Country: A blot that became beautiful

One of England's largest power stations cast a shadow over Miranda Seymour's childhood. But now its cooling towers and monumental walls have created their own eco-system
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The Independent Culture
MY FATHER, a man of quicksilver moods, plunged into a gloom that spread through the house like a cloak of fog when one of England's biggest power stations was located a mile from our front door. True, a hill stood between us, but it wasn't exactly Everest.

Growing, it seemed as if the thing would carry on like the beanstalk all the way to the sky. I snivelled when I saw my favourite bicycle path disappear under a mountain of coal; my father had his eyes fixed on the eight cooling towers and a chimney which, we heard, was going to be the tallest in the whole of Europe.

Perspective plays wonderful tricks. The chimney, reaching its final majestic height, poked its snout above the hill just far enough to earn the name "George's Folly" from playful guests who hadn't heard my father on the subject. We always warned them. "Don't mention it," we pleaded. "Look the other way. Pretend it isn't there."

Wise visitors, taken out to admire the estate, stared resolutely in the opposite direction. A well- meaning few said the towers were rather splendid. The rashest pointed to where the snout loomed above the garden and said, with horror in their voices: "And what in God's name is that?"

They weren't asked back.

Noise was also to be ignored, even when the thing roared like a beast above the polite clatter of plates around our breakfast-table. Later, when my father got his sense of humour back, he was able to grin about the time he had called the noise monitor over and told him to bring a tape recorder. The only noise recorded in three excruciatingly long hours was the sound of two swans flapping their wings.

Thirty years on, the station is part of the landscape. The pheasants were the first to realise they were on to a good thing and to defect, en masse, to roost among the cooling towers. Foxes, patrolling the skyline, glare through the wire mesh fence at a hillside - the station side, not ours - as rich in rabbits as Watership Down. On the river, where thousands of tepid gallons are belched back into the Trent every day, the anglers crow that they've never had it so good. In the warm dark ponds at the base of the cooling towers, gigantic carp breed and circle in a state of mindless pleasure, safe in the knowledge that the longest rod in the world is never going to reach them through a wall of steaming water.

The bicycle path went; others, in spitting distance of the towers, survived. Walking last week along a towpath to a lock and a pretty hump-backed bridge by a shop where my brother and I used to buy Walls cornets and - it seemed so sophisticated - bottles of dandelion and burdock fizz, I thought I'd walked into the past. Until, that is, the sun went in and I looked round to see why.

Lying in the shadow of the towers, 100 yards away, there's a farm and a paddock where Sebastopol geese, chickens, Aylesbury ducklings and a couple of peacocks keep company with two friendly lurchers and a donkey. A few yards further on, one of the prettiest small churches I know keeps quiet guard over its alabaster monuments and effigies. You could be in the 17th century until you walk out of its wooden door, smack up against the station.

I used to hate it. Now, I drag visitors up for a sunset stroll on the hilltop. Look one way and you see green fields, the red-brick chimneys and curving gables of a Jacobean house lying at its ease among oaks and larches and cedars. Look the other, and you see a 20thcentury fortress rising from the plain, its massive walls flushed pink by a hectic sky. If I'd come back from some ancient civilisation, I'd think this was a temple of the Gods.