START: Seaham, County Durham
FINISH: Hartlepool Headland, Hartlepool
DISTANCE: 16.1 miles (Total – 37.2 miles)
APPROXIMATE WALKING TIME: 6 hours
MAPS: OS Explorer 308 and OS Explorer 306
The Durham coastline has undergone a dramatic change in the past thirty years. Beginning in the 1830’s coal collieries started popping up in the area and entire towns and villages grow up beside them including Blackhall, Horden, Easington and Seaham. The collieries used large areas of land with their spoil heaps spilling over onto the beaches. Due to the collapse of the coal industry in the 1980’s collieries began to rapidly close down leading to the economic and social decline of entire communities. The coastal landscape had changed almost beyond repair with slap heaps blighting inland areas and the beaches themselves, and combined with the socio-economic degradation the Durham coastline was a very unattractive place to visit.
This was soon to change when in 1997 a £10 million ‘Turning the Tide’ scheme was launched on the Durham coast. The scheme had three aims:-
- To restore, enhance and conserve the environmental quality of the coastline.
- To encourage sustainable use of the coastline.
- To rekindle local pride of the coastline.
First of all the spoil heaps surrounding the old colliery sites and on the beaches were removed. Reclamation sites at Easington and Horden involved the removal of large cliff-top spoil heaps which were then spread over the site, capped and subsequently covered in soil so as to create an open public space (at Easington) or new habitat creation (at Horden). In total 1.3 million tonnes of colliery waste were removed in addition to the reclamation of 80 hectares of land. The natural action of the sea has also helped this process along by eroding away the slag heaps and this will continue as time goes on.
Once the slag heaps had been removed the next step of the project was to improve access to the coast, something that was near impossible whilst the collieries were in full swing. A brand new 11 mile footpath – the Durham Coastal Footpath- was set up linking towns and villages along the coast. In addition, 30 miles of new cycle routes were installed as part of the National Cycle Network. I would follow the Durham Coastal Footpath along the majority of this walk which has recently been incorporated into the 3,000 mile England Coast Path.
The third part of the project was to enhance and conserve the coastal habitats. The Durham coastline is important as it is home to 92% of Britain’s para-maritime Magnesian Limestone grassland habitat. The project converted 225 hectares of land into new habitats which have been subsequently designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), National Nature Reserves and Special Protected Areas. In addition to natural improvements, the town of Seaham has also undergone a huge renovation of its sea front (along with other new constructions in the town such as a brand new shopping centre) which has brought more people to the coastline and in turn more money to reverse the economic decline in the local area brought about by the closure of the collieries.
So all in all not bad for twenty years of work. I have visited the Durham coastline a number of times and due to the continuing natural improvements each visit is better than the last one.
This particular visit to the Durham coast occurred on a very windy day in March 2015. I had walked the Durham Coastal Footpath a couple of times before but always in a northerly direction so this time I decided to head south for a change starting at Seaham and finishing at the Headland in Hartlepool.
I started the walk next to the ‘Tommy’ statue (officially called ‘1101’ to reflect the time the armistice of World War One went into effect at 11am on 11th November 1918) which was installed in May 2014 on Seaham’s seafront at Terrace Green (right). The 9ft 5in high, 1.2 tonne statue was created by local artist Ray Lonsdale to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War and shows a weary British soldier (‘Tommy’) reflecting on the horrors of the War during the first minute of peace following the Armistice being declared. The statue was only expected to remain in place for three months, however due to its popularity with visitors to the town £85,000 was raised by local residents and Seaham Town Council to keep the statue as a permanent fixture in Seaham next to the town’s war memorial.
Seaham itself has Saxon origins (its name means ‘homestead by the sea’ in Old English) with the church of St Mary being all that remains of the original village located to the north of the current town centre. In 1155 the village, along with the neighbouring settlement of Dalden, became controlled by the Lords of Dalden from Dalden Tower (now a ruin located in the suburbs of Seaham) until 1600 and subsequently Dalden Hall. By the 18th century the title of Lord of Dalden had passed to the Milbanke family who moved to Old Seaham Manor House in 1776 which they demolished and rebuilt in 1792. This building forms part of the present-day Seaham Hall. Over the centuries the village of Seaham had remained a small rural agricultural settlement consisting of a few cottages, a couple of farms and an inn located between the Hall and the coast.
