It is often the shortest journey, undertaken with least expectation, that offers up an excess of possibility beyond what we expect to see.
It’s always worth exploring the other side of the barbed wire fence.
Never keep to the path.
(Extracts from FPC Field Guide).
Time constrained by commitments later on in the day and yet compelled by the need to go for a walk, we settle on a local part of the Fife Coastal Path. The very short stretch between Inverkeithing and Dalgety Bay is a narrow tarmacadam / cinder ribbon of a mile, or so, that meanders around the coastline. Whilst offering fine views of the Forth Rail Bridge and over to Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat it is unlikely to trouble any tourist brochure. Indeed, the walking guide for the Fife Coastal Path devotes one short paragraph to it. There is a clear implication that this is a space that you can simply pass through. It is also a functional path, popular with dog walkers, leisurely strollers and is even lined with street lighting. However, as the sign above indicates, the traveller is asked to keep within the marked path. We cannot help thinking of Little Red Riding Hood but can only read the sign as an invitation to stray …
There is a distinctive topography to the land along this stretch of the path which edges around Inverkeithing Bay with sloping scrub and wooded elevations up to Preston Hill and Letham Hill behind. These factors and lack of road access, has prevented any urban coalescence between the nodal points of the old industrial harbour of Inverkeithing and the 1960s new town of Dalgety Bay.
However, there is also a distinct feeling of crossing a threshold, as you escape the gravity and material ephemera of the human settlement, and move into this zone from either end. A feeling of the wildness encroaching, long forgotten histories written into the land, whispered stories at the periphery of perception. A freeing up of the rules.
Leaving from Inverkeithing, we walk past a row of lock-ups, that are not without some semblance of aesthetic beauty in their irregular order and contrasting colours. You wonder what is behind these out-of-the-way closed doors? Some have obviously not been accessed for some time given the overgrown vegetation in front. We also notice that as soon as you pass the last lock-up, the wild space is already there, encroaching green fingers, edging into the human space and into the photo frame. There is also a rather cryptic graffiti announcement:
We are not sure whether to read this utterance as a comment on some existentialist predicament (“Out of it”) or a marker post to signify a transition point of moving out of the urban setting. (Moving oot it). Later on, when we reach the Dalgety Bay end of the path we find more graffiti on the first inhabited house. There is a clear sense that both of these graffiti bookend an entry – or exit. We read these signs as an intimation that what lies between these threshold markers is a different place – a zone. Not urban, yet not rural. Not even ‘classic’ edgeland. Instead, an indication that what lies within is an escape from the ostensible order of the settlements. Possibly a play area, a hidden place, an out of sight place, a gathering place, a wildness.
We are not far out of Inverkeithing when our advice to keep to the marked path is quickly discounted. We are drawn to the barbed wire topped, chain wire fence that we can see across a flat area of post industrial wasteland off to the left. It’s a pretty feeble attempt at preventing access as a whole section has been removed and most of the barbed wire has been snipped off.
We follow the well trodden desire path through the fence to find ourselves in the heart of the abandoned Prestonhill Quarry, now filled up with water. There is a compelling, uncanny beauty to this place. A void gouged and hewn out of the Earth, with the remaining dolerite walls reflecting weak sunlight like a cubist canvas. The acoustic ambience has also noticeably changed. We are in a huge reverberating chamber so that the slightest noise pings around the walls. A distant ice cream van sounds as if it should be coming from somewhere within the quarry, possibly submerged underneath the water. At the same time swallows dart and zig-zag above our heads, whilst magpies hop and skip around the top rocks, observing us with curiosity. A couple of buzzards circle in the distance . There is no one else around.
What is noticeable is that even in these most barren of conditions, non-human nature is restaking a claim with outcrops of growing vegetation, clinging to the quarry walls, thriving in the most hostile of conditions and the thinnest scrapings of soil.
We soon find the ubiquitous discarded fridge. Lying face down, its broken body surrounded by other accumulated fly tipped debris. The human stain of the dumping ground. It is always a puzzle to consider the time and energy it must take to fly tip a fridge in an ‘out of the way’ area, such as this, compared with taking it to the recycling point. Perhaps it’s for the sheer visceral thrill of throwing a fridge into a quarry. We assume that it has been pushed over the top and has been there for some time.
