The Sharp End: Inside the glass crucible

Spending a day at Pilkington's vast glassworks, Dave Waller has a window on the fiery processes.

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

I'm off to St Helens to visit Pilkington's glassworks. I know what sand is, and I'm familiar with glass, but I've no idea how you get from one to the other. I thought I'd state that from the start, in the interests of full transparency.

I arrive at 9.30 on a freezing morning to meet my guide, 17-year-old apprentice Scott Burrows, who kits me out with a Kevlar coat, hard-hat and safety glasses. It soon becomes apparent that my idea of the process is simplistic: I thought we'd be sitting on a craftsman's stool all day blowing that molten magic like a trumpet.

The reality is a bit more industrial. Scott will take me through the process. No photos, though - it's all top secret. We ascend in a clanky metal box to the top of the giant silo tower, nod at a team watching monitors, and grab a torch. I follow him up and down industrial staircases dusted in fine sand, we open manholes and peer into dark silos full of salt cake and sodium carbonate. 'You wouldn't want to fall in there,' says Scott.

Indeed. This would be the perfect setting for a Bond film, with chutes down to shard mountains and Escher-style conveyor belts carrying raw materials to the main building. Evil glass baron tries to take over the world, and 007 wrestles with him above a 1,600-degree furnace.

And what a furnace it is. 'Stand back,' Scott says, donning fireproof gloves and opening a little metal door. We peer in through the small, square hole; heat and fire rage past us. I hide behind a handheld wooden board, gazing through its window into the heart of the inferno. I'd never grasped the full horror of Hell till now.

The production line runs ceaselessly, 365 days a year, a continuous ribbon of glass floating on a river of molten tin. Every 12 years, there's a break for maintenance. We walk a metal platform beneath it, the heat sucking the moisture from my body. I hope the maintenance is up to scratch: it's a long trip back to London with your cords fused to your legs by 2,000 tons of molten glass.

Having chosen an apprenticeship over a career in the military, Scott is a couple of years in and clearly knows his stuff. He drops in words like frit and cullet as he sticks a steel rod into the cooling glass. It congeals into a paste. He explains how energy is saved by adding different substances to the mix.

His boss Les Archer, who has been here 30-odd years, tells me that apprenticeships used to be different. In the '70s, you shadowed a man who was more concerned that you were going to nick his job than to teach you. These days, apprentices like Scott can earn up to £730 a month, and are put through college free.

We join Les in the control room, where the team is gazing at a bank of monitors. I watch the shimmering river of glass pass through the brick tunnel. I expect Bond to appear on-screen, wading nonchalantly in Q's fire-retardant tuxedo, pausing to light a cigar at a flame jetting from the wall.

As we patrol the enormous shed, I'm struck by how few people there are. The noise is blaring, but it's all machinery, with just a worker or two riding past on a little cart. It used to be so different. A generation ago, the taxi driver had told me, St Helens was a Pilks town, and everyone had a relative who worked for the firm. MT's web editor's granddad had been on the books and, in retirement, received a Pilks hamper every Christmas.

Now, it's owned by Nippon Sheet Glass. Plants have closed, production lines have been reduced, and everything is mechanised. When Scott and his pals complete their apprenticeships, there's no guarantee of work.

We stroll down the line past the lehr, where the glass is cooled before being sliced and 'bonked' into sheets. We watch a sucker machine lift them off the line and stack them ready to go. Scott is sorry we can't get more hands-on, but it's the nature of the work. There are no gremlins in the machine, so we just run routine checks on temperature and glass level.

Scott clocks off at 4pm, and I stroll across the grounds with him to the security lodge. It feels bitterly cold after being so toasty in the glassworks. I figure out why: it must have been double-glazed.

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