On a hilltop above the former site of Easington Colliery stands a pit cage, a stark monument to a vanished life – 83 years of mining coal. Nearby, the words of a "Bevin Boy", one of thousands of young men drafted as extra manpower into the pits during the war, are inscribed on a plaque: "I was now a man, for a man is not really a man in Durham until he has been down the pit". The words were an affirmation of miners' pride, of a job unique in the sacrifices, strength and courage it required of those who plunged below ground to hew the fuel that made Britain a world power and saw the nation through two world wars.
It was mid-summer: the sun shone, and the evening light would go on for hours. A carpet of wild flowers lay at my feet; ponies cropped the next field; the nearby North Sea – dotted with white sails – sparkled; men with dogs walked the hillside. I had to pinch myself. Was this really where I had come a quarter of a century ago – on a raw December day – and watched mesmerised as men, frozen with the cold, scrabbled for coal from the colliery waste tipped into the sea from a giant aerial conveyor belt?
I returned to the bridge under the railway line where, all those years ago, I had talked to miners standing beside a steel gate, erected to stop sea coal "warriors" taking lorries on to the beach. The gate has gone but the one-time miners still walk their dogs: they are older now, gentler, resigned – many have not worked since the pit closed, along with most of Britain's other deep mines, in the early 1990s – in a mood to reflect with some regret and much nostalgia, especially for the vanished "banter" and "crack".
"If the pit hadn't closed, I would never have left; if it re-opened tomorrow, I wouldn't go back down," one ex-pitman told me. There are others who say that mines such as Easington could be brought back; that the clock that stopped after the Miners' Strike of 1984-85 could be restarted; and that what some recall almost as days of wine and roses could return. But I suspect that that man, with his terrier on a lead, spoke for most ex-miners.
The men resent bitterly what they regard as official hypocrisy. Their battles in the Eighties and Nineties, they say, were to keep the pits open. Now that the collieries are closed and there is no work, those who live in former pit communities often find themselves branded as "scroungers" and "workshy". It isn't fair, they say, and it is hard to disagree.
Like most mining villages, Easington Colliery ("Colliery" is part of the village name) was designed as a one-industry community. Settlements were built where coal was discovered, and their sole raison d'être was to house pitmen and their families. Homes were poor, schooling inadequate for any purpose other than turning out miners; once upon a time, the pit would take on 100 boys every year – they would leave school on Friday and start work the following Monday. In the words of a former miner: "If you were not colour-blind and could read the safety notice, you were in."
Out of sight and out of mind – until and unless miners took action that threatened fuel supplies – pit villages were among the most self-contained and isolated in Britain. In his 1933 book English Journey, the Bradford-born writer JB Priestley asked: "Who knows East Durham? The answer is – nobody but the people who have to live and work there... It is, you see, a coal-mining district." More than 50 years later, at the time of my last visit after the Miners' Strike, those words might well have been freshly minted.
I felt then that I had trespassed into another country. Easington is the end of the road: travel further and you wind up in the sea – the coal seams stretched eight miles beneath the water. Back then, I saw Easington in black and white; now it blazes colour like any other part of Britain. Priestley's isolation has gone, hastened away by new roads, better bus routes and more cars (though still fewer than elsewhere).
On my return, I found Seaside Lane – the ironic name of the main village street that climbs away from the sea – bustling with young mothers, bare-shouldered in summer dresses, and men in shorts (one ex-miner I visited wore a pink T-shirt and white shorts; another told me, with a sardonic smile, that he now grows garlic and peppers on his allotment). And yet, and yet. Half the shops are shuttered and desolate; the one bank, people told me, pulled out as soon as the colliery closed, and the Post Office has gone; a notorious area of the village has been abandoned to junkies and problem families (I was told that you can tell when drugs arrive: dealers hoist trainers by their laces across the phone wires); statistics relating to health, employment and education remain appalling.
Millions of pounds has been invested in regeneration, but 17 years after the closure of the pit much of Easington's legacy persists. "The ex-coal fields are the most deprived communities in Britain, bar none," a former miner said. The culture runs deep: pitmen (the Durham term of choice) and their families depended on the mine – miners even went to the colliery medical room rather than a doctor. Tony Forster, a regeneration manager with Durham County Council, told me: "Social regeneration lags 10 years behind physical regeneration."
This has consequences. The solidarity and the community structures, themselves highly enviable qualities, created by the pits were found nowhere else, except perhaps in the military. Indeed I have often been struck by similarities between pit communities and regiments: where life itself depends on the man next to you, it is all for one and one for all. But people wait for a lead from others – time and again I was told of the lack of self-confidence in Easington – and only a few, often the brightest, rebel against authority.
