Causewayhead Road, which heads to the Wallace Monument just outside Stirling, is a disappointment. This
salubrious stretch of the A9 has had its street-lighting columns changed from the classic, concrete Stanton Type 8F
with its glorious arc bracket and orange, low-pressure sodium lurninaire - a veritable cobra reaching over the road to
present us with a casket of gold - to soulless, steel hockey-sticks. It's a disaster and, because it's pouring with rain,
there's nobody around to shout at.
But, as daylight fails, a gear-slamming sortie round the poorer Stirling district of Raploch yields pay dirt. Along
Drip Road there are two lines of 8Fs standing proudly, as if to salute their final year of illumination. Bang on cue,
my camera battery runs out, causing more anger. But then the lights start to flicker to life and the spectacle of those
strawberry start-up hues makes my heart glow again. It feels like I'm visiting a dying grandparent.
Stirling Council's street-lighting department has only been keeping records of its columns since 1990. Unsure
of the parentage of the 8F, the team christened this spun-concrete stalwart the "Springbank", which somehow fits
it perfectly. "Springbanks are still standing through a lack of money," team leader Peter Nowek explains.
"Many of these concrete columns have lasted 30 years beyond their expected lifetime - some have lasted 50 years. From a
design point of view, you can't argue with that, although nobody's said they particularly liked them until now.
We'll be replacing the final few over the coming months."
For a nation so keen on all facets of design, it's unfathomable that there's no place in our affections for lamp-posts
and the lights, they hold aloft. We flock in our thousands to pay homage to an unmade divan by
Tracey Emin but shun the higher points of lighting column eccentricity. There are no public museums
for street furniture, nor is there a national collection.
Once, lamp~posts were made to be admired as vibrant symbols of their age. Now, local councils opt either for a
standard Victorian style with tear-drop lamp - a fad started in the late-1970s to give town centres a more traditional
atmosphere - or more commonly the barely-perceptible thin black pole. We've stopped noticing lamp-posts because of
"You've got several effects pulling in different directions," explains Clive Lane, twice president of the
Institution of Lighting Engineers and the secretary and treasurer of the Lighting Column Technical Forum.
"You've got ordinary, mundane street lighting, where economics rule the roost. You then have heritage areas where they
can receive special grants. Normally you're talking about £130 for a simple street-lighting column. Blackpool has columns
curving out over the street, arcing from ground level, but you're increasing the price 10-fold when you do that."
Most modern lighting columns are not fit to rub Brasso on the base door of a Stanton Type 8F. Back in the 1950s
when the world was awhirl with the Jet Age, designers of everything from cars to grannies' spectacles were swept
along with the excitement of high-speed air travel. Fins were in and this filtered down to the humble lighting column.
During this crazy, US-influenced period, the main suppliers of concrete lamp-posts in this country were Stanton, based in
Stanton-by-Dale, Derbyshire (now absorbed into the French-owned Saint-Gobain Pipelines) and Concrete Utilities of
Great Arnwell, Hertfordshire (today known as CU Phosco and now a front-runner in steel-colunin construction).
The two companies were bitter rivals - in the 1950s, CU supplied Erewash Borough Council with free columns to
erect outside Stanton's factory. Both firms churned out millions of lighting columns to be sold around the world.
CU Phosco's HQ is still in the same location as when the company started out in 1923. The managing director
William Marques, grandson of Australian founder Charles Marques, allows me a peek through
ancient Concrete Utilities sales catalogues. They're treasure troves.
"In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea was to get noticed," Marques says, opening a brochure. He's not wrong.
A CU Avenue 4D "special" featuring a pair of angelic wings could be the finest lamp-post ever made. Its
curves are effortless, mesmerising - but only Hackney and Morecambe councils bought it. Beneath a photo reads the inscription:
"To hold its Beam above a Broad Highway - In graceful lines, an ornament by day". God has these columns in Heaven. "They're
the last we'll see of swan-necks and arc brackets," Marques says, before turning to a page that shows a
crocodileesque, hugely-futuristic Highways X column - another incredible piece of workmanship. And so the afternoon goes...
