Slayaaaa and I’s trip inside the demolition site of Didcot A power station about a year ago takes the cake for this critera. I guess there’s good reason why I filled up a whole 35mm roll in this one room, as it was a site of great fascination to me for some time before we became amongst the first to undertake the tricky work required to inspect these particular remnants, which delivered beyond expectation. Didcot is a bit of a cult figure amongst the small-but-passionate UK power station enthusiasts’ club, and was quite a drama queen over the years; tragically killing four workers in 2016 during an accidental demolition collapse, being voted Britain’s third-worst eyesore, and hosting one of Greenpeace’s most conspicuous and political anti-pollution stunts. The latter amok-running endowed it with about as beefy a security set up as you could get, whose specifications were starkly described by Fishbrain (along with Bigjobs the first to develop a route to the wrong side of the fence in 2013) in his forum report from 7 years ago:
5m electric fence around the whole perimeter with vibration / cut sensors and concentric infrared cameras placed every twenty yards (cameras watching cameras watching cameras) with a few more thrown in to fill the gaps
Following on from my long prose about the new wave ‘goon’ power station explorers in the previous write-up, Didcot was certainly completely exempt from such attention, by grace of its very early (2013) closure and un-negotiable fence.
Besides Richborough power station in Kent (deceased 1999-2011) near where my grandparents used to live, I think Didcot was the first one I generally noticed in the British landscape before my interest in these structures emerged, as it was one of the only sights of note to see out of the window of the Great Western Railway which I found myself frequently on whilst at university in Cardiff. I can recall seeing the electric fences, only some fourty or so yards from the train, even before I had discovered urban exploring in any other capacity than finding local derps to hang out in with my school mates.
Photos from Geograph.org.uk
By the time I started university in 2014 Didcot A had decommissioned and was becoming a demolition site. Over the next couple of years the view from the train window got steadily thinner, with the southern cooling towers coming down first. The station was designed by Frederick Gibberd, an acclaimed post war architect other contributions to the British urban landscape from whom include the town of Harlow, several reservoirs, civic centres and the old terminals 1 and 2 at Heathrow, and its 3x cluster of cooling towers at two corners of the site was intended to make it ‘blend in with the Oxfordshire landscape’, ostensibly unsuccessfully as the affluent and picky Thames Valley and east Cotswold dwellers who could have seen it in the distance from their bedroom windows certainly didn’t appreciate it there one bit. The cooling towers were followed by the turbine hall, before the really horrible boiler house structural collapse accident in 2016 (RIP to the Didcot 4). After the demolition accident debris was cleared, the only remaining structures on the site; the chimney, 3 northern cooling towers and control room, were evidently graced a longer life expectancy.
The first time Didcot A’s control room was brought to my attention was by the excellent industrial explorer and now good mate Terminal Decline, before which I like everyone else assumed the site was total wasteland. We got chatting on the forum in about September 2018 about power stations, and he kindly shared with me two ‘lost control room’ leads that appeared to be in situ on two demolition sites on Google Earth; Kingsnorth and Didcot. Soon after, we both met up in London to go and take a look at the Kingsnorth site. This was also a station that received Greenpeace treatment and was endowed with an electric fence. We spent about 10 minutes deliberating about it whilst sat a foot in front of it on Kingsnorth’s sea wall, before I got impatient and touched it. Hey-ho, it was off. Meh, they must turn em all off when the demo teams arrive, we thought (sadly Kingsnorth’s control room had been demolition in the few months prior by the time we got there).
Next to check out was Didcot. When we arrived and took a lap of the site we were both pretty stumped. No glitches this time, the thing was feckin’ gnarly, the leccy was still on, and the whole set up left quite an impression on me. I was like what the fuck is this bro, guess this ain’t happening. How on earth did those two crack this?! I had a text from Slayaaaa when I got back, asking what I was up to today, and I told him all about the fucking Didcot fence dude! He concurred and said that he too knew of its legendary burliness. “Bloody tough one that. Think it was done via some drain or something”. My interest piqued. Remarkably, less than a year later, the idea of using any kind of aquatic tunnel to get under a fence to avoid detection when entering highly secured heavy industrial sites has become a desirable and preferred option for those that play this game, but at the time to me it just sounded so preposterous, so absurd. “Yeah babe, I’m just going out to swim through a tunnel into a power station, what of it.” You get the idea…
Fast forward about 6 months to April 2019 and, after another recce and more studying, I think I’ve got a hot take on this fabled watery route to the wrong side of the Didcot fence. The operation before it happened was one that I really overthought, and all my calculations looked like it would be a catfish. The math was simple;
