When Alex Hewitt heard of the imminent closure of Cockenzie Power Station near Edinburgh, the portrait photographer asked for permission to turn his lens on the workers during the plant’s final days. The result, a stunning collection of photographs, is now on display at an exhibition at Cockenzie House.
When one thinks of disconnecting electricity, it is usually by “pulling the plug”. At the Cockenzie Power Station in East Lothian, the end of 46 years of generating electricity for the nation came with the push of a button. As Bill Kelly, the station’s manager and an employee on the site for 27 years, stepped forward at 8.30am on 15 March with his finger raised Alex Hewitt, a portrait photographer and former deputy picture editor at The Scotsman, was there to capture the moment. But he was also there to capture so much more.
In the photographer’s fascinating new exhibition, A Beating Heart Stilled, he documents the men who have given decades of their lives to helping ensure that our kettles boil, our fridges work and the television never falters. Like blood in the body, electricity is the power source that keeps the nation on its feet.
Situated eight miles east of Edinbugh, the Cockenzie power station, with its distinctive twin towers, has been a landmark in East Lothian since it opened in 1967. The past 40 years have seen the changes roll in and out of Cockenzie. In the early days the coal-powered station was fuelled by nearby deep-mined coal. When those mines were exhausted or closed, the railways collected thousands of tons from the opencast mines in Lothian. Recently, Russian coal, which has a lower sulphur content, was used in a bid to redress Cockenzie’s reputation as an environmental liability. Branded by the World Wildlife Fund as the least carbon efficient power station in Britain in 2005, it was finally closed this year as it no longer met European environmental directives.
News of its imminent closure prompted Hewitt to apply to Scottish Power for permission to document its demise, which eventually led to three visits to capture the men at work.
He says: “On hearing that Cockenzie Power Station was to close my first thought as a portrait photographer went to the people who had kept the plant running for the last 40 years. Who were these men and women? How were they feeling about moving on to pastures new? A call to Scottish Power and a few negotiations later I was kindly granted access to come in and photograph the final operations of the plant.
“By placing the subjects in their work environment I hope to put across a visual representation of the pride these unsung heroes had in their positions at the plant and the feelings they harboured as they stilled the heart of power generation in East Lothian. Love it or loathe it, Cockenzie Power Station was an icon of East Lothian. Providing jobs for the community and an industrial backdrop for many landscape photographs, it will be remembered as an integral part of the coastline for many years.
“With an added fascination with industrial architecture, it was a privilege to be given such great access to the site and photograph the grand and the grimy within. I hope these photographs of people and place show an interesting glimpse into the cavernous shell and capture an element of the lives that have been lived in its shadow.”
At its height, the power station produced 1,200 megawatts, 300MW each from four massive units in which pulverised coal was blown by giant fans into a furnace, with each unit consuming 100 tonnes per hour. In 2000/2001 the plant consumed 1.5 million tonnes of coal, little wonder that one employee described it, with a sense of wonder as “like Hades”.
For Hewitt the same sense of wonder came when he visited the vast control room. “It was like something out of a James Bond movie film, with all the dials, switches and meter readers. There was a Cold War feel to the place.” There was also a sense of history and continuity when he met one employee whose father had also started work in the plant as an apprentice at the age of 16. “There was a sadness among the men but also a feeling of great pride in the work they had done.”
The Cockenzie Power Station is now in the process of being dismantled. The chimneys are expected to be toppled and the site converted to a new more environmentally friendly gas power station, but although the old power station is no more, anyone viewing Alex Hewitt’s pictures will see the lights still burning bright.
• A Beating Heart Stilled is on display at Cockenzie House, Edinburgh Road, Cockenzie, East Lothian (01875 819456)
More information can be found at the 3 Harbours Arts Festival website