Turning the tide of destruction on the Durham coast

PUBLISHED: 17:40 11 July 2011 | UPDATED: 19:41 20 February 2013

Turning the tide of destruction on the Durham coast

Turning the tide of destruction on the Durham coast

The County Durham foreshore was used for years as a dumping ground for waste from the nearby coal mines. Today, however, the scars have mostly disappeared and nature has once again reclaimed this beautiful stretch of coastline, Tom Fennelly reports

The reshaping of the Durham coastline has been going on for centuries. Time and tide have always had a strong hand in shaping the nature of our landscapes and seascapes and nowhere is this more evident than along the Durham coastline between the Tyne and the Tees where the forces of nature and the best and worst efforts of man have combined to leave their marks.

From the mouth the Tyne to the estuary of the Tees there lies some of the best beaches and finest stretches of coastal scenery in the British Isles and its natural beauty is even all the more surprising considering the ravages of an industrial past and urbanisation which for many decades scarred large swathes of the coastal margins.

For more than a century the mighty arms of the Tyne piers have provided a safe welcome for ships of all shapes and sizes, from the most luxurious liners, immense oil tankers and powerful warships which were built in the shipyards along its banks, to todays visiting cruise ships and ferries, bringing and increasing number of seaborne tourists to discover the attractions of the North East.

The Blue Flag beaches of Sandhaven at South Shields and Seaburn in Sunderland are among the best in the country and both offer the best of traditional seaside fun and entertainment with their own distinctive programmes of summer activities. South Tyneside Cookson Festival (July 2 -August 9), the Mouth of the Tyne Festival (July 9) and the Sunderland International Airshow (July 29-30) attract up to two million visitors to the coast.

The National Trust manages the magnificent open spaces, cliffs and footpaths of The Leas at South Shields, home to the finish of the Great North Run as well as Souter Lighthouse at Whitburn. The world-famous Marsden Grotto is a unique pub restaurant built into the cliffs.

The River Wear, also once a great shipbuilding centre, provides safe haven for the modern Sunderland marina, providing top-class facilities for recreational sailors and boating enthusiasts. The rivers Tyne and Wear are linked historically with the monastic sites of St Peters Church, one of the UKs first stone-built churches, and the home of the Venerable Bede at St Pauls church in Jarrow. The twin site is to be the UKs nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2011.

The North East coast has a fine tradition of lifesaving and the story of Willie Wouldhave and his design for the first self-righting lifeboat at South Shields is commemorated at the towns lifeboat memorial. Two of the only three Volunteer Life Brigades left in the country still operate at Shields and Sunderland.

South Shields VLB has the distinction of being the first such organisation in the world to save life from shipwreck using the breeches buoy. The third VLB is just across the river at Tynemouth. The North East coast has long been regarded as the cradle of coast rescue invention and innovation.

Surrounded by the fine beaches at Crimdon Dene and Seaton Carew, Hartlepool with its excellent Maritime Experience and Historic Quay and marina is another dramatic example of the changing face of the Durham coastal scene.

Turning the Tide has achieved a remarkable transformation

The transformation and regeneration of the Durham coast is more markedly observed in the stretch from Seaham to Hartlepool, which in recent decades has been massively improved in the wake of the demise of the once-extensive coal mining industry.

The Durham Heritage Coast Partnership brought together local authorities, agencies and community bodies to restore the coast to its natural beauty.

The 10 million Turning the Tide project successfully completed a programme of environmental improvements, which swept away the scars of the industrial past. The aim to encourage sustainable use and enjoyment of the wonderful coastal mosaic of great natural, historical and geological interest has largely been achieved and there is a tangible sense of rekindled local pride and along this stretch of the Durham coast.

Improved access and facilities have opened up the coast. A stretch 20km of footpath has been created to form the Durham Coastal Footpath route with links to local circular walks. A 47km of cycle route, part of the National Cycle Network, links local villages, schools and the newly-created enterprise zones.

