Durham heritage coast days

When I write about communities and landscape around Britain, I celebrate what makes them distinctive and to do that properly I must spend much time meeting people and much time exploring places that might otherwise be overlooked.

Digging deep into the layers of community takes commitment, to build strong relationships and trust. This nourishes the authenticity at the core of my work, and I feel honoured that the integrity of my writing process is recognised with much critical acclaim.

When I’m invited to be a guest author at literary festivals, I find that people enjoy hearing the stories of people I have met along the way, or adventures I have fallen into!

I also use photography in my books and in my research. My pictures are part of my notes and I refer to them when creating the final work.

Here are some images of the Durham Heritage Coast where I know some very special people witnessing the dramatic transformation of a former mining landscape, home to one of the largest collieries in Europe.

The clean up of the black beaches, mired in coal waste for decades, has revealed golden sands and healthy new growth along the shore. As the landscape changes, so do individuals and communities.

Mark at Free The Way Recovery Centre,

The terrible pain of miners’ strikes from March 1984 to March 1985 against the National Coal Board and the bullish Conservative leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could not prevent the closure of collieries. In mining communities, where sons followed their fathers to work in the pit, the shutdown destroyed the local economy and a way of life. In utter despair, some turned to drugs to numb the agony. Mark (pictured above) works at Free The Way and support addicts to discover ways of living clean.

The Turning The Tide programme has cleaned up the black beaches polluted by coal waste

The Turning The Tide project was a £10 million programme of environmental improvements, implemented through a hundred separate projects and it is fascinating to experience the re-emerging natural landscape though many mining traces remain and people throughout the community remember well when coal was king.

The Marra statue, with his heart ripped out, at Horden Welfare Park,
land bought by subscription by the community for their leisure
In local dialect, a marra is a friend, workmate or companion

Mining is a treacherous way to earn a living. Throughout the coal mining history of the Durham Coast there have been tragic accidents and hundreds of lives lost. Whenever I visit Easington, I call in at the cemetery to honour the 81 miners and 2 rescuers who lost their lives in the village colliery disaster of 1951. The mass grave and the cross made of miners’ picks is deeply moving.

I often meet people who share memories of the day, and of the years that followed as community attempted to come to terms with such enormous loss.

The mass grave of many of the 83 people who died in the 1951 Easington Colliery disaster
Easington was one of the most modern pits in Europe when a disaster claimed 83 lives

Those that continued to work in the pits had further agony ahead.

In 1984–85 major industrial action by striking miners led by Arthur Scargill shut down the British coal industry in an attempt to prevent colliery closures by the government’s National Coal Board. Communities were fighting for their livelihoods against the policies of ‘the iron Lady’ Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The police were instructed to use brutal tactics to control demonstrations by striking miners and supporters from across the country. The toll was immense. Ultimately the pits were closed.

Benches in Horden Welfare Park recount the mining history timeline of the community

In recent years the redundant industrial buildings and structures of the mining era have been removed as part of the Turning The Tide project. Mines have been sealed and in many places a pastoral landscape is re-emerging. Beaches that were black with coal waste, dumped from aerial flights that shuttled to and fro, are golden and sandy.

Golden sands where they were once black and pounded by grey waves
Rob is the only member of his family not to have worked at the pit.
He remembers vividly the black beaches, now he walks the clean shore regularly.

North sea winds carry echoes of the mining industry across the wildflowers meadows.

Easington Colliery land is now a nature reserve

A timeline through the long grass traces memories of the past. Significant dates are shown on discs in the shape of the miners’ tallies. Each was unique to the individual to assist in tracing him in case of collapses, explosions and other disasters in the mine.

Cages that transported the miners underground stand guardian over the colliery landscape to bear witness to the coal mining era

Butterly wings in wildflower meadows, a reminder of the process of transformation
Changing view; a cliff top bench carvings show with a miner’s equipment

At Horden Welfare Park, complete with sports grounds, the lovely vintage tearoom supports a heritage centre rich in donations and memories from the local community.

Maureen remembers growing up with a range and kettle just like this

Memories of mining are on the allotments too.

Men who worked at the pit have other projects in mind.

And some who thought they were destined for the pit have made new lives since the closures.

Families with sons bound for the pit have been forced to readjust yet traditional pastimes remain, including hunting with birds of prey
Community teams still compete for football and other sporting honours
The distinctive spirit of these warm and friendly mining communities remains

One of the oldest churches in Britain has witness dramatic change on this coast.

Now surrounded by fields, St Mary the Virgin is a little removed from the Gerogian
docks that shipped coal from Seaham

In the beautiful chapel, George, who worked in the pit, now cares for the building and hoovers regularly ahead of services. Alice is a warden who share her local insights and the history of the church. She also raises funds with sales of her marmalade.

George at Seaham St Mary The Virgin Church

Church warden Alice
In the graveyard, a reminder of another mining disaster

There are beautiful examples of Victorian Charles Kempe windows and a small Anglo Saxon window in the church, yet my favourite is this window that represents the possibilities in life that come when we tend the land and sow new seeds.

Charles Kempe windows
The brothers mining sculpture, Seaham
The seafront promenade honours The George Elmy Lifeboat crew and all who lost their lives when the community lifeboat was smashed by a huge wave close by the shore after achieving the heroic rescue of storm lashed fishermen
The sands of Seaham are renowned as rich picking grounds for colourful sea glass treasure, remnants of waste from the former glass works
Seaham dock, built to avoid paying heavy dues for the export of coal from Sunderland docks

There are so many stories across this landscape and this blog is my notebook of words and images, intended only to give a flavour of rich discoveries that await! The people here are so warm, friendly and engaging, their history is deep and their landscape is fascinating. Go explore!

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