However, this rural tranquillity was soon to change when on the 2nd February 1815, the Milbanke’s daughter, Anne Isabella, was married to the famous brooding poet Lord Byron (who two centuries later had a shopping centre named after him in the town – I bet he was pleased with that). The marriage was not to last as within a year the unhappy couple had separated. Unfortunately even though the marriage was short it had been a drain on the Milbanke’s fortunes who were forced to sell the twin estates of Seaham and Dalden to Charles Stewart, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry and his wife, the heiress Frances Ann Vane Tempest.
The new owner of Seaham had big designs for the village and with his wife’s vast reserves of money set about demolishing the old village, expanding the hall and also creating a new harbour a mile down the coast as an outlet for their coal from the nearby pits owned by the Marquess. By 1831, a brand new Harbour and railway were open and on the 25th July the first coals came down the incline from the colliery to the North Dock and on to the brand spanking new brig called Lord Seaham. In the meantime a brand new town called Seaham Harbour had been built by the Marquess and soon the Harbour and town began to grow as new collieries and railway lines were built to transport coal to the ever expanding Harbour.
Soon the original Harbour had outgrown its capacity which necessitated the building of a new railway (called the Londonderry Railway) in 1854 to link the collieries at Seaham with the larger docks at Sunderland. Following the death of the Marquess, Frances Ann took over the family business and established a new headquarters, the Londonderry Offices, and set about building a whole town’s worth of new terraced housing, roads and public buildings. In addition new industries including a bottleworks, blast furnaces, gasworks, chemical works and an engine and waggonworks set up shop in the town bringing in new workers from all over the country. By 1878 the population of Seaham Harbour and nearby New Seaham had bloomed to 9,000 people, a far cry from the 115 people who lived here in 1801.
At the turn of the 20th Century the 6th Marquess of Londonderry established the Seaham Harbour Dock Company and Londonderry Collieries Limited which brought in a new wave of investment into the town. In August 1899 work began on a new South Dock and a new pit was sunk at neighbouring Dawdon. The new Dock, opened on 11th November 1905 by Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (who would soon resign from his premiership a month later), was double the size of the old one and meant that larger ships could safely dock in the Harbour. Dawdon Pit, which was built on the site of the old Blast Furnaces, began production in 1907 and twenty streets of houses were built at Dawdon to house the expanding workforce. Unsurprisingly both coal production and the population blossomed with coal exports reaching two million tonnes by 1911 and the number of Seaham’s residents hitting 15,000 in the same year.
In 1947, Seaham’s collieries came under the National Coal Board following privatisation of the coal industry. Changes in mechanisation, improved standards of health and safety and workers welfare brought about increased production and full employment and the three pits consistently beat drilling targets set by the Board. The good times were not to last as Seaham became part of the national trend of declining industries. Decreasing coal sales led to reduced wage packets and a recession. The Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 was a killer blow to the town as some long-term businesses shut down leading to further unemployment. Eventually the game was up for Seaham’s long mining history. Seaham Colliery was the first to close in 1987 followed by Dawdon Colliery in 1991. A year later, the Vane Tempest Colliery was closed bringing an end to the coal industry in Seaham. Unsurprisingly, the town suffered greatly from the pit closures leading to high unemployment and high levels of urban decay.
In recent years, however, there has been a change in Seaham’s fortunes. Seaham Hall was re-opened as a 5-star hotel, bringing money into the area. Two new industrial estates were opened in the town which became the home for a number of new companies. The Harbour is still used by ships to transport goods overseas. A new multi-million pound shopping complex was opened in 2007 and the sea-front has undergone re-development, all of which has brought people back into the area and has started to turn the tide of devastation brought about by the closure of the collieries. Long may it continue!
From the ‘Tommy’ statue I followed the England Coast Path and the Durham Coastal Footpath alongside the A182 road for a half a mile. This road is built on the trackbed of the old Ballast Railway built to serve an ironworks and then Dawdon Colliery. Soon the path veered away from the road towards the coast at Nose’s Point. Twenty five years ago this area was covered by Dawdon Colliery and there would have been a very different view to the one that exists today. Following closure of the colliery, the land was reclaimed and landscaped with wildflower meadows being restored and new ponds created for wildlife.
