Notebook: Sad farewell to Cockenzie power station

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They may be slaying a filthy industrial dinosaur, but to its workers and the local community, Cockenzie’s closure is like saying a long, sad farewell to an old friend

BILL Kelly is a power station guy. That’s how he describes himself. “Born in the shadow of Longannet,” in the Fife mining village High Valleyfield, he has worked at Cockenzie in East Lothian since 1986, and has been station manager for the last seven years.

Cockenzie Power Station. Picture: Alex Hewitt

Cockenzie Power Station. Picture: Alex Hewitt

He felt, therefore, considerable sadness and pride when it was decided that he would be the one to press the button which would send out a trip signal, ­closing the steam valves feeding the ­giant turbines and bringing to an end almost half a century of work. Cockenzie has generated enough electricity to keep all the lighthouses around Scotland’s coast glowing, like a string of pearls, for 20,000 years.

“I am immensely proud,” says Kelly, who is 59. “A funny thing – although it is owned by ScottishPower, this is my ­power station. It is very personal. Like a family. Some call it the old girl, but the reality is it’s like your baby. I love the place.”

Cockenzie Power Station opened in 1967 and will close on March 31. At its peak it employed 500 workers, and it is estimated to have given work to around 10,000 people over the years. Now, after privatisation and outsourcing, it ­employs a core staff of 90. Around half will take voluntary redundancy; the rest will be redeployed within other ­ScottishPower businesses, the bulk ­going to Longannet.

The power station is not closing because of creeping impotence; nor has it outlived its usefulness. Rather, its great chimneys which belch carbon and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere have failed to meet green standards set by EU law; so Cockenzie has had to go, a utopian venture – intended “to turn the wheels of industry and to light the homes of the people,” to quote a 1968 documentary – which has come to be seen as an environmental dystopia. Yet the men (it is almost all men) who work there do not regard the power station as any sort of disgrace. For them, Cockenzie represents home and hearth, a workplace which has provided them with ­security and community, and which they will sorely miss.

“It’s sad. We’d all like to have seen this place go on a lot longer,” says Andy ­Anderton, 47, who works in the control room. He gives a wry shrug. “European directives, eh?”

Cockenzie Power Station, as it reaches the end of its life, is a humbled, hobbled giant. A huge box of opaque glass, it ­occupies 93 hectares and looms above the firth. The twin chimneys, each 500 feet tall, have a circumference at the base of around 50 yards. On the day I visit, snow has smeared white stripes down their eastern side, and javelins of ice, flung by high winds, fly beyond the station perimeter, prompting workers in hard hats to shout warnings to passers-by. The interior of each chimney is a vast, dim, dank, echoing space. From the roof, glimpsed between the stacks, the Forth bridges are like wire strung ­between fence posts.

These chimneys make Cockenzie highly visible – from Porty prom; North Bridge; from Fife. They are used as a navigational aid by local prawn boats. They seem an inevitable part of the landscape, and yet it is likely that in a couple of years they will be demolished. ­ScottishPower has planning consent for a new gas-fired power station which – if it goes ahead, which is undecided – will require much smaller chimneys, a scunnering diminuendo.

Marlene Love and her family will miss the chimneys, which are visible from their house in the village. Marlene is 71 and was for many years chair of the local community council. The power station, for the Loves, is a family business. ­Marlene’s husband, Stan, a retired fitter, took part in its construction and then, when it was built, went to work in it for the next 33 years. His pay helped raise four children, one of whom, Stephen, later found a job there. Marlene and Stan’s son-in-law, Keith, works in the control room at present. There is a standing joke among the Loves that the gleaming steel grinding ring and balls, important bits of Cockenzie kit which sit in the west links beside the power station, will serve as a headstone for Stan when his day comes. Yet it is not quite a joke; he intends to have his ashes scattered there.

Deep family connections are not uncommon locally. Fathers, brothers, ­uncles, sons – they all worked in the power station; just as, once upon a time, the villages of Cockenzie, Port Seton and Prestonpans supported fishing and mining dynasties. That word “generation” has a double resonance around these parts. There is the generation of electricity, but also the generations of people to whom that work has given wages and purpose. One street, South Seton Park, was home at one time to so many power station workers that it is known as ­Megawatt Avenue.

