What should the UK do with the iron skeletons of Victorian gasworks which still tower over it?

A gasholder looming over the Oval cricket ground in London in 1956. Image: Getty.

There’s a question looming both literally and metaphorically over large parts of London: what the hell should we do with the city’s old gasholders? These hulking metal structures, also known as gasometers, have been an integral part of the capital’s skyline since the Victorian era, yet are now facing demolition because their original purpose (storing gas, duh) is now defunct.

Having gained widespread use during the 19th century, the gasholders’ reign lasted until the 1960s when, with the discovery of the North Sea natural gas reserves, gas began being transported via high pressure pipes. The holders took a backseat, only being used when extra capacity was needed. As the pipes increased in capacity, the gasworks dotted throughout UK cities slowly became obsolete. The National Grid was left with these functionally-pointless, space-consuming monsters – often in what is now prime urban real estate. Think King’s Cross, Kennington, Bethnal Green.

Once aptly described by poet Victoria Bean aptly as a “great grey lung”, it’s the “telescopic” gasometers that receive particular attention. Supported by a giant cylindrical frame, the inner-container would fluctuate in size depending on how gas-hungry the surrounding residents were. By day they would fill up and rise, and then by night they would empty and retract back into the ground.

But the lungs are no longer breathing and all we’re left with is the frame. But blimey, what frames they are. Even for those not intimidatingly enthusiastic about industrial heritage, it’s hard to deny their beauty. Classical columns connected by decorative wrought iron; just what you would expect from the Victorians. Around sunset, when their steel skeletons are silhouetted against the sky in particularly spectacular fashion, it becomes easy to see why there are 12 gasholders with listed status (of which all but one are in London). But developers are fighting for the land; eight of the capital’s other gasholders have been awarded a Certificate of Immunity, meaning they cannot be listed for the following five years – offering property developers assurance to their investment.


So once campaigners succeed in getting the treasured gasholders protected, something needs to be done with them. After all, blocking off huge swathes of land in the heart of a city clamouring for space hardly seems fair. Building within them has proved a successful option (even if the flats inside the old King’s Cross gasometers look like giant air conditioning units). Planning for the development of the Oval Gasholders – which has towered over the famous cricket ground for 150 years, and gained listed status in 2016 following a local campaign – was passed earlier this year as part of a wider project to build 1250 new homes. In a city in the midst of a housing crisis, incorporating heritage into new housing is a great idea. That said, it’d be a shame to lose all the gasworks to property developers.

With Gasholder Park, the developers behind the King’s Cross air conditioning units, have created a public space within the remains of one of the gasholders. It is the only place in London where anyone can stand in the centre of, and enjoy these peculiar treasures. The Bromley-by-Bow Gasworks, which consist of seven listed gasholders, sits empty but could make a brilliant park. This was proposed as a submission to the New London Landscape, a green infrastructure design competition, but lost out to a hare-brained scheme to add a swimming lane to Regent’s Canal.

Whatever their future – be it as housing or a public space – at least some gasholders will remain; a solemn reminder of an important chapter in London’s history.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.