Well, I did it! Just got back and my legs have only now stopped wobbling.
Battersea Power Station seems to have always lurked in the background of my life. We used to drive past it constantly when visiting relatives when I was a kid, it’s appeared in many of my favourite films and TV shows, including Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (“A fish, a fish, afishafishafish”), The Dark Knight, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and a few episodes of Doctor Who.
But for me it will always be the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals that shows the building at its most iconic. As a teen I bought a wall-sized poster from Carnaby Street, plastered it on my wall and imagined that I lived in an apartment looking down on it (What? I didn’t have a girlfriend, so gimme a break!).
That album’s song Dogs opens with the words “You gotta be crazy” and I have to admit that this refrain was repeatedly whizzing through my head as a small group of us were led into the main shell of the building.
My one regret today is that we weren’t allowed to take cameras with us into the building. The inside is incredible and you can see why it attracts film makers looking for something big and apocalyptic. Shafts of light beam through broken windows, cracked wooden rafters and rusting zig-zag stairwells, illuminating the wreckage below. Decades of neglected debris. Twisted iron girders, resting on hunks on concrete. The perfect playground for an adventurous boy. It’s slightly ruined by a giant plastic gazebo in the middle of it all – a room for corporate events and such – but I did my best to ignore that.
We were led up seven flights of steps up onto the roof, a large flat area about two football pitches long, and all in the shadow of those giant chimneys. One of the organisers cheerily settled our nerves by telling that we weren’t really that high, just 140 feet or so. She took us to where three scaffolds perched over the edge of the wall.
They asked for a volunteer and, in a weird sort out of body experience, I heard myself saying “Yeah, I’ll go!” Oh well, best to get it over with I guess. I clambered up the middle scaffold where a very calm man explained that the green rope was my safety rope and would hold me just in case I decided to do anything stupid. Bit late for that, I thought as he asked me to step over a red rope and lean all my weight back. I looked down, found Claire, Em and George and gave them a wave…
Photos – click to embiggen and enjoy ironic captions…
“Kids, if I end up as a splat on the ground you can have the Games of Thrones Blu Rays, but no watching till you’re eighteen…”
I didn’t realise the dress code was shorts/hot pants.
No need to suck my guts in after she did this up nice and tight… oof!
This was the worst bit. Turning my back on a 140 foot drop…
Oh no, wait, THIS was the worst bit! Leaning back over a 140 foot drop.
This was a close second.
He asked me to smile. I could only grimace.
I ran out of wall here and started spinning…
I’m not dead yet!
Might need some new pants though.
I can afford to be cocky on the ground.
I’m pretty sure this is where they shot the artwork for The Who’s Quadrophenia.
It was all over far too quickly. Once you get over the initial primeval voices in your head screaming “What are you doing? Get back on the roof! Are you mad?!” it’s just you and your feet gently bouncing off the wall as you feed the red rope through the belay.
I might have developed a taste for this. The cheery lady had said that they used to do these off the top of Guy’s Hospital, which is four times higher… maybe. Dunno. Maybe.
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The town itself is impressive, especially if you’re a Spaghetti Western nerd like me. You can explore many of the buildings, clamber up the steps onto the landings and generally stride across the middle of town feeling like Clint Eastwood (it also helps that they play Ennio Morricone’s greatest hits through a tannoy the whole time).
There are also museums housed in a couple of the buildings. First up was a museum of cinema, which was little more than a collection of old projectors and Spanish Western posters. My favourite was the one for Y Ahora Le Llaman Aleluya (aka Deep West), in which the hero uses a machine gun disguised as a sewing machine…
The other museum was dedicated to coaches, starting with horse-drawn buggies, and fire trucks and, er, a BMW 3 series from the 80s. That made me feel old, and I questioned its value in a museum, as you could probably get one on eBay for under a grand. There was no real attempt at curation in these museums, but who cares when you have such wonders to entertain you?
At noon we joined the crowds for the first Western show of the day. I was looking forward to this as the leaflet promised that it would be performed “by actors” no less. Just in case anyone was expecting the real Hole in the Wall Gang to show up and start blowing people’s heads off. Over the distorted tannoy a recorded voice explained that “Mffrm meefle frrp villainous brothers grlgle flan frrop arrested furgle jail.” Oh, good to get all the exposition out the way, eh?
So a man was dragged to jail, his brother came to the rescue, a Sheriff fell off a balcony onto a poorly-disguised crash mat, another fella was dragged through the dirt by a horse, there was lots of shooting, and this guy…
… died first and spent the remainder of the show face-down in the dirt in the blistering heat. I guess he does this three times a day, six days a week. Now THAT’s acting – take that RSC!
My horse allergy started to kick in (the only thing stopping me from becoming a massive Western movie star) and so we left the Western town and explored the zoo at Oasys, an expansive collection of enclosures featuring some fairly miserable-looking animals. There were no keepers to be seen and no evidence of the kind of zoological research undertaken in UK zoos. But if you’re a fan of bored animals skulking in tiny slivers of shade to stay out of the relentless glare of the sun, then this is the place for you!
We ended the park experience by the family pool, and the kids had great fun. There are a couple of slides and a bacteria-filled jacuzzi with a sign declaring in many languages that it was strictly for adults only (it was packed with kids).
But it was in the gift shop where I made an important discovery. We knew that one of my favourite scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was shot near here, but looking it up online could only give us a vague destination. However, the gift shop had a Spanish-language book that had more detail and, more importantly, gave us the name of the beach – Playa de Monsul. We punched it into the sat-nav and hit the road.
It took about an hour to get there and the kids were getting tired. ‘Hang on,’ George said, ‘we’ve come all this way just to see a rock?’
But Emily got it, ‘I love my geeky daddy,’ she said.
The road ran out of tarmac and the sat-nav was trying to send us into neighbouring fields, but we followed the signs along 5 km of incredibly rocky road. I spent much of that drive quietly muttering ‘Don’t get a flat,’ over and over as the car rocked perilously from side to side (there is also a bus service available, but at this time we still didn’t know if we were in the right place).
We eventually came to a row of parked cars. Even now, as the sun was low in the sky, the place was busy. It’s a beautiful beach. Isolated, with gentle waves and perfect for families.
And there was the rock. We took a few photos, gazed upon it in admiration and I quoted from the film in my best Sean Connery.
That wasn’t enough for George, though. The rock he’d bemoaned en-route now presented him with a challenge. He climbed all the way to the top. When he returned he reported that from up there he could see “six boobies and two couples making out.”
What did we get from that extra few hours out of our day? I’m not sure. Pilgrimages are weird things. Religious folk will talk about how they feel kindred spirits in a place, I know football fans who will go out of their way to visit a stadium if they’re in a particular city, and I love to just be where films have been made. Maybe it’s that thing of wanting to step through the screen and be part of that world – surely the sign of a successful movie? – or maybe it’s knowing that every time we watch the film from now on, we can all yell “We’ve been there!” Who knows? All I know is, we went all that way and I forgot to pack a bloody umbrella…
After a day of western-themed activities, it was sad to come home and find that Elmore Leonard, author of many fine Westerns, had passed away. Most writers will know his ten rules for writers. If you don’t, here they are, and heed every word, they are wise and sublime.
ELMORE LEONARD’S RULES FOR WRITING
Never open a book with weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.