Pits heritage lives on

On Saturday, the £16m Woodhorn museum in Northumberland reopens with mining heritage a core part of the offering on the former pit site.

On Saturday, the £16m Woodhorn museum in Northumberland reopens with mining heritage a core part of the offering on the former pit site. Here, Tony Henderson explores the grassroots pride in mining which has surfaced across the region.

The rapidity with which the North-East's mining industry vanished after underpinning much of the region's economy and culture for centuries left pit communities gasping.

But while Woodhorn will be a major showpiece, it is community groups across the old Northumberland and Durham coalfields which have battled to keep their mining heritage from going the way of the pits and slipping from memory.

As people began to bounce back from the loss of a great industry, projects have ranged from restoring mining banners - the very symbol of pit community pride - to ensuring that youngsters growing up in a very different world are aware of their heritage.

Most of the projects have been backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund - which gave £10m to the Woodhorn venture.

"The enthusiasm of communities in Northumberland and Durham for their mining heritage is unbelievable," said Ian Lavery, president of the National Union of Mineworkers and general secretary of the NUM in Northumberland.

"After the pits disappeared it took quite some time for what had happened to sink in. It had been taken away from people very quickly.

"A lot of miners saw a younger generation growing up and wanted them to understand why their communities were there and what it was like to work down the pit, and the fantastic tales which go with that.

"People are not clinging to the past. It is a case of them being really proud to have been part of a tough industry and they want that to be recognised.

"The pit was not just a place of employment - it was the centre of a community."

A typical local initiative is the Northumberland Miners' Banner Project, which received £18,200 from the HLF. The project partners are Northumberland Aged Mineworkers Homes Association, the NUM, Northumberland County Council and Welbeck First School in Ashington.

The main aims were to raise awareness among young people of their coalfield heritage, to encourage them to revive the old-style coalfield community spirit, and to produce a new Northumberland Miners' Banner, using traditional materials and techniques, and an educational leaflet.

The old Ashington Group of Collieries banner is now at Beamish Museum in County Durham, while the new version should be dedicated later this year.

The project employed a local artist to work with schoolchildren and ex-miners to study some of the original colliery banners and the heritage behind them. A visit to Beamish was also arranged.

The ex-miners talked to the children about the history of the banners, the ethos behind them and what they meant to the local pit communities.

Pupils produced a school banner and the former miners talked to the children about what life was like in the old coal communities.

Sue Coulthard, from Northumberland County Council's regeneration division who is involved in the project, said: "People didn't want their heritage to disappear. They are intensely proud of where they come from."

Sue grew up in the pit village of Linton. She said: "Village life revolved around the colliery and the feeling is that youngsters should be told what it was like.

"It is hoped that the project will not only serve to instill in the young people a sense of pride in their heritage but will also improve the quality of life for the older generation by recreating the traditional coal mining community spirit.

"Local people are proud of their heritage and want their children and grandchildren to be proud. This can only happen if the youngsters understand and appreciate their heritage and what it means to the older members of the community."

Dr Keith Bartlett, HLF regional manager, said: "In the last few years what has emerged is a series of really fantastic groups which have taken forward a heritage which is really important to them. Often the banners behind which the miners marched have become important to the communities and new ones have been made which they follow today. Everywhere you look in the North-East there are memories of mining.."

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