There is perhaps another attraction of the quarry. It is an unseen place with very deep water. Every surface has another side. What else lurks underneath the skin of calm blue water? What is submerged down there in the green depths with the little fishes?
All underwater photographs of the quarry are by ‘Zibi’ and can be accessed here along with many others. Whilst we have attempted to seek permission from Zibi to use these images, we have not received any reply to our request. Clearly if our request is subsequently refused we will remove the photographs from the blog but in the meantime were are grateful to Zibi for their inclusion.
It would appear that the quarry is also a favored disposal spot for stolen cars, making for an ideal symbiotic relationship with the diving community who find the quarry an attractive destination for underwater exploration. There is plenty to see and investigate below the surface. We are also told later that local fishermen stock the quarry with fish which they then try to catch again, fostering a fledgling underwater eco-system. There are rumours that someone may have introduced a pike.
The quarry is also clearly a gathering place. A hidden place of escape and unregulated recreation. We walk around the void, recording some of the many tags that have been written on to the rocks.
Staring up at the quarry wall and contemplating the material passage of time ossified in these rocks. The play of light on the angular shapes conjures up dynamic planes of movement and appear to imbue the rocks with an almost animistic quality. We can eventually see a cubist rock giant, emerging from time with right arm raised:
Back on the path, we head off to the right hand side this time.
Stretching out over the water is a fretwork pier of rusting metal which we find out later was the old industrial conveyor system used to load the quarried stone on to tethered ships.
We stand for a while to listen out for the lost sounds of this place. The kling klang ghosts of the industrial machinery, the heft of monolithic slabs of dolerite rattling down towards the waiting ships.
almost silent now
now almost silent
only the ack-ack-ack
of a solitary gull
riding the wind currents
A large steel plate has been placed across the structure presumably in an attempt to prevent people from climbing out along the pier. It’s unlikely to be a deterrent but it no doubt satisfies some health and safety regime. The plate has rusted and weathered into something resembling a Richard Serra sculpture:
Once again, we can see how the wildness is staking its claim with tendrils of green growing up, through and out of the lattice structure. “Shugg and Leanne” evidence the human urge to make a mark. The basic proof of existence. A name recorded. A demonstration of love?
Running parallel to the fretwork structure is another abandoned jetty. The pulleys remain suspended from the cross beam conjuring up something of the gibbet or perhaps some form of cosmic launch mechanism to project the traveller up and into the pillows of cloud:
all of this
lost stories, forgotten stories
sounds of absence
whispering in the wind.
We decide to explore a bit further underneath the conveyor structure sensing that this may yield possibilities. We are not disappointed when we alight on this gathering site:
What is noticeable is that there is no rubbish strewn here. It’s as if this is a place of respect. Strangely enough, the atmosphere evokes a similar feel to another outcrop of rocks that can be found on The Binn (Hill) along the coast at Burntisland:
Humans have also made their marks on The Binn stones, albeit some 4,000 years earlier
We pick up a bit of walking pace to take advantage of the seascape.
a sounded wave, persistent and seductive –
plays the shoreline.
flux and flow of sea brine –
a spilling over
of elemental energy.
Once again the unusual topography is such that we can hear a mash-up of field and hedgerow bird song against foreshore waders and gull talk. A chorus of crows, darting finches and tits; a wren bobs along the wall before taking refuge in the trees. What looks like a falling red leaf is actually a robin. On the foreshore, oystercatchers, and curlews wade and waddle whilst fulmars, cormorants and herring gulls dive and swoop. Symphonies of birdsong and gull chatter.
It doesn’t take long to reach Dalgety Bay, but just before the threshold graffiti we come across this:
Roofless and abandoned, it looks as if all of the surrounding land has been sucked away from the foundations leaving it sitting like an old tooth stump.
We try to piece together a narrative here but fail. Why has it been abandoned? Why left to ruin? It was clearly a property that had wealth behind it at some point, sitting in its walled garden. Enquiries are made of a few passing locals but yield nothing. “It’s always been like that” says a man who looks to be in his forties. “Ever since I was a wee kid”. He doesn’t know the story though.
We are on the reverse trip back to Inverkeithing when we spot a small opening in the stone wall with a signpost:
How could we resist? Off up the rickety path which didn’t appear overly well trodden.
