They were the haunting black beaches that helped to put the noir into the classic British gangster film Get Carter and provided the bleak futurist backdrop for Alien 3.
For more than a century, the 12-mile stretch of coast between Hartlepool amd Sunderland served as a carbonic dumping ground for the collieries of East Durham. Spoil from six pits rendered the North Sea sands and cliffs an ecological disaster zone – as loved by film-makers for its deserted eeriness as it was ignored by walkers and nature lovers.
Now one of Britain's most successful environmental regeneration projects has won a prestigious Landscape Award from the Council of Europe. The Durham Heritage Coast was called "excellent" by organisers as it was named runner-up in the contest between 14 of the most transformed landscapes across the continent.
The £10m clean-up, which was finished in 2002, saw more than two million tonnes of coal removed from the blackened shoreline. Among the most improved areas is the old Blackhall Colliery site, where Michael Caine deployed overhead conveyor buckets – used for dumping toxic spoil into the slate grey sea – as a handy means of disposing of his rival in the 1971 film Get Carter.
Blast Beach at Dawdon, where more than 3,000 workers produced a million tonnes of coal a year at the height of production, has also undergone a dramatic makeover. It stood in as the penal colony-cum-foundry, Fiorina "Fury" 161, in the third of the Alien films starring Sigourney Weaver under the apt publicity line: "Here in a world where the sun burns cold and the wind blows colder."
The six coastal pits closed in the 1980s and 1990s and the despoiled area has been replaced by 12 miles (20km) of footpaths and 29 miles of cycling tracks. The scale of dumping was so extreme that damage to the ecosystem – which includes a unique example of magnesium limestone outcropping and rare species such as the Durham Argus butterfly – extended four miles out to sea.
Jo Watkins, president of the Landscape Institute, said yesterday: "It is right that we recognise the importance of landscapes and their value to society. Just look at what has been achieved in Durham – an extraordinary transformation that is contributing on so many different levels."