“I think they’re pretty”: Inside the strangely heart-warming world of pylon fandom

Some boring Scottish pylons. Image: Getty.

If I asked you what brings people together on a global scale, I’m sure a few things would come to mind. Probably some activist causes: feminism, gun control, climate change. Maybe it’s something cultural: Gilmore Girls, BoJack Horseman, the Fab Five.

Regardless of what you thought of, I could guarantee that it wasn’t the electrified, steel lattice towers that are commonly known around the world as pylons. From what many people would see as an eyesore or even a metal monstrosity, an international community is being built on the backs of these ubiquitous structures.

The internet is, of course, rife with industrial and transport themed fan groups, from trainspotting to busspotting to ones devoted to power plants and machinery. The vast majority of these groups are intrinsically linked by geography, however. Many of them are regionally focused; far fewer have managed to grow to a national scale.

This is where pylon fandom is different. In one of its most popular fan groups, the Pylon Appreciation Society (boasting nearly 3,000 members), you rarely see two posts one after another coming from the same country, let alone the same region.

After speaking to nearly twenty of those three thousand members, it became clear that the demographic diversity is part of what makes the group, and pylon fandom generally, so widely appealing.

A screenshot of the Facebook group.

One person I spoke to was Mark, a 47 year old hydraulic engineer from Canterbury, who travels all around Britain observing pylons despite only becoming a proper fan about three years ago. “I’m fascinated by the different types and set-ups,” he told me, “and it’s good to see what others post, especially from around the world.”

Ceri, a Welsh-born train signaler living in Peterborough, echoed this sentiment. “There’s a vast array of designs, not just in this country, but all over the world,” she explained. “Seeing these structures in amazing and challenging environments is, for me, one of the best parts of joining the group.”

Although there is definitely a strong UK base in this particular group, as many British and non-British members pointed out, the posters remain diverse. Chris, a 67 year-old living in New Zealand, told me that he loved the vast range of nationalities in the group, whilst throwing a little shade at the UK (where he had previously lived and where his pylon obsession began).

“I'm relieved the group is diverse,” he exasperatedly said. “The photos from the Brits tend to be a bit dull and boring… The ones from outside Britain are usually more interesting; more interesting structures taken with a bit more attention to detail.”

With the more international posts, he noted, you got to see beyond the average pylons that you pass on the motorways. By way of example, he cited an image that was posted in the group earlier that day of a Japanese pylon nestling amongst springtime cherry blossom trees.

Not only do the posters range from east Asia to the American Midwest: they cover all ages, too, from women in their early teens to members nearing triple digits. Ella, a 15 year old from Lincoln, is one of the younger members of the group. She has been a pylon fan for the last four months, largely due to time spent studying national grid and power stations for her physics class.

“I found pylons very interesting and started taking pictures [of them] when I saw them. I think they’re pretty,” she told me.

At the other end of the spectrum are members like Diane, a 70 year old Leicestershire local, who only recently joined the group. She told me of her joy at finding a community of pylon fans having been one herself for her entire life.

Many members remarked that they didn’t have many real life friends who were pylon fans in their home countries, so the group was a godsend that made them feel less alone in their hobby. One of these people was Tim, a 32 year old American born and raised in Michigan. He’s a self-described “lifelong infrastructure and pylon fan” and lives directly next to a pylon utility corridor.

“Here in the States, if you mention that you like power lines or pylons, people in general will think you are pretty crazy, weird, possibly threatening, or otherwise nerdy,” he told me. He explained that he studied international relations at university and has visited Europe several times – so having a group of people from all of the world who also shared his interest was, as he put it, “badass”.

“It’s nice to see that they are other people out there who look at the same things I do in the same way, that I'm not just one weirdo who likes power poles LOL,” a fellow member, Olga from Cuba, agreed.

When I asked why they thought pylons created this universal feeling, everyone said almost the same thing: the communal human reliance on pylons to deliver the electricity that we need. Many of the group members credited this epiphany as the reason they joined the group and what spurred them to become a committed pylon fan.

Some French pylons.

“I think the demographic is so wide,” Zander, from West Yorkshire, explained, “because pylons are there [to help] everyone. People from all ages and places can appreciate them.”

However, this may not seem like enough of a basis to garner such a wide, active, and captive audience. Many of the members, even those who had come to pylon fandom later in life, had been members of the Pylon Appreciation Society for coming onto five years; people who had been around from the beginning, even as the group morphed and changed. Although there’s likely not one simple answer, this fandom has one thing that many fan groups, especially those hosted on social media, don’t have: a positive, encouraging, and friendly atmosphere.

“It is lovely to see everyone [being] so welcoming to new members,” Ella told me. “Everyone comments nice things on each other’s photography.”

“What I love about this group is the common purpose.” Alan, a 35 year old Aberdonian originally from Perth, explained. “It's the sense of belonging that goes with finding a group of like-minded individuals that have the confidence to be out about their niche interest.”

“I think these groups help people to feel more comfortable about doing this,” he added. “And, in doing so, happier in themselves.”

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What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.