They were the haunting black beaches that helped put the noir in 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 from Hartlepool to Sunderland served as a carbonic dumping ground for the collieries of East Durham.
The spoil from six pits rendered the North Sea sands and cliffs an ecological disaster zone – loved by filmmakers for their deserted eeriness as they were ignored by walkers and nature lovers.
The coastline suffered from waste tipping on a grand scale, with more than 1.5 million tonnes being tipped over the cliffs each year, earning itself the name "The Black Beaches"
Now one of the UK's most successful environmental regeneration projects has won a prestigious Council of Europe Landscape Award. The Durham Heritage Coast was deemed "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, finished in 2002, saw more than two million tonnes of coal removed from the blackened shoreline.
Among the areas most improved is the former site of Blackhall Colliery, where Michael Caine deployed the 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.
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 installment of the Alien franchise starring Sigourney Weaver under the apt publicity line: "Here in a world where the sun burns cold and the wind blows colder."
All six pits along the coast were closed during the 1980s and 1990s. 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.
Now the once despoiled area has been replaced by 12 miles of footpaths and 29 miles of cycling tracks.
Jo Watkins, president of the Landscape Institute, said: "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."