As any interior design magazine will tell you, a mix of vintage and modern pieces can be a tricky look to pull together. It will be more harmonious, advise some experts, if all the furniture is on roughly the same sort of scale and if construction materials complement one another. So it might be hard to marry, say, a very, very tall spiky metal product of the machine age with a much lower, sleeker, white-painted piece from the era of Philippe Starck, given the competing sizes, shapes, colours and originating aesthetic.
In defiance of this timid, matchy-matchy approach, the National Grid has just erected the first of many instructive installations and on a massive scale. The grey electricity pylons designed in the 1920s now dwarf examples of its new generation, white “T-pylons” which in 2011 won a distinctly low-key competition – given the potential of the winner irretrievably to change the face of this country – to design a replacement. And the outcome might have been worse: to judge by the shortlist, some contenders took this responsibility at least as seriously as the chance to create a new kettle [see footnote1 ].
In the case of the T-pylon, says one of its originators, Brian Endahl, at the Danish firm, Bystrup, it is intended, being shorter, to “minimise visual impact”. And also, for reasons we must take on trust, to “adapt well to the English landscape”. Whether or not you agree with Mr Endahl on the affinity of places that inspired Turner and Constable with zillions of his cut-price, cable-trailing, ski-lift supports, many more of these objects are on the way, maybe to ornament a landscape near you. “We have built similar pylons in Denmark,” Mr Endahl reassures anyone who inclines, like Wordsworth, to the sublime, “and found that the monopole structure works well in hilly areas as it requires less space and can follow the contours of the land.” A lot like a wooden telegraph pole then, only harder to miss.
Inevitably, there has been nothing like the arrival of Bystrup’s short white prongs to kindle, at least in some of us, instant nostalgia for the old, four-footed pylons, which, for all their indifference to contour, do not resemble, like the Danish upstarts, the issue of a pair of wind turbines. Even outside the Pylon Appreciation Society, that Stephen Spender poem, likening old-school pylons to a terrifying army of “nude giant girls”, has long looked a bit over the top. Ditto Betjeman’s rhyming of pylons with nylons (fellow signifier, to his way of thinking, of an “age without a soul”). And of course pillars of the design community have done their bit in spelling out, to unhappy hedgerow botherers, something that both they and developers consider hugely significant: that treasured fields and moorland and church towers are quite as unnatural as the pylons – and wind-farms and solar panels and retail parks – we affect to hate.
But if overt animosity to pylons has waned, it is surely as much because of hope as habituation. In a country so dependent on its landscapes, financially as well as emotionally, it seemed inevitable that this form of industrial pollution must ultimately go the way of pea soupers and the cesspits that were our estuaries and rivers.
One day, surely, if conservationists – well, the great countryside campaigner Bill Bryson – made enough noise, all new cables, or at least those in scenery they would devastate, would be interred. After all, an independent report, in 2012, indicated that the cost of “undergrounding” had been consistently overstated. In response, having pulled off some tremendous PR with promises to bury cables in a handful of iconic sites, the National Grid, whose chairman, Sir Peter Gershon, also advises the Tory party, is pressing ahead with above-ground cables and, of course, depicting the cheaper T versions as, for some lucky protesters, a sensitive advance on nude giant girls [see footnote2 ].
Local campaigns reflect the disbelief that this monopoly can still present, as if it were a compelling argument, their preference for their shareholders’ profits over protection of an irreplaceable public asset and the happiness it provides. “We as a society must determine what any given landscape area can best deliver for society in an environmentally responsible manner,” say protesters defending the Stour Valley. But as their fellow-targets in Montgomeryshire, Shropshire, east Kent and the Somerset Levels will be aware, locals may not even be given a choice of pylon style, let alone finish, if professional aesthetes from the National Grid judge their heritage unimpressive.
Months before the last election, Liam Fox, raging against a National Grid pylon offensive in his constituency, condemned “the democratic deficit where decisions are made by unelected quango chiefs and are unaccountable to ordinary citizens”. If his party got in, said Mr Fox, it “will restore the democratic link and ensure that decisions like this are taken by a secretary of state accountable to the people through parliament”.
Five years on, Amber Rudd, as climate change minister, recently confronted a succession of anti-pylon MPs, including Glyn Davies from her own party, who condemned “the outrageous way in which National Grid has sought to influence the planning system using its power and money”.The Lib Dem Tessa Munt, opposing pylons in her Wells constituency, said the National Grid had “completely ignored the possibility of the power connections and the line being put underground or undersea”. Her Labour colleague, Albert Owen, representing Ynys Môn, said: “Any localism agenda has been thrown out of the window and in my view National Grid is acting contrary to any sort of human decency.”
For a self-styled “country boy”, David Cameron has, it appears, done little to convince conservationists, even in his own party, that either the rural landscape or the green belt is any safer with him and Mr Pickles than when Fox complained: “We cannot stand by and watch our countryside ravaged.”
As it is, we have also stood by and watched public forests narrowly escape privatisation – unlike parcels of the Lake District – and galloping colonisation of farmland by builders of executive homes, courtesy of the false choice, promulgated by ministers such as Nick Boles, between nimbyism and homes. Meanwhile, property developers have advised on overriding local opinion and donated more than £4m in three years to the Tories.
And yet, with housing a higher priority, the consequence of business effectively controlling the landscape has dropped so far down the list of election issues as to be virtually invisible. By this point in the election run-up in 2010, the then head of the CPRE, Bill Bryson, perhaps the best defender of the British landscape since the National Trust’s Octavia Hill, had questioned the three major party leaders about their plans to protect the land. There was a good deal of talk about litter and village shops. What Bryson did not hear from the politicians, he regretted, was “what you could call a comprehensive vision for the countryside”. Five years on, it is clear that nothing – except the shape of pylons – has changed.
• 1 This footnote was appended on 17 April 2015: National Grid has asked us to make clear that the T pylons are grey, not white – a colour designed to blend into the prevailing British light. It was not a low key competition to find the new design. It was promoted internationally by the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Department for Energy and Climate Change and National Grid, and the judges were eminent in their fields.
• 2 National Grid has also asked us to clarify that their chairman Sir Peter Gershon has not advised the Conservative party since 2010.