The land-locked, mostly agricultural parish of Athelstaneford is hemmed in by the parishes of Haddington, Prestonkirk, Dirleton and Aberlady. It covers some 2045 ha (5053 acres). There are two small settlements – Athelstaneford itself – and Drem, which clusters around the railway station. Athelstaneford at the beginning of the 21st century was recognisably the place described by the Reverend A. Downie Thomson in the Third Statistical Account 50 years ago. Housing was still an issue but rather than the ‘shortage’ he identified, the ‘new’ problem was affordability and the pressure from outside for evermore expansion. And the locals may then have had ‘general contentment’ as he says: maybe they still had this, but not because of his then given reason that ‘their work is here and not far distant’.
Changes and development there had been, in housing, transport, communication, employment – the common social and economic development of the second half of the 20th century which at least lapped at the built environment of Athelstaneford even if it had not, yet, inundated the parish with the full flood of the urbanisation of central Scotland. At night, without travelling far, one could see the ever-spreading light pollution from roads and communities. From Aberlady and the coastal communities to the north and the Fife villages across the Forth to bright lights on A1 roundabouts away to Dunbar in the east. To the glow in the sky to the south where the street lights of Haddington reflected on the clouds. And yet more menacingly to the not so very distant glare in the west from the lights not just of Edinburgh but also of its environs in Musselburgh, Prestonpans and Tranent and every piece of road and dual carriageway and public and private development in between. It seemed that flaring orange sodium lighting was required all night long for a society that appeared no longer able to live or travel in the dark. A far cry from 1953 when Downie Thomson could note, with no apparent real sense of anything unusual, that very few houses in Athelstaneford now lacked sanitary arrangements ‘though some still lack electric light’. Today one might enquire who ‘lacks’ computer access?
Yet Athelstaneford in 2000 still straddled its ridge, a conservation area (designated 1969, extended 1979 and to be so again in 2001); the church abided, the school was open and the village hall opposite, where the Sunday school and the WRI and the guild and youth club and village events took place. The bowling green, tennis court, public park and play area were down the street. The post office and village shop were long gone as was the village blacksmith, the smiddy closing when Alex Ainslie died in 1982. But the post box was still there, in front of the hall. There were future doubts over the once perennial certainties of daily rural post deliveries and collections in the modern age of privatisation and profit but the school across the road from the post box remained a healthy indicator.