From Nose’s Point there is a fantastic view down the coast (above) and it is possible on a clear day to make out Huntcliff Nab at Saltburn. There is also a great view of Dawdon Beach known locally as the Blast Beach. The name of the Blast Beach is thought to either come from the blast furnaces of the 19th century ironworks or from ballast dumped here by merchant ships. Whilst Dawdon Colliery was in operation the Blast Beach was used as a dumping ground for mine waste. The beach looked so desolate and ‘otherworldly’ that it was used in the opening scene of the 1992 sci-fi film Alien 3. Since then the slag heaps have been removed and the beach has started to self-clean through the erosive power of the waves. Ironically the action of the sea is also starting to erode the Magnesian Limestone cliffs which were protected by the slag heaps when they were in place.
I followed the coastal footpath as it meandered along the clifftops for another mile or so until I reached Hawthorn Hive where I was giving a choice of two routes. The first option was a drop down some steps to the beach below, whilst the second was to cross the adjacent railway line and walk further inland through Hawthorn Dene before joining the coastal path at the other side of the Dene. I chose the first option as I wanted to walk along the beach for a little bit.
Hawthorn Dene is a steep-sided ravine created during the last Ice Age that is home to semi-natural woodland which has existed here for over 400 years and nationally important magnesian limestone meadows. Many species of animals and plants can be seen here some of which are uncommon including roe deer, great spotted woodpeckers, Yew trees, bird’s nest orchid and herb Paris. The Dene is owned by Durham Wildlife Trust and is characteristic of other steep-sided wooded valleys that are prevalent along this part of the coast. Hawthorn Dene was once home to Hawthorn Towers built in 1821 by Major George Anderson who built a 30 room Gothic mansion called Hawthorn Cottage. Major Anderson died in 1831 so the house passed to his wife, Lucy who spent the rest of her days residing here. Following Lucy’s death, the house and the estate was bought by the Pemberton family (who were local colliery owners) who enlarged it and renamed it Hawthorn Towers. The Pembertons remained there until about 1910 when they sold the residence to Malcolm Dillion, the new Chief Colliery Agent at Seaham. Over the next forty years the house changed hands several times, being used by the Newcastle Boys Brigade for weekend camps in the 1930’s and by the military during the Second World War.
By the 1960’s Hawthorn Towers was in a decrepit state and vandals set fire to the structure three times destroying most of the House. In 1969 the owner of the site was forced to demolish the rest of the building after part of it collapsed and killed a man. It is hard to tell that there was once a large house in the Dene although if you look closely amongst a clump of trees next to the railway line you might be able to find some brickwork from the old house. Also there are three mature trees that still exist near the site of the old house which were planted by Mr Pemberton for his wife and two daughters.
Dropping down to the rocky beach at Hawthorn Hive there are a number of things that catch the eye – a pillbox, a limekiln and a viaduct which carries the railway over the Dene. The pillbox from the Second World War was put in place to protect the viaduct (built in 1905) from attack by the Luftwaffe as the railway was a vital link between the Durham collieries and Teesside. The limekiln (right), dating from the 19th Century, would have been used to produce lime which would have then been used in agriculture or to make mortar. Hawthorn Hive very nearly became an important part of East Durham’s coalmining heritage when in the late 1820s Colonel Thomas Braddyl planned to sink a new colliery at South Hetton and connect it via a waggonway through the Dene to a new port at Hawthorn Hive called Port Braddyl. Luckily the Colonel was dissuaded from carrying out this plan as it would have been too impractical, otherwise the Hive and the Dene would have been a completely different place today.
The footpath passes underneath the giant arch of the viaduct and climbs a little way through the woodland in the Dene. Soon there is a junction in the path with the choice to continue along into the Dene (which I would recommend as Hawthorn Dene is a fantastic place to walk around) or to double back higher up and underneath the viaduct to continue along the coast. As that was today’s objective I chose the coastal path but not before stopping to look at some old brickwork next to the path (right). This was the remains of an old coastguard station which was put in place as ships travelling this section of the coast often found themselves getting into trouble due to the often unpredictable weather and rocky coastline. As the coastguard station was set quite a way back from the coastline and up a steep hill it must have been a nightmare to pull the boat back home to its base. If it were me working there I would have asked for time-and-a-half in pay and some time off to recover!