“We’ll be sorry to see it go,” says ­Marlene Love. “The whole economy of Cockenzie and Port Seton will suffer. It would be sacrilege to see houses built on the site. We’d lose our identity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re coming in from land, sea or air, you know that you’re home when you see the power station.”

Fraser MacDonald, 40, a lecturer at Edinburgh University, has blogged about his affection for Cockenzie. He values it as a symbol of modernity, solidarity and labour and enjoys it in particular from the perspective of Levenhall Links, a nature reserve created by landscaping ash from the power station. Here, in this post-industrial idyll, MacDonald likes to watch oystercatchers, plovers and godwits, raising his binoculars now and then to focus on Cockenzie itself. His ­relationship to the power station is ­approximately that of Charlie Bucket to the chocolate factory – ravenous curiosity and awe.

“What is really pleasing about Cockenzie is that it is never in any way apologetic about its own function,” he says. “There’s no embarrassment about its presence. It is monumental and it is happy to proclaim what it does: it makes power. And I find that quite moving in a way.”

Inside, Cockenzie is cavernous and dirty. Put down a hand on any surface and it blackens with coal dust. There is a smell of burning oil and coal, a clammy heat. Steam drifts up through walkways, spectral in the sunlight slanting through the windows of the turbine hall. The noise in the basement level is like the roar of a football crowd, but 100 times as loud. Everything vibrates, feels alive. Everywhere are sombre, sooty ­machines, too enormous to comprehend, and, at the centre of it all, the furnaces, the heart of the place. A small steel hatch, opened for a moment, reveals the intense orange fire that is the life force of Cockenzie, its seething, searing pulse.

The men who work here are, by necessity, pragmatic, level-headed sorts, yet even they are not immune to such immensity and grandeur. One compares it to an ancient cathedral and “a dusty ­palace”; it is, says another, “like Dante’s Inferno”. The feelings of the workers towards Cockenzie are a strange mix – some admit to fear and a sense of being insignificant flesh among so much steel, but those same men will say, with their next breath, that they feel, too, something tender; an ember of the human spirit.

Paul Duffney is 60 and has worked here as an instrument mechanic since 1975. Like many Cockenzie workers, his father was a miner; he died at the Lady Victoria Colliery, Newtongrange, falling to his death in the pit, two days before the boy’s 15th birthday. Joining the ­power station at 23, Duffney found a dozen father figures, wise heads and strong arms, and felt he was following in the footsteps of the parent he had lost – his dad howked coal; he, Paul, used it to keep the country running.

“It’s not a pleasant feeling to think that the power station will be cold. It’s almost like losing a friend,” he says. “It’s been more to us than a chunk of metal. It belonged to us and we belonged to it.”

The control room of Cockenzie looks like a very 1960s idea of the future, the bridge of the Enterprise made over by Biba. The instrument panels are a distinctive green called eau de nil. Pressure gauges and coloured switches. Flashing lights and, on a monitor, the dying flames of the furnace. A dozen men in grey boilersuits are gathered to administer the last rites.

Though the power station will remain open for decommissioning until the end of the month, the morning of my visit sees electricity generation come to an end. Bill Kelly, who has the honour, is stooped over the panel, waiting for the agreed moment.

“Stand by,” someone announces. “Thirty seconds.”

“Right, go for it,” says one of the engineers.

The station manager shakes his head. “No. I want it on the nail.”

A digital clock above the door shows 8.34am as he presses the red button. The moment feels underwhelming and overwhelming all at once. No cheers, no tears. “Well done, guys,” says Kelly. “The last one.”

This final burst of energy leaving Cockenzie for the national grid will be used to make tea and toast, watch TV, surf the net; a million mundane activities by people unaware that the electricity in their kettles, tellies and laptops is, at that precise second, being provided by an old building on the east coast of Scotland that, for those who worked there, had a power and a glory which could not be measured in watts.

Someone, I notice later, has written “RIP” on one of the furnaces, tracing the letters with a finger in the soot. And that feels about right. Among the machines, the human touch. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Rest in peace, Cockenzie.

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss