I left home on a Sunday afternoon, bundled in scarf and hat against the mid-February wind. I wanted to walk further on the coastal John Muir Way, between Prestonpans and Cockenzie. I imagined – and longed for – a rugged and picturesque sandy bay. A place where tales of its history, of the former glassworks, pottery, colliery, and brickworks would be fragments hanging in the air like mist. This, I felt certain, would be somewhere quaint, inspiring, and full of stories and nature; these industries had thrived from the 1800s until the 1970s when they were closed down.
Before, this land was wild, until industry and community needed room to grow. In a span of shoreline between the lagoons and the former Cockenzie power-station, this wasteland is now rewilding itself and returning to grasses, shrubs, and flowers. But it is a slow process: under my feet was black plastic mesh to hold the rough ground in place, an unsightly, unsteady path which gave out too easily underfoot. Littered around me amongst the pebbles and shells were tiles, coal, and halves of broken bricks. Driftwood tree trunks had been tossed up by the sea. Dead thistles and barren cow’s parsley scratched my ankles as I passed.
Disappointed, I wandered on. I slithered over the water’s-edge concrete slabs that were slick with algae in the wary company of curlews and gulls.
As the light faded, I reached a grassy hill of reclaimed land, under which lay decades-old waste of ashes and dust and earth. I clambered upwards and found a forked path: to the left, the sea, to the right, the town. I chose left, and followed the route around a copse, and at the top I gasped. As far as I could see on either side were the shores of East Lothian and Fife.
Dusk was a deep, denim blue. Across the indigo water, the distant lights in homes and ships glimmered. It was soundless, timeless. I gazed and gazed upon a view built on stories of centuries of labour and sweat.
These workers’ tales may be slowly hidden by nature, but they shouldn’t be forgotten. I came cosseted in my privilege searching for beauty, and found it built on very different lives of the past.