The coastal path climbs back up onto the clifftops, passing the remains of a ditch dug by soldiers as part of training exercises during the Second World War. The path continues for half-a-mile way along the clifftops passing by Beacon Hill to the west which is the highest point on the Durham coastline. The hill was once the site of a Roman signalling station built 2,000 years ago as part of a series of stations along the North-East coastline (like the one at Huntcliff Nab near Saltburn) to warn of invasion from the Saxons. In later centuries burning beacons were lit here to warn ships that there were ruddy great big cliffs below and that it would be a bad idea to crash into them. During the Napoleonic Wars the hill was also used as a warning beacon. The next mile and a half is full of fantastic scenery as I passed the beautiful National-Trust owned Shippersea Bay (below). As it was a windy day the waves were smashing up against the beach below producing a destructive yet awesome sight.
I soon came to the outskirts of Easington Colliery located across the railway line to the east. The sinking of Easington Colliery began in 1899 but it was several years before the mine opened due to difficulties with seawater flooding the shafts. A whole new settlement was built near the mine to house the thousands of workers who came from all over the country to work., and it wasn’t long before 1,000 homes had been built within 500 yards of the colliery.
In 1931 an aerial ropeway and conveyor belt was built to transport waste from the mine and dump it on the beach, which it continued to do until the closure of the colliery 60 years later. Since then the natural erosion of the waves has started to return the beach to its former state.
The town suffered its worst moment at 4.20am on Tuesday 29th May 1951. Sparks from a coal cutting machine ignited firedamp in the mine resulting in an explosion which brought down 120 yards of roof, entombing 81 men 900ft below the surface. The explosion couldn’t have come at a worse time as there was a shift change going on with 38 men already in the mine coming to the end of their shift to be replaced by another 43 miners who were about to take over. Soon the dreaded sounds of the colliery’s alarm were heard over Easington Colliery summoning off-duty miners from their homes to join the rescue teams. As the first rescuers went underground, anxious family members gathered for three days around the pithead to wait for news. Unfortunately no good news came out of the mine. Of the 81 men underground only one was rescued, however he later died in hospital. Two rescuers were overcome by the noxious fumes underground and died taking the toll of the disaster to 83. Hardly any family in the town was untouched by the disaster which left a devastating hole in the townspeople for decades afterwards.
Following the disaster the community somehow managed to keep going and the colliery was churning out record breaking outputs of coal – over one million tonnes in 1964 – which was more than any other colliery in the UK. However, the good times were not to last and by the 1970’s a slump in the coal industry resulted in declining coal output, cutbacks and industrial tensions, culminating in the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 which Easington Colliery found itself at the centre of. The 2000 film Billy Elliot dramatizes the Miners’ Strike and was based upon and also filmed in Easington Colliery and gives a good account of what the community went through during this year long conflict with the government. The miners returned to work in 1985 but the game was up for the colliery which was closed in 1993 leading to the loss of 1,400 jobs (even though two months before closure it had made £3 million in profit and an estimated 814 million tonnes of coal were still underground waiting to be mined) and has not recovered since. Pit communities like Easington Colliery were set up for one thing only – to house the miners and their families. They were a one industry community. Once the mine closed that was it, there was nothing left to fall back on. In the 23 years since the closure, the town’s primary school has closed, a bank moved out as soon as the colliery closed and a number of shops closed down and have not been re-opened since. Unsurprisingly, unemployment in the town remains high. There has been some money spent on regenerating the former colliery site which has been landscaped over and turned into a Local Nature Reserve. There is a replica of a mine shaft with a lift cage which overlooks the town and the coastline.
Continuing past Easington Colliery the coastal path skirts around Fox Holes Dene whose name is thought to come from a hermit called ‘the fox’ who was rumoured to live in a cave in the Dene. The path heads around a large field before heading down into Warren House Gill and then straight back out again. Below the clifftops there is a long beach which stretches from here to Blackhall Rocks further to the south. Soon the path comes to an area which was once home to Horden Colliery.