We find a beetle on its back on one of the steps clearly distressed. A multitude of legs. flailing wildly, unable to right itself. We soon tip it on to its feet and the little jet black shell scuffles off into the grass.
The path ascends fairly steeply and it’s not long before we find ourselves on a high ridge which slopes away towards Letham Wood. That will have to wait for another day. Our immediate area of interest lies off to the left. Another barbed wire fence and it’s as easy to circumvent as the last one. This is what we had been leading up to. We could already feel what we were about to witness but were unprepared for the sheer scale of it. Compared to the ground level, water-filled heart of the quarry, we could now gain a perspective of the entire void and walk right up to peer over the edge.
Peering over the side, into the void, it’s as if a vacuum is trying to suck your insides out. I’m reminded of Aragon in Paris Peasant and the ‘suicide bridge’ in Buttes Chaumont park – coincidentally built in a reclaimed stone quarry. Before metal grilles were erected along the side of the bridge, it would supposedly claim victims from passers-by who had had no intention whatsoever of killing themselves but found themselves suddenly tempted by the invocation of the abyss.
Our photographic skills are unable to adequately capture the scale of this almost mournful absence, hewn from the Earth. It’s a place to simply sit and stare for a while.
It’s often easy to forget to raise our heads to the horizon. Having escaped the seduction of the void, we now realise how high up on the ridge we are. It changes our sense of the whole topography of the area. We can see how connected we are to the East side of Inverkeithing and marvel at the long view over to Dunfermline. We can see Spinner in the distance with the distorted perspective making it appear as if it is growing out of a housing estate.
We later discover that there is also an abandoned WW2 radio station complete with intact pill boxes not too far away but don’t see them today. Another time.
We descend back down the hill to the coastal path and reflect on our experience. What we had anticipated as a short, local coastal walk had been transformed into something else. A journey through a zonal space teeming with encounters and traces of the human, non-human and even the animistic. A co-existence of dumping ground, liminal playground, gathering place and nature sanctuary. The transient narrative of human activity inscribed in the abandoned house and the mute quarries and jetties a reminder of how financial capital abandons one exhausted void to migrate to the next site of profitable extraction.
Above all of this, the continually changing drama in the sky:
And as we return to Inverkeithing we can smell the sweet wood lying in the still functioning timber yard and take one last photo. It’s only later, that we notice that in this photograph, and almost all of the others, there is some intimation of wild nature straying into the frame.
An alert wildness, observing, perhaps patiently waiting for its moment to come.
This has been a little slice of:
Now Playing: James Plotkin : Mark Spybey – A Peripheral Blur
44 replies on “Into the Void – A Field Trip”
Truly magnificent Fifepsy. I’m working on a project with the British Mountaineering Council about the afterlife of abandoned quarries, and your piece is full of insight (and great pics). I’m going to reblog it over on my site. Great stuff.
Thanks very much for the generous comments and reblog Luke. Much appreciated. This has made me look at quarries in a different light as well.
Reblogged this on lukebennett13 and commented:
A great field report from @fifepsy on meaning making in an abandoned quarry (Prestonhill)
A wonderfully rich post teeming with with the joy of discovery. Magnificent!
Thanks Leigh. Much appreciated.
A wonderful post, as insightful as it is intriguing; a classic piece of psychogeography – if such a concept exists. I spent six interminable years on the other side of the Forth, working for Edinburgh Council. God, it was dire; if I knew then what I know now I’d have been much more productive in my skiving!
Thanks for the comments Sian. Here’s to productive skiving!
A magnificent post @fifepsy – words and images blending together into something very special. Finding wonder and mystery in the everyday, beauty in the neglected. I walked part of this path during the summer and your post makes me want to go back!
Thanks Bobby. Yes I think there are all sorts of wonders along the longer coastal path and like how it encompasses the picturesque, industrial, post-industrial etc.
A fascinating journey full of psychogeographical insight. Love the quarry. Thanks for sharing with us, Fifepsy.
Thanks Laurence. Much appreciated.
Love what you do! The detail, the time taken, the thoughtful uncovering of stories and meanings. Just great!
Thanks very much for such a lovely comment Daniela. Glad that you enjoyed it.
