The name, Blast Beach, says heaps about the sad history of British coal mining. This sweep of brown sand and shale lies in a region of North East England that’s been deeply scarred by both industry and bitter politics. But things have changed in recent years.
Blast Beach was once a dumping ground for colliery waste. It looked so damned grim and bleak that director Ridley Scott chose it to depict another world in his film Aliens. But this once blighted beach today has new significance. It’s the starting point of the Durham Heritage Coastal Footpath, a 14-kilometre route between Seaham and Crimdon, south of the city of Newcastle.
The walk passes through Easington colliery village, believed to have been the model for fictional Everington, the setting for Billy Elliot’s uplifting story of triumph during the miner’s strike of 1984-5. That’s a far more pleasant tale than the plot of the 1971 film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, which used the bleak north east landscape of that era to chilling effect. Waste was still being dumped into the North Sea as late as 1993.
Today all the north east collieries are closed. An ongoing Turning of the Tide project has removed ugly industrial structures and colliery waste and parallel habitat restoration programs are slowly transforming hideous pit waste heaps into natural grassland. Meanwhile, relentless wave action is also helping excoriate evidence of the region’s grim past.
“The aim of the project is to place local history in perspective and entice visitors to explore the coast, much of which is now designated as National Nature Reserve,” says Durham Heritage Coast officer Niall Benson. Ironically, the tipping of mine waste onto the beach helped protect the rare Magnesian limestone cliffs from erosion. Among the long grasses now billowing on the cliffs above Blast Beach I watch a tiny black insect with brilliant red-spotted wings alight on a purple flower.
Magnesian limestone grasslands are unique to the North East. They support many species of insects and plants that are now uncommon elsewhere in England. Slowly the North East is transforming itself into a land of hope, perhaps even glory.