Sunk in 1900, the colliery soon became one of the largest in the country. Like most other collieries along the Durham Coast, waste from Horden was dumped on the cliff top via an aerial ropeway. Following closure of the colliery in 1987, the site of the colliery and the giant slag heap which was slumping onto the beach has been reclaimed. Its removal involved the relocation of over half-a-million tonnes of material which was used to reclaim the colliery site and turn it into a rolling grassland with new footpaths and artwork. The grassland has become home to new plant and animal life including the Northern Brown Angus butterfly. The sea is also doing its part by cleaning the waste from the beaches. The Coal Authority created a natural mine water treatment site through establishing reed beds which filter out iron and chemicals from the rising mine water. The newly cleaned water is then discharged into the sea.
Horden Colliery quickly became one of the largest in the UK, employing over 4000 men at its peak in the 1930’s. The colliery also set a European record for the most coal mined by a single colliery in one day when 6,758 tonnes were hewn from the mine on the 9th May 1930, a record which remained intact until the 1960’s. Despite a consistently high output and being touted as the future of the British coal industry, the mine continued to make a loss resulting in its closure in 1987. Like neighbouring Easington Colliery the town suffered high employment following closure of the mine and still does so some thirty years later. Local amenities have closed down and the population has fallen to 9,000, down from a high of 15,000 in the 1950’s.
The coastal path continues to wind its way along the clifftops pausing to drop down into Blackhills Gill before climbing back out again. A sculpture of a Little Tern (below) is passed representing the West African bird that visits this area of the coast every year. Soon Limekilns Gill is reached, no doubt named after a limekiln that once used to reside here, where the path descends steeply into the dene before rounding Hartlepool Point and into Castle Eden Dene.
Whilst this walk didn’t go into Castle Eden Dene I would recommend it as an excellent place to visit. The Dene, managed by Natural England, is home to a large National Nature Reserve and is a steep-sided wooded valley with over 450 species of animals (including roe deer), plants and trees (including yew which is where nearby Horden gets its name from). The semi-natural woodland is the largest of its type in North-East England.
The footpath passes through the easternmost part of the Dene with great views of the railway viaduct which carries the Middlesbrough to Newcastle railway across the valley. This section of the Dene was once home to a salt marsh which was regularly flooded by the tide, however due to the amount of colliery waste that was dumped on this section of the coast a load of material was deposited at the Dene’s mouth. This resulted in the level of the beach being raised which prevented the tides from flooding the salt marshes leading to them drying up. Since the closure of the coastal collieries, the beach is being eroded by the sea and in years to come the tide will be able to breach the ridge allowing salty seawater to flood the Dene once again and re-create the salt marshes
The path climbs a steep set of steps out of the Dene before continuing along the cliff-tops and skirting around another steep-sided Dene – Blue House Gill. Just before you get to Blue House Gill there used to be an aerial conveyor belt here which carried coal from nearby Blackhall Colliery and dump it into the sea. For you film buffs out there this is where the climatic scene of the film Get Carter (1971) was shot where the titular character Jack Carter played by Michael Caine confronted his brother’s killer. The coal-strewn beach with the tubs full of colliery waste clanking on the conveyor belt overhead made for an atmospheric scene and the location scouts for the film picked a very good spot. 45 years later you would never guess that this scene was filmed here as it is almost unrecognisable from the 1970s with the conveyor belt demolished following the colliery’s closure and spoil heaps on the beach removed as part of the ‘Turning the Tide’ project.
The area around Blackhall Colliery remained largely untouched until the onset of industrialization in the mid-19th Century. In 1909 the colliery was sunk with the ‘sinkers’ coming from all over the country including Cornwall and Ireland. New houses were built to house the ‘sinkers’ alongside existing houses built for the employees of the new railway station at Blackhall Rocks. Due to problems with removing large volumes of water from the mine, it wasn’t until 1913 when the first coals were raised. Waste from the colliery was transported via the aerial conveyor belt and dumped onto what was once a beautiful stretch of sand. Similar practices soon followed at Easington and Horden leading to desolate stretches of beach.
During the next few decades the colliery and the village underwent several ups and downs similar to most collieries in the area. Blackhall was in a good position as it had decent reserves of coal, was easily accessible by rail and road thereby reducing transport costs which gave it a slight advantage over nearby collieries. However, the 1960s and 1970s brought increasing competition from oil and natural gas and coupled with increasing coal imports at the expense of locally drawn coal, further impacted by a reduction in the demand for household coal, led to a rapid decline in the colliery’s fortunes.