Marvellous epic journey, short and close to home, the real touchstone of wonder. I love the subtle humour you bring to your precise observations like the “cosmic launch mechanism” and tangential graffiti ponderings. Thanks for this memorable reminder to always be looking, to feel and think about wherever we are.
Many thanks for the perceptive comments Julian. I’m glad that the traces of humour came across. Much appreciated.
The joys of discovery are everywhere – brilliant wide ranging observation and insight. I love the underwater section too. This is true psychogeography for all!
This is very good. Maybe it is now completely effaced by the outward spread of Dalgety Bay but I remember in the 70s there were the sad remains of the village of St David’s on this stretch of coast. The story was that the harbour and village had been bought by a shipbreakers who proceeded to make life impossible for the inhabitants by dumping rusting metal in the streets and gardens. Eventually everyone moved out and the village was fenced off. It was possible to walk down to the small beach next to the harbour along a narrow path with crumbling houses on the other side of the fence. Is this story true? Are there any vestigial signs of St. David’s?
It’s an interesting point. Part of the harbour structure is certainly still there although do not recall seeing any notable traces of the old village. However, was in the local library this morning and managed to find some photographs of the old St Davids village which appears to date back to c.1750s when it became a centre for the export of coal from the Fordell Estate. Perhaps surprisingly described as a ‘bonnie little seaport’ with the buildings roofed with red pantiles. Also came across a reference to some fine ships being launched in 19th century from Wilsons boatyard and visits in early 20th century from the steam yacht Crystal owned by the Earl and Countess of Buckinghamshire. The Countess was descended from the Hendersons of Fordell and when visiting them the villagers “were expected to show due deference to their superiors” with the women expected to curtsey and the men to doff their caps. There then appears to be the slow decline of the village due, as you mention, to the shipbreaking activities and it looks like the martitime scrapyard effectively engulfed the remaining village. In the 1950s the village was deemed unfit for human habitation and 40 inhabitants were forced to move. The site was eventually cleared as recently as the early 1980s and presumably is the site on which the new houses now stand. So looks like your story is true! Incidentally, I’ve found out that the abandoned house in the post appears to be Seafield House which was inhabited by the factor of the Fordell Estate, certainly as far back as 1860s.
I wonder if people who find themselves at the quarry feel the pull of the water and wish they could slide in. Roger Deakin comes to mind of course and also his story about a pike trapped in a tide pool that took a bite off someone’s arm… maybe best not to slide in then… I was on the opposite side of the forth this summer and couldn’t keep my eyes off the rail bridge, looking up from underneath at low tide. Eventually I looked down again and brought a white and green stiped piece of smoothed ceramic back with me. I would have stayed to stray further afar and above and get closer to the bridge but the sea and the seals were calling and tickets for the ferry to Inchcolm had already been bought.
What a great post this, thank you.
Thanks for the comment Anna. I was surprised how blue the water looked and on a warmer day could imagine taking a dip. I’m sure people will do in the summer. The part of the coastal path that starts at North Queensferry literally goes under the rail bridge and offers great views up to it. Quite a structure!
I’ve been on a lovely walk with you, thank you 🙂
Thanks Jonathan. Glad you enjoyed it.
Terrific stuff and good choice of music too.. on which topic, is the title “Into the Void” a hat-tip to Black Sabbath?
Thanks for the comment. Wasn’t a conscious hat-tip but got to love a bit of Sabbath from time to time!
I thought it was great too….from a Scottish geopoet now living back in London
Hi Gordon, thanks and good to hear from you. Will drop you a line.
Loved this post. Particularly as it’s a part of the Fife Coastal Path I’ve yet to explore. Will definitely do it soon. Thanks.
Thanks very much Marysia. I think this stretch of the coastal path is often forgotten.You will have noticed that I have also followed your blog. Good to see more Fife images and the project on the Polish army in Fife is very interesting. Best wishes.
Yes, thanks for looking at my blog. And I’ve not done any Polish army research for a while so thanks for the reminder to get on with it!
As a 56yo former inhabitant of Inverkeithing I can fill in a few details..the ruined house was indeed Seafield House home of the Factor of the Fordell estate but prior to the break up of the estate was the home of Capt Jones RNR whose wife Jesse Jones was a well kent face to many children in Inverkeithing as she welcomed them into her house including myself. The harbour at St Davids closed in 1946…..the last train of coal from Fordell Colliery going down the line on 10th August. The harbour was then abandoned including the village dwellings and sold to J White shipbreakers. There was still a lot to see of the old village and its railway when I was younger but the legacy of shipbreaking meant that a lot of asbestos lagging was dumped in the locality and is prob still there.
