Levenmouth in Fife is the name given to a conurbation on the north shore of the Firth of Forth some six miles east of Glenrothes and eight miles north-east of Kirkcaldy. The name is also sometimes applied to a rather wider area, but for our purposes it includes the towns of Leven, on the north-east side of the River Leven; Methil, on the south-west side of the River Leven; and Buckhaven, which forms a south-western continuation of Methil.
Levenmouth is an oddly elusive place. The main roads from Glenrothes and Kirkcaldy to the East Neuk of Fife come together near Windygates, north-west of Levenmouth, before skirting along the very northern edge of the conurbation. For most people, Levenmouth comprises little more than the huge bottling plant and bonded warehouse complex operated by Diageo, one of the world's largest producers of alcoholic drinks, plus a collection of recent housing developments. The only hint that there might be more here that is worth exploring comes from the fine stone arch that gives access to Letham Glen, a park on the north side of the main road.
Those who decide to turn off the main road find that Levenmouth is a fascinating place with a very dynamic story of repeated boom and bust to tell. Though there are obvious links between Leven on the one hand and Methil/Buckhaven on the other, the rather distinct stories of development on the two sides of the River Leven have resulted in towns that are surprisingly contrasting in character. Leven offers an attractive, bustling and still apparently vibrant High Street, plus many of the ingredients of a traditional seaside holiday resort, plus golf.
But if Leven can be thought of as the leisure deck of the ship, then Methil and Buckhaven jointly provide the engine room. The closely entwined story of the latter two revolves around coal mining, docks, and heavy industry, and while aspects of their story continue to leave their mark on the towns, an encouraging amount of recent development indicates no lack of communal energy or ambition and bodes well for the future.
Leven's main axis lies around its High Street, which runs from north-east to south-west. The north-eastern end of the pedestrianised area is marked by the fine old Co-Operative Building and the nearby Parish Church, plus a very fine war memorial and garden. The High Street itself is more interesting than some, offering several changes of character along its length and some nice buildings. At its south-western end you emerge at the modernistic bus station, while on the opposite side of the adjacent main road is the Levenmouth Swimming Pool and Sports Centre. This stands on the site of what was originally a dock, which when it was made redundant by the growth of nearby Methil Docks was turned into a railway coal yard, which in turn later fell redundant.
A little-used bridge over the River Leven close to the swimming pool leads to the site of what until 2011 was one of Levenmouth's main landmarks, the Methil power station. This was built in 1965 on the site of a golf course to burn coal slurry from the coal-washing plants of the many pits in the Fife coalfield. After the demise of the industry in the years up to the mid 1980s it burned fuel produced by the reclamation of coal tips, and imported slurry from Russia. The intention is to return the site to leisure use.
Head north-east along the shore of the Firth of Forth from the mouth of the River Leven and you come to an attractive and open promenade that wouldn't look out of place in any number of Scottish seaside resorts, complete with a range of leisure facilities and a beach that stretches for two miles. Here, too, is Leven Links and its golf course.
The main bridge linking Leven and Methil lies a short distance inland from the now disused one accessing the power station site. Today's bridge is a successor to the "Bawbee Bridge", built in 1840 to avoid the need to ford the River Leven. The name came from the toll originally charged to cross the bridge, of a ha'penny or a bawbee in Scots.
When we visited we were keen to discover what had become of Methil Docks. What this revealed was the extent to which redevelopment is now taking place in the area. The first sign of this is the stadium of East Fife Football Club, occupying a coastal location on the Methil side of the disused power station site. Head south-west from here, towards the docks, and you find much more intensive redevelopment. The power station chimney that once formed the town's most prominent landmark has gone, and now views across Levenmouth are dominated by a large wind turbine located on the coastal side of the disused Dock No.3. In some ways more significant are the new office buildings erected to the north-east of the dock, home to the Fife Renewables Innovation Centre, and to companies involved in the development of renewable energy.
Further on, the scale of the docks at Methil becomes clear, though so does their rather marginal condition. The inner face of part of the main outer breakwater had collapsed when we visited, other docks seemed little-used. It is all a very far cry from the days when Methil was one of the most important coal-exporting ports in Scotland, a role that was already well established when Daniel Defoe visited in 1720.
Methil itself is largely bypassed, and cut off from the docks, by South Street. This means you never need to go into the town itself. It is certainly worth doing so in order to visit the Methil Heritage Centre, "The Museum of Levenmouth". This provides an exhibition space and tells the story of Levenmouth. It is housed in an old post office building which carries on its front face an extremely rare stone crest: "E VIII R 1936", showing it was built during the brief reign of Edward VIII.
Buckhaven continues on from Methil without an obvious physical divide between the two. Legend has it that a village was established here by the survivors of the wreck of a Dutch vessel in the mid 1500s, and it soon developed into a fishing town. During the mid 1800s coal took over as the most important contributor to the local economy. In the early 1900s this reached what might be seen as its logical conclusion when the expansion of what became the Wellesey colliery entailed the removal of the old coast road and of the entire village of Links of Buckhaven. Fishing continued until the 1950s, but coastal tipping of colliery spoil led to the harbour silting up, and it was filled in during the 1960s.
By this time the area's collieries were already in decline, and those in Buckhaven had closed by 1970. The huge coastal site of the Wellesley colliery was redeveloped in the early 1970s to form a construction yard for components of oil platforms, at a time when the North Sea oil boom was just taking off. This continued to provide a large number of jobs until the early years of the current century, but then itself went into decline. Today a viewpoint beside the main road through Buckhaven offers a glimpse of the Phoenix that has risen from the ashes of, successively, fishing, coal and oil rigs. Energy Park Fife lies within 60 nautical miles of a number of major offshore wind energy sites and is forging a leading role for itself in the fabrication of offshore wind turbines.