Flowers over Seaham's scars

Intensive mining once made Durham's coast a harsh place. Ten years after the last pit closed, Simon Calder finds the wounds have healed
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The Independent Travel

Bread and dripping? Or cucumber sandwiches, scones, clotted cream and fresh strawberries dipped in melted chocolate? Because we are living at the start of the 21st century, rather than the end of the 19th, I chose the latter, washed down with tea, in the drawing room of Seaham Hall.

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago this month, the Vane Tempest Colliery closed. For more than a century, mining on the coast of County Durham had been a heroic enterprise that had sustained the most densely industrialised location in Europe. Around what became the colliery village of Seaham, plate tectonics had conspired to create a rich source of coal at the point where the North Sea crashes against north-east England. Three pits were created to extract the wealth beneath the surface of the earth - and, when that proved insufficient, the brave souls struck out beneath the surface of the sea.

"You were working two, three mile out to sea. You were nearly an hour underground before you got started." On a sunny day in June when the North Sea merely tickles the shoreline, it is hard to conceive that, just 10 years ago, men were walking - or crawling - along dark, damp galleries hewn beneath the water. "Hutton was the lowest - over 2,000 feet of rock above you, seven fathom of sea water above that." The quotes are from an unknown miner. His words enlighten the casual traveller who sees little but cliffs ablaze with wildflowers and sands bleached and softened by the sea.

A two-mile stretch of seafront around Seaham has been enriched by the Time & Tide trail, which tells visitors of the courage of the miners and their families. Ten years on, Seaham has been transformed so comprehensively that you need all the help you can get to understand the harshness of life in the mining communities. Seaham Colliery itself experienced seven accidents, including one on 8 September 1880, that claimed 164 lives.

"Morn came and went - and came, and brought no day, And men forgot their passions in the dread of this their desolation." Lord Byron's poem "Darkness" is one of many in the heavy wooden bookcase in the drawing room. (As I ponder between the lemon tart and the chocolate brownie, I am reminded that Byron's first collection of poetry was entitled "Hours of Idleness".) The poet's name is purloined by many accommodation providers - from hotels in Paris and Rome to Lord Byron's Bed and Breakfast in Grand Forks, North Dakota. But Seaham Hall has a better claim to fame: it was here, by special licence, that George Gordon, Lord Byron married on 2 January 1815.

His bride, Annabella Milbanke, could usefully have benefitted from the treatments available at the Serenity Spa, which now adjoins the Hall. The Japanese slipper bath ceremony might appeal; it is described by the spa as "Sea of Dreams".

In the time it takes to recite a few verses of "To Romance", you can wander out past the "water vortex" that whirls at the front of the hotel, down Lord Byron's Walk or through the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin and on to the cliff-edge. Today, fortunately, the North Sea is not "convulsed by gales", and invites at least a paddle.

The shoreline is perforated by gashes, giving access to a beach that is mostly sandy, with a scattering of large pebbles. You would never guess that, up to 10 years ago, the beach was disfigured by the detritus of mining. South along the shore, rocks rounded by age are heaped up like pillows; the map reveals this interruption to be Featherbed Rocks. Above them, the old mining company office, which later became the police station, lies abandoned. A statue outside is of Charles Stewart Vane Tempest, Lord Londonderry, a genuine coal baron. He saw the potential of Seaham to fuel the Empire's industry, and set about exploiting it to the full. He was responsible for the arms of stone that jut out from the shore to embrace a scattering of boats. Seaham harbour was created to export the coal, but has aged prematurely to resemble an ancient structure - a relic of industrialisation that nature is now reclaiming.

Nature is winning the battle all the way along the coast, transforming the land- and seascape. Seaham's remaining pit, Dawdon Colliery, began operations in 1899; Lord Londonderry opened it because the workings at Seaham Colliery were pushing ever further out to sea. The new pit was so sophisticated that an Olympic-sized diving pool was created to make good use of the water that was warmed while cooling the mining machinery.

Today, only a few rusting structures remain - together with a fascinating commentary about life on, and under, this once-cruel coast. For example, the Bastard Post was the name given to a layer of rock that sprayed sparks when struck.

Today, the main feature above ground is Nose's Point, protruding into the North Sea. From here, among the wildflowers, you breathe in the fresh sea air and see the shoulder of Yorkshire melting into the horizon to the south - as sweetly as the lemon tart glazed with caramelised sugar back in the drawing room of Seaham Hall. The mines are dead; long live Seaham.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there: County Durham pioneered the public passenger steam railway in 1825, with the Stockton and Darlington line, and Seaham is still served by a branch from the East Coast Main Line; trains run from Newcastle every half-hour during the week, journey time 27 minutes. Alternatively, bus 154 runs from Durham bus station, close to the rail station, every hour and takes around an hour. Bus 150 runs from Sunderland via Lord Byron's walk to Nose's Point.

Staying there: Seaham Hall Hotel (right): 0191-516 1400; www.seaham-hall.com. Bed and breakfast currently on offer at £175 per room per night; dinner, an additional £30 per person. Afternoon tea costs £12.95. The Japanese slipper bath ceremony costs £50 for 50 minutes.

Seeing there: The Coal Coast, an exhibition of photography by Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, opens at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead (0191-478 1810, www.balticmill.com) a fortnight from today (Saturday 5 July) and continues until the end of August.

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