Seafield House was burned down in the late 1980s..I know not how..as I was long away from the area….but old Mrs Jones god bless her enjoyed her fags and perhaps therin lies the answer.
Thanks for that Lee. Very interesting local knowledge. Much appreciated.
The house was burnt down by vandals a time after Mrs Jones death it had been derelict for a good while, I remember the well in the garden and also outbuildings that were really quaint, just before this house was the brownie hill and you had massive street cred if you could climb it both sides and up the middle where there was nothing to cling onto it was really slippy in the dry hot days of summers long ago and it was so very steep!! I as a mere lassie eventually conquered all sides! My childhood was spent round there mostly with my grandmother and her alsation dog Kim, I go round now and again and it evokes so many special memories. I have stumbled on this site while looking for diggers hill at the bottom of fraser avenue long for gotten, played there too, it was an old army barracks I presume from the second world war. I never usually leave comments but felt impelled to. Thankyou. Brenda Russell nee mccaffrey.
Brenda, thanks very much for your comment. Very interesting to hear how the place still evokes many special memories for you and good to hear your stories of climbing the Brownie Hill. Diggers Hill also sounds interesting. Will have a look into that.
My dad met my mum in Seafield house as she was good friends to John and Jessie Jones,i spent many happy times in that house playing with Fido – Jessies daughter.
Thanks for the comment John. Good to hear about it when it was lived in.
Loved reading the blog! Just been for a lovely walk round the coastal footpath and bumped into a young man who has bought Mrs Jones house and intends to renovate it to live in. He is really keen to find out as much as he can about the history of Seafield House and is desperate for an old photograph of the house in its glory days. Can anyone help? If you want to get in touch with him directly, he has posted his details on a post on the coastal path in front of the house. He is currently renting one of the flats next door.
Thanks for the comment Margaret. I think I saw an old picture of the house in the Dunfermline library.
An idle internet surf & I feel I have wandered into a part of my history on your wonderful ramble around the old quarry. My GGF was the Quarry manager there (Circa 1900) & married a woman called Jones. I wonder?? Off to do a bit more research but thank you so much for your sensitive description of the area.
Thanks for the comment. If your research uncovers anything would love to hear about it.
Enjoyed reading your article – My friends and I used to kick around this stretch of the Coast Path a lot when we were kids . We had just got ourselves mountain bikes, so would start off by climbing up into Letham Hill woods from the roundabout near Dalgety Bay railway station, ride the fun wee singletrack trail along to the open area above the quarry, ride down the side of the rickety wooden steps you mentioned, and then along to the quarry where there were plenty of wee slopes and drop-offs for messing about on our bikes.
It was quite a popular spot for hanging about during the summer – various kids and teenagers would swim, and a few would be daft enough to dive in from the top of the quarry walls. Various myths went around about things dumped in the quarry, including the body of a horse, a transit van, and various cars. This was probably sometime between 1997 and 2003, Debbie and Carrie mentioned on the rock are probably people I went to school with.
In terms of the house – I seem to remember a house being occupied down that way probably round about 96 or 97. Before the housing development was completed down that way, there was a narrow land rover track down to the gate where the path begins, and I remember regularly having to pull our bikes into the side to let cars go past.
(I should add that the reason I found the article was googling Prestonhill Quarry after hearing about this on the news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-28925759)
Thanks for the comment, although it is sad that such a tragic event is what brought you here. Good to have a bit of background from someone who used the place. Particularly like the myths around what may be in there. As you can see, there are certainly some cars!
Aye, although I think these cars might be more recent additions. I seem to recall the quarry being drained a few years back round about the time that the area was earmarked for housing, and there being a different set of cars etc. I did manage to find a few more photos on Flickr from someone who’d been in scuba diving, and their photos showed a sunken speedboat too, which I thought was a nice touch – https://www.flickr.com/photos/el-milligano/sets/72157646552114936
Thanks again. Good photos and nice to see the fish.
[…] We have previously entered the Zone like territory of The Void which was documented in a previous post here: […]