1. Can we get on site at all?
2. Can we get on site undetected?
3. Can we get to the building?
4. Can we get in the building?
5. Can we get in the room?
6. After all of that, is it gonna be empty?
We needed to hit a home run here if it wasn’t to be a flop. Firstly, I thought: well if we’re even going to tackle part 1 and go for a significant and very cold swim, we might as well make life a bit more comfortable for ourselves – so I drove over to Millets and bought a couple of wetsuits (S luckily had a couple of dry-bags already). Moreover, although getting caught at a power station demolition site is one of the most minor consequential things that can go wrong in the Zone, Didcot didn’t feel like ‘any other’ demolition site. It was the only power station demolition site that had been endowed the absolute, comprehensive, top of the range, all singing all dancing large site perimeter fence system. More thorough and sophisticated than Longannet, Aberthaw and Kingsnorth, only Ratcliffe-on-Soar is the other power station which shares this spec of fence. Not just trusted to keep Greenpeace out, this is also the exact spec that’s used to guard Rosyth Dockyard, where the Trident submarines are docked, and is actually a spec above the fence around RNAD Coulport, where the nuclear warheads for Trident are stored and loaded. Even as a demolition site, evidence that people had silently managed to beat such a fence as this ought to have wider implications in the world of UK large site security. In fact, we would probably be doing the security teams of the UK’s most protected sites a favour in intelligence if caught, but the potential experience of this was bound to be proper shite. In the words of fb, who also thinks outside the box about implications like this, the authorities “would poo their pants if they knew anyone had beaten security at Didcot”.
Yeah mate can’t wait, let’s, er, get this bread…
I hadn’t actually reccied it with S, and he didn’t really have any idea of what we were up against except ‘big fence, bare cameras, going swimming underground, live power station next door, gonna be pretty sketch, control room never been done as far as we know but like 80% chance it’s stripped’, but he was down. We set off on the night at about 11pm, both with 1h30m drives – me from Croydon and him from Leicester, and I arrived in town first despite endless 50mph average speed checks. In a light industrial estate we parked up and got changed into the wetsuits, I’d bought mediums but they felt small as shit. Despite the gauntlet to run being unknown and intimidating, getting changed was good fun and definitely took the edge off.
To get to the stream/brook, it involved slinking off down a bank to the side of a small car park of some old, equally small RWE offices on the Right Side of the Fence, and an extensive prowl around said car park for possible animate traps had been conducted in my recce to reveal no concerns. Henceforth, the traps until we were deep in the site would be chiefly inanimate. At about 1am, we got in the water. We both still had trainers and a tracksuit on (that we’d consigned to chucking after this swan song for them) but the wetsuits immediately did a great job at keeping us at a comfortable temperature and I was very glad I’d bought them. The water was about belly-button deep at first, but soon became about chest deep. The culvert was extremely echoey, and in the pitch black every small bow wave we made on our progress sounded really loud, amplifying the otherness of the situation. After maybe 10 minutes of gentle wading/swimming, we reached the end of the subterranean section, to a grill, behind which was the wrong side of the Didcot fence. This was my biggest source of doubt for getting on site at all, and for getting past it, there was a 2ft gap, maybe about half a meter fully underwater, that we had to submerge ourselves for. This was one of the most challenging parts of the route psychologically, but it was over in a flash, and with S’s very long hair soaked the only casualty once both of us emerged into the Didcot Zone, the playing field that awaited us looked like below (but with the chimney up). The on-site mouth of the culvert you can see on the right hand side, and the control room block on the left:
https://kuula.co/post/79K7q – have a look
Under cover of darkness we followed the stream, now in open air, deeper into the site towards the live Didcot B, before scarpering up a bank to a portion of the internal electric fencing that for some reason dissected the middle of the site. Behind us, we could see the main gatehouse to the site, which I knew was still manned, about 200 yards away. In that moment I was rather dumbstruck that we had actually successfully made it to the Wrong Side of the Fence at Didcot power station, and with thoughts of desperation as to not losing our progress so far, I raised a concern at the possibility of man in the gate house having a POV of us whilst we dealt with this next fence. S, with more sense at that point than me, said “Geez isn’t gonna see us from there though, is he”, and I immediately replied “Yeah, fuck, what am I talking about you’re right”. This next fence had had its electric wires taken out – this was established on recceing – and we got the slings out to get over. Up to now weary of personnel presence on the other side of it, once over we quickly realised we had the whole demolition site to ourselves. I thought this was totally fantastic, such a faith has been put in that fence (and rightly so) by the security team – keeping all other urban explorers out successful for the thick end of a decade – that they thought there’d be no point in having a van and two blokes drive round every hour, like they continue to do at most other mostly-demolished power station sites.
