Appreciating telegraph poles... as far apart as Russia, Iceland and Donegal

Telegraph poles of the Isle of Mull Argyll and Bute

As Storm Ophelia raged relentlessly, causing widespread damage, disruption, and sadly, three deaths in the Republic of Ireland, I kept an apprehensive eye on the telegraph pole beside my house.

Its dozen-or-so wires flailed ferociously above my garden where several shrubs and bushes, bent double, flung most of their foliage at the wind.

Some nearby oaks billowed and swayed, my bird table tilted and toppled, but the telegraph pole stood firm, solid and upright!

The same pole has adorned Roamer’s page in the past, accompanying a report about the Telegraph Pole Appreciation Society (TPAS).

More than a few readers who initially thought that TPAS was a sendup were soon convinced by the worldwide organisation’s commitment to advocating the vital role that telegraph poles play in our lives.

Now there’s a book, compiled by TPAS founder-member Martin Evans, outlining every aspect of poles past and present and their prominent place in our infrastructure, culture and countryside.

Called ‘Telegraph Pole Appreciation for Beginners’, Martin’s book has been hailed as “delightfully nerdy, exquisitely eccentric and littered with technical information.”

“There’s arty stuff, historic stuff, old poles, aligned poles, foreign poles, true stuff, made-up stuff and lots more,” says former IT professional Evans, a writer, poet, film maker and musician from Ceredigion, Wales.

“It is no real surprise to me,” says Martin, “that telegraph poles are a source of endless fascination…the miles of connected poles, their intriguing symmetry and the shape they make in the landscape as they vanish into perspective infinity. They are as a line of dancers holding hands across the fields.”

The book carries illustrations of much-loved poles from all around the globe, from those that line the winding roads on the Isle of Mull, Argyll and Bute - “the words ‘simply’ and ‘gorgeous’ spring to mind” writes Martin - to poles from Russia’s Kalmyk Steppe, or Kalmuk Steppe.

This is a desolate plain of 100,000 square km bordering the northwest Caspian Sea which Mr Evans describes as “vast enough to break the spirit of invading Wehrmacht forces but with lines of poles enough to raise the spirit of die-hard telegraph pole connoisseurs.”

Because of its poles, Martin admits that Kalmyk Steppe is “number six in my all-time top places to go before I die.”

(His number one all-time top place is the National Lottery headquarters, to pick up his jackpot cheque!)

The basic facts and figures in his book aren’t earth-shattering, but they’re interesting, infectious and often intriguing.

There are around 4 million poles in the UK, ‘planted’ about 6 feet into the ground; the average telegraph pole is 30 feet tall, graded for width as (L) light, (M) medium and (H) heavy, and they’re tested regularly by taking “a sample boring from the ground line.”

That’s some of the more mundane information available in the book.

There are also things you’ve never thought of before, such as GPO telegraph pole training in the 1960s, when engineers practised their craft atop poles barely eight feet tall.

Being close to the ground and to their instructors was the obvious way to stay safe and learn their trade without risking a life-threating accident.

Martin’s painstakingly technical telegraphic-travelogue encircles the globe, introducing a vast variety of poles of different indigenous designs, styles, functions and specifications.

His often-eloquent accounts display his devotion!

There is the “loneliness and isolation of Icelandic high voltage distribution poles.” There are “island-hopping Hebridean power poles to infinity and beyond.”

A line of lonely poles bearing a single wire along a gorse-hedged country lane in Donegal “captures the divine essence of pole appreciation” writes Martin, describing them as “uncomplicated poles in a landscape taking the eye, the fancy and their thin electric voices on their merry way towards Malin.”

Even old ceramic or glass insulators between pole and wire - cherished and collected by members of TPAS - are worthy of Martin’s pen!

“Were you listening

all those years

atop the pole

between big house and the exchange?

What might you have heard

as those long dead voices whispered by?

Stock market talk,

household gossip,

inevitable war.

Your eavesdrop over

the telegraph done.

Crackling whispers you once carried

now take the high road.

And your secrets safe on

a shelf in the collector’s home.”

Similarly poignant, Martin’s book introduces a pencil and watercolour painting entitled Wiltshire Landscape.

Painted by Eric Ravilious in 1937, the scene is of a rolling country landscape, a green-hedged road, a red mail van and a line of telegraph poles.

The 1930s was the great age of the motor car and touring the open road was almost mandatory for the vehicle owning classes.

“This idealised vision of the countryside was promoted by motoring organisations and any number of guidebooks,” writes Evans, adding “despite not being a driver himself Eric Ravilious found inspiration in this landscape.”

“His paintings have a soft, almost dreamlike quality and it is this undulating countryside with its endless lonely lane and lie of poles that I find so endearing.”

Ravilious was an official war artist in World War II and received a commission as a Captain in the Royal Marines.

He was killed in 1942 at the age of 39 while accompanying a Royal Air Force air-sea rescue mission off Iceland that failed to return to its base.

‘Telegraph Pole Appreciation for Beginners’ by Martin Evans is available from www.telegraphpoleappreciationsociety.org

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