But that's not the end of the entertainment, as Marques fastens up his jacket guides me outside. Surrounding
the offices on all sides is the largest private collection of lighting columns in Britain. "We started it in 1973 to commemorate
our 50th anniversary," Marques explains, leading the way around the 60 posts. "But we haven't added anything for
a while. SOme columns are are by this company; some are not. Most are buy obscure little foundries, and I think the oldest one is
from the early 19th century."
Names of lost firms spring out, as if from gravestones: Eagle Foundry, Salford; J Bradshaw & Sons, Bolton;
E Woolley, Accrington; Baker Inn Foundry, Bedford... one even has a base made from an old cannon
"We don't advertise the museum and we don't show people round anymore," Marques adds, slapping a pillar that
once stood on London's Mile End Road. "After 20 years' good service, we thought enough people had been to see them.
There used to be the odd school visit but I can't imagine children will be interested in this sort of thing now."
There are 7,100,019 lighting units in the UK. A typical column, from the pavement up, consists of: a base, in which the workings are
stored; the shoulder, where the base narrows into the main structure; a vertical shaft to achieve the required height; a bracket, which holds
the lantern in a horizontal position; and the luminaire, the lamp itself. Some old columns also have "ladder arms", horizontal struts
that hold a ladder while fixing or cleaning the lamp. Modern street lights have a photocell on their roof that reacts to changing
light conditions. A hundred years ago, each column had its own internal brass clock that told a light when to switch on and off.
Laer a block of lights would be run from a master lamp-post, which meant they would all spring into life at the same time
(make a wish!). More commonly today, each light works independently.
But the main problem for lamp-post designers has long been dogs. "There is a subjective appreciation of the problems of 'canine urine',"
explains Clive Lane. "One is corrosion, which can go down into the soil and affect the column's root. The other, which operators
were more worried about, was the fact that doors used to be lowere, only six inches above the ground, and that area could be coated with
urine. Tests were done on the destructive nature of dog urine and now dorrs are supposed to be a miniumum of 300mm above ground level
and preferred at 600mm.
"In lectures I do, students often respond and say 'it must depend on the size of the dog.' I then make a joke and say, 'Well in actual
fact no, because we've done some tests which have indicated that the bigger the dog, the futher away it gets and therefore the point of
impact is the same' which is completely true, but nobody had to do thests to come up with that.
Due to the longetivity of some columns, there are plenty of rarities in urban nooks and crannies than tend to be overlooked by
street planners, and a handful of dedicated enthusiasts knwon where to look. Among the elite is Simon Cornwell,
a software engineer from Cambridge. He has an encylopaedic understanding, as his website is testament. Much of his spare time revolves
around locating early pieces: he owns 150 lanterns and 12 cast-iron columns.
"If you're new to the subject, there a two places of interest," Cornwell suggests. "First of all, Cambridge has
the last Group-A fluorescent installation I know of in the country. The Richardson Candles were custom-made for the
city by REVO in the late 1950s. Being unique has ensured their survival, but the lighting by modern standards is
dim. Cambridge is a dark city by night. Then there's Central London; lots of gas and custom latners in the centre. The interesting
places after that are the single streets forgotten by a lighting engineer, or one or two columns on the A22."
While on the train from London to Brighton, I see a stream of Stanton Type 8Fs. The short-bracketed show-offs with faux-Phoenician
headdresses climb along a quiet, suburban street in Purley to the brow of a hill then disappear. It's proper middle-class country,
full of gates properties and retied building contractors. The following morning, for a fleeting second on the same train, I spot
an ultra-rare 8F twin arm - twin-arms mean two lamps. My word! A call is made to Croydon Council.
"We have one double-arm 25ft concrete column," confirms Jim Palmer in the street lighting department. "I'm just about
to replace the bracket because it's badly cracked. It's in Old Lodge Lane on the junction of Harley Down, half a mile from Purley
Station 0 is that the one you mean?"
This could be the final twin-arm 8F in existence. Up close, there's an old Labrador quality to the golden concrete and, like
all aged dogs, the 8F is undeniably grey around the muzzle. Twenty feet up there are tell-tale symptoms of age and tiredness. Concrete
is thinningl chunks have fallen away. Round the corner on Hartley Down, a black, steel lamp-post already in place signals the change
to come. For now, and for a frew final months, its grand old neighbour will steal the limelight.
The Independent On Sunday
14th August 2005
See also: Lee's concrete photos