I think it was in The Two Towers that Saruman created Isengard, his horrible HQ, to turn the bad elves into orcs and to burn all the trees to power his Dark Machinery and … stuff. I can’t remember the details but it was generally agreed among the hobbits and the nice elves that this was a Bad Thing.

The naphtha tower at the gasworks is a bit like a modern-day Isengard: its looming presence a source of noxious pollution, despoiling the landscape for miles around.


But to be honest I just can’t get cranky with it. In fact I really like it. And I’m going to stick my neck out here: I reckon that it’s become the Nobbys Lighthouse of inner Newcastle.

On our walks around the creek and the gasworks me and Jambo often bump into folk. They’re out walking too, but usually for different reasons. I’ve met students on their way to TAFE, a guy with a terminal illness who sees out his days by collecting tennis balls from the water, kids on bodgy quad bikes tearing up the mud, blokes with nets catching poddy mullet for bait while their girlfriends harrumph and fume in the car on Chatham Road, kids with shopping bags full of aerosol cans, guys with bicycles loaded up with stolen dog food, and on a regular basis I’ll see groups doing fashion shoots / album covers / uni portfolio work. And all of them, like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, are drawn to the naphtha tower.

I’m not sure if it’s because if its size and shape, this huge vertical edifice rising from the flattened landscape. I don’t think so because there’s half a dozen fuel towers on the southern side of the creek, and no one photographs them. It could be the POAS and CUBE roll-ups that immediately draw the eye and add a human element.


Where I’m from, in Cumbria in the UK, there’s been an explosion in the number of wind farms over the last two decades. I know people who hate them with a passion, and I mean really hate them. Wind farm developments have been halted where they might impact on the aesthetic value of the Lake District National Park and there are numerous objections to those that do exist.

And yet these same people hold up as shining examples of the area’s “natural beauty” the rolling fells and the lichen-encrusted drystone walls. Those fells are only rolling because they’re a post-industrial landscape, denuded of trees by the gangs that burnt charcoal for the early iron smelters. And those characteristic drystone walls? I see them and I see two things: the backbreaking slave labour that was necessary in order for them to exist; and the affront to nature and the senses of a manmade boundary carving through a hillside like some map of the Middle East or central Africa. (This photo from here.)

Drystone Wall Wansfell Ridge

Our landscape, and our interpretation of it as either beautiful or hideously ugly, is the end result of generations of historical accidents. I was in northern Victoria this week, in the foothills of the high country, and the landholder I was with pointed to a series of naked paddocks and proudly told me how he’d “cleaned up” all that land. “Clean” was not the word that sprang to mind when I looked at it, though I could see that it was indeed productive country, just as the fells of Cumbria are “clean” and productive. Only today, as I was typing this post, a friend sent me a picture and a story that puts this whole predicament in a nutshell. Marie-Anne wrote:


I was out exploring this morning and became quite smitten with the part of Lambton Park where the creek naturalises. So much so that I took photos of the spot where it’s swallowed up by concrete drain. An old bloke came up from the other side, asking if I was from Council or at least taking photos to complain to Council. Where I saw an oasis of rampant lushness, he saw a mess that should be tidied up and concreted underground! We were each so surprised by the other’s perspective that we stopped to have a laugh about it.

My brother-in-law remembers the Manchester of his childhood being dotted with mill stacks. When the industry died and they were knocked down people couldn’t wait to see the back of them; now those same folk pine for the disappeared landscape of their childhood.

As part of Jemena’s clean up of the gasworks site Isengard will, unfortunately, have to go. It’s such a shame. I’ll miss it, and I’ll miss POAS and CUBE and the landmark which, like Nobbys at the foreshore, dominates and creates a visual focus for Hamilton North.


3 Responses to Isengard

  1. Very insightful post on how our perspective on things change from person to person and age to age. I’d suggest that another classic example of how one generation’s industrial trash becomes the next generation’s aesthetic treasure, is the Battersea power station in London – it even appeared in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics if I remember correctly.

    • Mark MacLean says:

      Good point. I don’t think the term “grunge aesthetic” was current in the 1970s, things were just old and horrible. Is that the one that was on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover too?

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