In 1981 the colliery ceased production and was fully closed and demolished in 1986 with the site of the pit being subsequently landscaped over as part of the ‘Turning the Tide’ project. Unsurprisingly, the village was hit hard by the closure as like most settlements along the Durham Coast, the village’s inhabitants were heavily dependent on employment from the mine as there were no other major alternatives for work in the area. There was a significant amount of economic decline and urban decay associated with the mine’s closure, however in recent years a small industrial estate was built on the site of the colliery providing some alternative employment to the village’s inhabitants.
Leaving Blackhall Colliery behind, my walk took me further along the clifftops until reaching the edge of Crimdon Dene Holiday Park. Crimdon was once known as Hart after nearby Hart Village. With the onset of local collieries being sunk along the Durham Coast in the early 1900’s miners (and their families) came from all over Britain to seek work in the new pits. Many miners made their way to nearby Hart Station as it was the only railway station open on the Durham coast at the time and lived in huts built by Mr Lowes from Trimdon who hired them out to the miners for 2 shillings a week. The venture must have been quite profitable as 400 families lived at Hart. People had to sink their own wells to get any drinking water which soon became polluted from the nearby latrines that ran into the water.
Unsurprisingly living conditions were poor and in 1920 the local council took Mr Lowes to court, however as there was nowhere for the inhabitants to go the case was dropped. Mr Lowes then built a house and a shop in the Dene followed by tennis courts and other amusements, and finally an aerial ropeway to transport people across the Dene to the beach. In 1935 a Mr Stobie built a tea hut on the beach and hired out deckchairs and tents. Soon the local council was back in court as poor living conditions still prevailed and following their victory they took over Hart Sands and the Dene, renaming it Crimdon Park.
Crimdon Park was once a popular resort for miners and their families from the nearby colliery communities, however since the 1970s the resort’s popularity has declined with the advent of cheap foreign package holidays. The Holiday Park is still reasonably popular with locals who just want to get away from it all for a bit, and with fantastic views up and down the coast I can see why.
The coastal path continued through the Holiday Park past row after row of caravans. Leaving the caravans behind I descended into Crimdon Dene, passing by a few brave souls who were out walking their dogs. The Dene is home to a colony of Little Terns, one of Britain’s rarest seabirds and due to its importance a number of wardens and volunteers can often be found in the Dene making sure that the birds are protected and the public are educated so as not to disturb them. The colony at Crimdon has recently had its very existence threatened due to an thief stealing 50 eggs from 65 breeding pairs of Little Terns. Luckily the colony was able to survive this devastating event, but it does show how vulnerable the birds are.
I crossed the footbridge over Crimdon Beck where the footpath climbed up into some dunes before soon coming to a golf course. I don’t like footpaths that go through golf courses as you’re constantly on the look out for flying balls (or flying clubs if the golfer is having a bad day). Fortunately there wasn’t too many wannabe Tiger Woods about as any ball hit on this windy day would have ended up flying into the North Sea.
Leaving the golf course behind, the footpath heads back into the dunes through an area known as Hart Warren. There are great views of the Headland in the distance and also the remains of a pier that used to serve a factory on the coast which the path soon passes the site of.
Passing the old factory, the coastal footpath joins Old Cemetery Road, so named after the Spion Kop Cemetery (right) which was opened in 1856. Behind its red brick walls some 26,000 people were buried there with the last burial taking place in 1997. There is also a Jewish Cemetery adjoining the main cemetery.
I continued along Old Cemetery Road until I joined a footpath which headed back towards the coast and on to a promenade, which I followed for about a mile-and-a-half until I reached the journey’s end at the Heugh Lighthouse. Looking back up the coast I could just about make out Seaham in the distance. I suppose if I had looked back this way 30 years (or more ago) I would have been able to see the smoking chimney stacks of the coastal collieries and the beaches blackened by the colliery waste. Thankfully it is a much more pleasant view now. If the weather had been a bit clearer I would have just about been able to see Sunderland on the horizon, which would be the destination of my next coastal walk.