John Surtees, who worked underground in the 1970s, recalled his first day in the pit baths: "I found this great big hairy thing washing my back with a sponge," he told me. "I thought I was going to be 'rogered'; then the man passed me the sponge and indicated that I should wash his back in return." The penny dropped: Surtees had joined a family.
Dave Douglass left school at 14 – he hated it, and would have left at 12 if he could, yet he has since become a graduate. He saw miners as the shock troops in the historic war against capitalist exploitation. "The ruling classes feared miners," he remembered. "They sensed the power in their hands." As a member of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), he had "the opportunity to challenge society through a powerful trade union. We fought for the right to a point of view. Mining meant having a sense of yourself, respected in communities that valued labour over all. Prosperity – or lack of it – was a collective achievement."
On my recent trip, I also met up again with Alan Cummings, who was NUM lodge secretary at Easington at the time of my 1986 visit. Health and safety, derided elsewhere as politically correct but vital down a mine, had made him an activist. He had watched one grandfather wheeze to death, and seen ex-miners work their slow, steep, breathless way up Seaside Lane, pausing bench by bench. He remains as unpaid lodge secretary, pursuing claims for men whose lungs were ravaged by years underground: he is still, he told me, an unofficial "parish priest". "Their plight is close to my heart. As long as people need help and I have breath, I'll do it." As it is to so many who took part, the memory of the Miners' Strike remains vivid to Cummings. Easington, he said almost wistfully, was like 1970s Belfast at that time – under occupation.
Douglass's flat is a shrine to past conflicts, full of posters and photos – again, the analogy with regiments and their battle honours springs to mind. He lists proudly the disputes in which his grandfather and father took part and those in which he was involved – '69, '72, '74, '84-'85 and finally '92-'93, the ultimate action when most of the collieries closed. "We lost badly," he said, "but she didn't win." I wasn't quite sure how he worked that out, but there was no doubting who she was.
Cummings and Douglass argue that pits such as Easington were closed as acts of political spite rather than as a result of economic judgement. We now import, increasing the deficit, what was lost when the mines closed. This may be true, but the reality now is that the unmined coal will remain below the meadow that blankets Easington pit, cleared rapidly as part of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind strategy, and new philosophies are needed.
Like most people I met in Easington, Michael Fishwick, who works on grass-roots regeneration projects, comes from mining stock. It is tempting, he says, to excuse a lack of local initiative on the grounds that the legacy of poor health and high unemployment gives no one a chance. "It is right to recognise the tradition, but we need a new narrative. It was not utopia before the pit closed." That I can confirm.
The village retains its band, one of the best in the region, but it is hard-going now that the colliery subsidies are gone. Two years ago, it almost closed. It doubles as the band for the Rail Maritime and Transport union, which helps, but the musicians must pay their way. The band still marches each year in the Durham Miners' Gala, and its HQ, suitably, is the last remaining Easington colliery building, the former pit wages office.
Teenagers have shrugged off the history – two I met had surprisingly little concept of mining – without having found Fishwick's new narrative. Jim McManners is head of an award-winning primary school at Cassop, a few miles from Easington. When the local pit was still working, he organised visits underground for staff and pupils; when it closed, he rescued what he could: helmets, lamps, pony halters, many of which are now on display at the school. "Places need a sense of how they evolved; but they also need a new focus," he said.
Outsiders, even perhaps JB Priestley himself, stereotyped miners. They were, of course, as McManners stressed, as varied in temperament and ability as the rest of us. The challenge, now that the pits in most places have vanished, is to unleash that variety in their children and grandchildren. Generations of mining families said, out of one side of their mouths, that they hoped their sons would never go underground; out of the other side, they argued that no one (certainly not Margaret Thatcher) had the right to take away their livelihoods. It remains an unresolved ambivalence.
I went to a tea dance at the Social Welfare Centre where some of Billy Elliot was shot (the film was set in the fictional town of "Everington" but the producers employed 400 extras from Easington). The centre boasts the "finest sprung dance-floor in England", and half a dozen elderly couples, moving slowly to the music of yesteryear, glide round the floor.
During a pause, one miner's widow told me: "It was no bad thing that the pit closed." She listed lung diseases, injuries and deaths – Easington lost 83 men in an infamous 1951 disaster. Her companion added: "I worried every day about my youngest who went down the pit."
Dave Douglass wore a T-shirt bearing the legend: "The past we inherit / The future we build." Put simply, that is still the challenge for Britain's former coalfields.
A version of this article appears in the programme for "The Miners' Hymns" – a film by Bill Morrison, produced by Forma, with a live musical score by Johann Johannson, to be performed at Durham Cathedral tonight at 9.30pm. For tickets, see galadurham.co.uk or call 0191-332-4041. "The Miners' Hymns" comes to London next year.Reuse content