It’s outdated, sprawling, industrial and CO2 spewing. Yet there’s also a strange beauty to be found walking by the Grangemouth Refinery.
The news swept through my office, triggering a barrage of scandalised questions.
‘Alex is going to Grangemouth!’
‘Why the hell is he going to Grangemouth?’
‘Alex, why the hell are you going to Grangemouth?’
One colleague was so outraged she nearly walked into a wall on her way out, stopping innocent colleagues to inform them I was going to Grangemouth. Her face was a picture of astonishment and outrage but she’s a thespian that one, nothing ever knowingly under-performed. Her range of expressions would have mesmerised the audiences of the silent movie age.
To be fair to my colleagues it was a bitterly cold dark Friday evening when most people are on their way to family, pub or home. Yet I was heading for what is many the local industrial heap. They’ve grown-up in the shadow of this colossal industrial behemoth, squatting and smoking on the banks of the Firth of Forth, dominating the surrounding countryside. On the crags near my office you can see the tiny smoke plumes and chimneys some fifteen miles away on the distant horizon. Grangemouth draws the eye from central belt motorways, from the lowland hills of east Scotland and from across the waters of the Forth. She’s an elusive glimpse through the Glasgow-Edinburgh train window and a fearsome smoke-spewing monster crouching over the town and fields with grazing horses.
There’s a side to Britain that is ugly and polluting; most of us rush past the unloved infrastructure that keeps the lights on and our homes warm. Yet there can be a strange beauty about places like Grangemouth, or the industry along the Severn, or the weird landscape of the Dungeness power station. The local communities depend on this industry for jobs and a raison d’etre. They have to endure pollution, a blighted landscape, neglect, industrial disputes with the odds stacked against them and living in a blast zone.
Grangemouth Refinery employs about 1,200 permanent staff and a further 1,000 contractors. The town of Grangemouth, blighted by disastrous post-war planning, used to be a busy port but now its primary focus is the refinery.
Grangemouth Refinery is surely one of the pin-ups of British industry. One of the largest of its kind in Europe, it’s 700 hectares sprawl with cooling towers, tall chimneys, storage facilities and an insanely tangled mass of sleek steel pipes. It’s an artificial landscape that is a compelling hymn to smoke and concrete, curve and line, steel and space.
So here I am on this freezing cold night, walking through the refinery where glittering industry meets a Blade Runner set. It looks like a giant has been wandering round drooping fairy lights around a forest of chimneys and pipes. Blade Runner is not a coincidental reference – the film’s director, Ridley Scott, grew-up in the similar industrial landscapes of Middlesborough.
There’s hardly a soul about. I walk through a symphony of hypnotic noise. Oil tankers crash through gears, liquids gurgle in pipes, valves click, flaring chimneys hiss and roar, flames pulse, generators hum and growl. Clouds of steam fold and drift silently, endlessly, through the night air, a mesmerising sight. A building with three belching chimneys stirs and strains like a ship at its moorings. This living, breathing entity is straining and probing at the safety systems that control it, harnessing and channelling powerful forces. If Grangemouth ever decided to put on a show, half of Scotland would know about it.
I wait at the kind of bus stop whose timetable promises a bus but whose air of abandoned surliness suggests I would be foolish to believe it. Surprisingly, and with a certain of relief as the cold seeps into my bones, the bus arrives.
Raw industrial beauty it may be but Grangemouth is also an anachronism. This ageing power station is an affront to the green, carbon-free future, its days should be numbered. Quite where that leaves the town clustered round its edges is a difficult question. In the meantime the fairy lights will glitter, the clouds will billow and that strange industrial symphony will continue to play.
Please note – I don’t own the copyright to these photos and don’t know who does! Please contact me if these photos should not be used.