With a very preferable dim light from the B station cast over the playing field, we sprinted across, having to lob ourselves over two layers of heras on the way. When we got to the building, step 3 was a breeze, as there was immediately an open first floor door up a fire escape. It emerged into a server room that was, to put it simply, utterly fucked. It was a shell. Everything was tripped to the brick, the smell of dust and demolition was rampant, it was damp, barren, skeletal. Obviously step 5 was not going to be an issue anymore, but the last hurdle – would the control room at all be in situ still – was not looking promising. The scenes below, i thought, simply cannot have survived in a building whose interior is in this state.
A derpy version of this was the absolute best case scenario on the cards.
The control room and admin building from the outside looked very similar to Littlebrook D’s. I expected that they might have been a pretty identical design, and as such that the control room would be on the top floor. I said to S that we should bound upstairs but I don’t think he heard me before I set off. At the top floor though, all I found was a plant room. On my way back down to find S again I felt a bit like I was clutching at straws here, albeit the actual foray had been fun, novel, confidence-boosting and problem-free so far. I bumped into S at the bottom of the stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floor and he began walking very slowly to the left. “How’s it going?” I said, “fuck all up top”… “Yeah it’s bad news I’m afraid”, he said. At which moment he led me round a corner to reveal that the control room had in fact not been stripped out. “AY GOT YA” he said, nudging me. Bruh moment. So, in actual raw light even with our phone torches on, this is the kind of sight that greeted us:
Kinda dark in here dawg
A bigger torch needed to be brought out to get to full grips with this artefact, but there was actually a slim floor to ceiling window looking out towards the active site, which we definitely did not want to be waving our artificial light in the direction of. Luckily, we found an old door on the floor of the flotsam-and-jetsom littered control room, and hauled it up and over to place it over the window. The next order of business was to have a number of gulps of water, followed by a slash – which takes a bit longer than usual when wearing a wetsuit. After that, the cameras came out the drybags, and game on.
Objectively the most interesting and unique thing about Didcot control room is its balcony (bottom left). That, coupled with the ceiling, elevated it from about a 6/10 to an 8/10 for me.
One more thing I particularly loved was the slanted general service panels at the back (bottom left again). This kind of ’60s slanted boi is something you see in old photos of Drax and West Burton’s control rooms before they were APMSed. They look pretty NASA-y in a way. I’ve never seen one in the wild before or since!
One overriding vibe in there was that is was just really private. Serene, low stress and cosy – not a mood I had anticipated I would find at all on this of all sites. That really made it in the end. After I had finished spending much more time than I usually do taking many more photos than I usually do, we went to the roof of the building before heading back across the no man’s land. As we were about to leave the control room, a check of the chimney was discussed and agreed upon. We got to it to find its gates firmly shut and unclimable, but somehow, on the other side, there was a scar torn out of the brick that looked as though an excavator had accidentally knocked it. Like one ground level block taken out of a 20×2000 Jenga tower. S stuck his head in enthusiastically, as I watched more and more of his torso and legs disappear into the structure, before hearing the inevitable “yeah, there’s room”.
200m of stairs in an atmosphere of ash and darkness is deceptively long, and even for us relatively spritely early-20-somethings it required 3 quick breaks. About 20m up, there was one light on that formed the nucleus for a very populated pigeon colony which went berserk upon our presence (typical). The hatch was open at the top, and we spent about 20 minutes on the deck, alas my roll had already finished and I had no way of taking any film shots of the view. S at least was proficient with his DSLR and can share this:
View not available anymore!
Once we got back down, it had gotten noticeably lighter, and after checking the time at 4.30am, we thought we better get the hell out. This was undertaken with, as usual, the exact same reverse route, just with a little more confidence. Back at the car, the warm bath towels came out the boot and we swapped the wetsuits for dry clothes in a (separate LMAO) bush before calling it a job well done. In the coming year it has stood out as something where a lot of effort for just a ‘maybe’ lead, with a seemingly low chance of success, came to fruition without a hitch. Though what I will say is that there are a handful of leftover relics just like this one out there, and sometimes it can be worth it for the high of discovery. As far as I am aware there are still no other photos in existence of Didcot control room post-closure.