also looking at improving public transport links,” she explained.
Leaving the site it seems sad that the tower and the circular control room will soon be no longer – English heritage decided they did not warrant being listed.
They may have started out as ugly but in a way they have a beauty all of their own.