THE other week I took a trip back to my home village. The end of July marks my father’s birthday, and around that date I always like to visit the country churchyard in Spott, where he and my mother are buried. It’s only a short distance from the family home in Belhaven.
Spott is so tiny that the phone box – now a defibrillator station – stands out almost as prominently as its handful of cottages, with their profusion of roses and hollyhocks. The church and graveyard date back centuries, and many of the more venerable headstones are now aslant, or have been toppled by the council, or strapped up, to make sure they don’t crush any passers-by.
I’m not the biggest fan of graveyards, but the tranquillity of Spott eases the mind. Next to a field of sheep, it sits on the edge of a steep valley, overlooking the North Sea and the Bass Rock. The Lammermuir hills rise gently in the other direction. Other than the increased number of headstones, very little has changed since I was young. I could almost persuade myself that the country upbringing I enjoyed in this quiet corner of the county was still on offer today.
For those of us who prefer old East Lothian to new, it’s best not to descend the hill, where soldiers on their way to and from the battle of Dunbar once marched. From the vantage point of the kirk, it would be possible to maintain the illusion that Dunbar is still a small fishing town and Belhaven as sleepy as ever, bathed in a daily aroma of hops from its picturesque brewery.
Sadly, though, it has become another world. Or at least, sadly for the likes of me. The place where John Muir, the father of the environment movement, grew up, playing truant from school as he roamed free, is there to find if you have an archaeological eye, but much of it has been obliterated.
The schoolmaster’s cottage where we lived sat at the edge of a large wheat field, which my parents always knew would one day be gobbled up by a property developer. To their surprise, they managed to enjoy their undisturbed outlook across fields to the hills for more than half a century. As did the wildlife, such as the foxes and occasional deer that leapt their stone wall and treated the garden as their own. By the time the long-anticipated threat of houses arrived, my parents were gone.
I always admired their philosophical outlook at the thought that one day there would be other properties facing them from the bottom of the garden. Nimbies they were not. Even so, I am relieved that they did not see the transformation of the field.
Desecration would be a better description. Nobody could have predicted that the swathe of prime farmland, once the domain of midnight combine harvesters, whose noise and lights kept neighbours awake till dawn, would be suffocated by modern villas. Packed more tightly than an Amazon delivery van, they now loom over the row of cottages where we lived, completely out of scale.
They are, however, entirely in keeping with other housing developments which are creeping over East Lothian faster than a spring tide. John Muir would barely recognise his boyhood haunts, which were as familiar to me and my friends in the 1970s as they would have been to him in the 1840s. Now they are buried.
From Musselburgh to Dunbar, by way of Gullane, Dirleton and North Berwick, the countryside is being encased in concrete. It’s as if a giant cement mixer has run amok. Instead of rolling woods and fields of grain and livestock, there are enclaves of executive houses with double garages. Robot mowers scurry around pocket lawns, bored witless for lack of work. And where building has not yet started, hoardings promise the arrival of pristine new estates. They ought to be called Stepford 1, 2, 3.
Where formerly East Lothian was a patchwork of distinctive towns and villages, now they are starting to roll into each other. In a few years’ time, you can imagine an uninterrupted wall of housing, stretching down the coast.
This construction boom is catering for the growing demand for a place in or near the country. Yet the pursuit of rural and coastal life is helping to destroy the very thing people come in search of. It used to be possible to live surrounded by nature yet within touching distance of town. Today, you have to travel to reach the countryside, and such is the pressure on the most popular locations, you’ll never be alone.
Since the population is hardly growing, there is nothing inevitable about the inexorable waves of expansion rippling outwards from the capital. Not that I don’t understand the urge to live beyond the city, and to enjoy the pace of life, and the sense of belonging, that smaller communities offer. What is irksome is not development in itself, but the scale and insensitivity of it. Most housing construction seem to be driven by greed, to fit more and bigger properties into less space.
Meanwhile, as concrete spreads, rain and river plains kick back. A warming climate can be blamed for the force and duration of rainfall, but giving it nowhere to go is surely the fault of planners and developers, who try to defy the laws of physics as well as hydrology.
If this sounds like a Jeremiad, perhaps it is. It is a response to the sense that, at a point when everybody is aware of the value of green landscape and nature’s empty spaces, we are taking up more rather than less acreage, stamping our footprint ever more heavily, and pushing wild things further to the margins. In effect we are shrinking what Shakespeare elegiacally called “the earth’s cold face”.
Returning to the Borders, we passed through scenery unaltered in decades, other than by the odd wind turbine. Thankfully, parts of East Lothian remain as they always were, and when you come upon them, few places are more beguiling. Maybe pining for the days of unpeopled hillsides and tracks is simply misanthropy. I should be happy that so many want a taste of the country. And in many ways I am. I just wish people would protect it rather than build on it.
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