Wildlife abounds around and off the coast and not far away is Seal Sands, the southern part of the Teesmouth National Nature Reserve which is the only area of inter-tidal mud flats between Holy Island and the Humber.

Seahams history and heritage celebrated in sculpture A stroll along the clifftops at Seaham today shows the scale of transformation which has taken place. A trail of modern, sometimes controversial sculptures combines history heritage and modern interpretation of the changes that are taking place.

Seaham harbour was developed between 1828 and 1831 to ship coal from Durham to London and the Continent. Appropriately, it was the brig Lord Seaham which carried the first cargo of coal from the harbour. By the 1900s the dock doubled in size with new quays and curving piers and a new lighthouse which remain today much as they were when built.

Seahams mining heritage stretches back to 1845 with the sinking of the first pit, Seaton Colliery, owned by the Hetton Coal Company. Seaham Colliery followed in April 1849. An explosion of 1852 led to the formation of the North of England Institute of Mining & Mechanical Engineers which held its first meeting in Seaham.

Seaham Hall dates from early 1790s and was commissioned by Ralph and Judith Milbanke. The famous English poet, Lord Byron, came to Seaham in 1814, where he met and married the Milbankes only daughter, Anne Isabella.

The Londonderry Offices, on Green Terrace stand proudly at the top of the cliffs adjacent to the harbour. Built in 1857 as the headquarters for the Londonderry business empire, from here they managed their coal mines, docks and railways.

Seaham Lifeboat Disaster 1962

The alarm was raised at 4.10pm on Saturday, November 17, 1962, and the Seaham lifeboat, George Elmy, set out to to search for the missing fishing coble Economy. Weather conditions were appalling but they quickly found the coble and miraculously rescued four men and a nine-year-old boy.

The lifeboat battled against mountainous seas but at 5.20pm, just yards from the harbour, a gigantic wave struck and capsized the lifeboat with the loss of her entire crew and all but one of those rescued from the coble.
The George Elmy was extensively damaged but was repaired and returned to service, first as a reserve lifeboat, before moving to Poole in Dorset where she served until retired from the RNLI fleet.

In April 2009 she was found to be up for sale on an internet auction site. The East Durham Heritage Group was alerted to the discovery and after confirming her identity negotiated the purchase of the boat with a view to restoration and display in Seaham.

With the help of local people, businesses and fund-raising efforts the group hopes that the work and re-housing of the boat can be completed before November 17, 2012, which the 50th anniversary of the disaster.

The rise and decline of coal mining, its legacy and the relics of wars are still visible along the coast

Coal had by far the biggest impact on the whole of the wider Durham coast and its rise and decline largely shaped the coastal landscape and seascapes as well as the growth of communities alongside the numerous collieries.

Coal mines covered large areas of land, with massive spoil heaps spreading on to the beaches. The dirty legacy of coal mining has disappeared and its place are the green open spaces were its importance is rightly commemorated and nowhere is this better seen than at Easington Colliery with a time trail of interpretive markers leading up to the stark memorial in for shape of the mines three-deck cage.

This year saw the 50th anniversary of the Easington Colliery disaster on May 29, 1951. An explosion resulted in 81 miners losing their lives. The death toll was made worse as two rescuers died trying to save others, bringing the final death toll to 83. A Garden of Remembrance stands in Easington Colliery Cemetery and a Memorial Avenue was also created in the Colliery Welfare Park with a tree planted for each of those who lost their lives.

Two lime kilns in Hawthorn Dene show earlier industrial development and place names such as Limekiln Gill can be found at both Horden and Crimdon.

During two World Wars many defensive structures were built. In addition to pillboxes and tank traps, defensive trench systems survive at Crimdon Dene, Blackhall Rocks and Castle Eden Dene. There are impressive trenches at Hawthorn Hive Point and 12 pillboxes remain at the mouth of the denes.

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