Wednesday, 9 September 2009

#5 A walk with John Grindley on the 19 August and some other thoughts.

We have been thinking about the people who work at Lingfield Point for the October/December 2009 Futurescope image. At one point when we were doing the Sunflowers we discussed the idea of working with a group of people who work on the Lingfield site. We had thought about asking them to stand around in a circle and taking a photo looking upwards so that the picture would look very like the sunflower picture. Who works at Lingfield is very interesting. A few of Lingfield’s people have worked there for a very long time.

I described the idea for the image to Marchday’s people and they suggested I ask John Grindley to show me round.

John Grindley’s family has worked at Lingfield Point for three generations. John’s Grandfather was clerk of works on the build after World War Two. His father was the Chief Engineer and John works as part of the Lingfield Security Team.

It’s an understatement to say that he knows the place well. He knows it like the back of his hand and then he knows some more about it.

That concept of long service is something that I really have not got any experience of and it’s a tragic that it’s so hard for people to work this way now sustaining a commitment to a place for such a long time and that’s not to say that John was sentimental.

I described the idea for the picture to John and asked if he could think of good locations to stage it. I drew him a quick sketch of the Beatles ‘Please Please Me’ album cover as a starting point.

He suggested looking at the soap dock lift. The Soap Dock is the first building that faces you as you drive in from the east on the new road. When Paton and Baldwin’s ran the site this is where the fleeces would be delivered, sorted and according to their grade sent to the right floor. Like a lot of the old interiors at Lingfield it is brilliantly painted in blue and yellow which the flash on my camera made more vivid.

We moved on and John showed me the vast network of underground tunnels (miles of them) whose job was to carry services and steam around the site conditioning the atmosphere and giving the right humidity in different places to maintain the right level of moisture in the wool in the factory floors above.

John described in detail the electric vehicles used in the passages and explained the expansion pipes, and fittings. He explained that this control of humidity is what had made the site attractive to Rothmans and that after wool production had ceased tobacco became the new business on site with the steam from the power building and turbine hall being piped around like a giant humidor.

The conversation has changed my understanding of the site. Like anyone who looks at it from the outside it looks like a collection of buildings to me but from the labyrinth below it looks like a machine clad in brick curtain walls.

We stopped at a bay where he pointed out a chalked up inscription ‘END OF THE LINE 1978’. It marks the spot where the last batch of wool was stored before going up to the factory above. He regretted that someone had brushed over it and that a little bit of history had been lost.

As we walked about underground exploring I couldn’t help feeling that the whole place was like the kind of air raid shelter that people had turned the London Underground into during World War Two and it was then that he said something that astonished me. He said that as Clerk of Works his Grandfather had been involved in the specification of the buildings in 1949. The factory site had been constructed to withstand bombing. These tunnels would have been available to workers and nearby residents as bomb shelters in the event of attack and were designed with this secondary purpose in mind and that the whole factory was also designed to be used for the manufacture of munitions and aeroplanes in the event of war. Its proximity to the air base that is now Durham Tees Valley Airport was key to this. He said that during World War Two it had been understood that the impact of bombing on the Axis powers had been to reduce their industrial output to a point where they could no longer maintain their war effort. This had informed the layout of the buildings and open spaces on site. They were placed and engineered to withstand, contain and deflect explosions.

Lingfield Point could have withstood direct aerial bombardment and maintained production.
This was part of the performance specification to which the original designers had worked.
The design of Lingfield Point can be directly linked to the Cold War period, which is obvious but I just hadn’t thought of it that way.

I have always felt that from the outside Lingfield Point looks a little like a cross between an air force base and a holiday camp! But everything about the building has a quality to it. The brick is an engineering grade with an unusual fleck in the surface and hard to break. The finish is high quality but as we had been looking at the unused air conditioning plants and the interiors (We had come out of the underground passage and onto the mezzanine floor of the turbine hall.) something else really struck me - the confidence of the builders and the energy of the 1950’s. The specification of the interior materials is lavish. The mezzanine of the turbine hall for example is laid with terrazzo and the walls are part tiled with an elegant Italian ceramic tile while the paint schemes are pastel blue coloured with strong accent colours in red and ochre.

Nothing here was sorry for itself when it was made!

If it looks like a wartime base on the outside on the inside it is as lavish as a Hillman car with two tone paint job and white walled tyres… I’m even wondering if there are interior designers who specialise in Power Stations!

John said that it was deafening when the turbines were running and he explained the use of now discarded pieces of equipment in supplying the national grid. There is nothing there now other than the odd pigeon and the hum of the still operational substations. It is like standing in a library.

I remember being told how much it cost to supply the coal for the boilers that ran the turbines (Of course now that I’m writing up my blog I can’t remember how much exactly it was but it was either thirty or fifty thousand pounds a day at least it was a lot of money and if anyone wants to put me straight on the exact figure email Lingfield and I’ll update it!)

As John Kennedy and closed the door on the building today after location shooting John said that it felt like we had been in a building that was built as a temple to energy. Energy and particularly sustainability issues are a big theme in our work and have a lot to do with our ideas for Futurescope.

I think a lot of people in Darlington will know this place and perhaps that those that don’t would be interested in what is on the inside. One thing is certain the buildings need showing to people somehow. As well as being about people working at Lingfield and the changes that are afoot we want the next image to show the inside on the outside.

Christian Barnes
9 September 2009

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