Nature reserve plan for County Durham pit site with a turbulent history

On Wednesday plans will be presented to Durham County Council's cabinet to designate the 27-hectare Easington Colliery site as a Local Nature Reserve

The 1984-85 Miners' Strike in the Durham Coalfield - Easington Colliery 1984
The 1984-85 Miners' Strike in the Durham Coalfield - Easington Colliery 1984

At the start of the decade of change that was the 60s, the 2,500 men employed at a North East colliery must have thought that their pit would be a fixture in the local landscape if not forever, then at least for a very long time.

The sinking of the shafts for Easington Colliery in County Durham had begun in 1899, and in 1962 it was the first single pit in the coalfield to reach a million tons of saleable coal.

Never could those miners have envisaged the day which will dawn next week.

On Wednesday plans will be presented to Durham County Council’s cabinet to designate the 27-hectare coastal pit site as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR).

The wheels of industry will have come full circle for another site in the region, from shipyards to mines, which have become countryside parks or other variations of recreational green spaces.

Nature is moving back in, as at Easington, which is one of the locations where County Durham beaches, once blackened by the tipping of colliery waste, are now well into the process of restoration.

Easington Colliery has had a proud, productive, tragic and turbulent history.

When, in 1993, it was the last pit in County Durham to close, it had estimated reserves of 814 million tonnes of coal.

In 1951, disaster struck when an explosion at the pit killed 83 men. There is a memorial garden to the victims and a tree was planted for each to create an avenue.

Former Easington Colliery site
Former Easington Colliery site
 

The pit was also a focal point for the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Four years ago a book, No Redemption, was published of photographer Keith Pattison’s images which tell the story of Easington Colliery during that most bitter of experiences.

The streets of Easington Colliery village were the setting for the film Billy Elliot, and 400 locals took part as extras.

Another 650 packed into the miners’ welfare hall two weeks ago when the Billy Elliot stage musical was beamed live from the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End.

“Elton John, who wrote the music, subsidised the cost of the tickets, which were £1. Everybody loved it. It was a brilliant event,” says Dr David Boyes, county councillor for the Easington division.

Like so many, David has vivid memories of the strike. He accompanied his father, Houghton MP Roland Boyes, on visits to the Easington community.

Now he is looking ahead to the designation of the pit site as a protected nature reserve on the edge of the village and the enhancement of habitats like wetland and wildflower meadows, woodland and the management of areas for Durham Biodiversity Action Plan species such as the dingy skipper butterfly.

It will be another attraction in the revival of the County Durham coastline and its coastal path.

“We envisage activities like taking parties of schoolchildren there to enjoy the nature features and learn the history of the pit. It has aroused quite a lot of excitement locally,” says David.

“We already get quite a few walkers and this could mean more.”

Former Easington Colliery site
Former Easington Colliery site
 

Neil Foster, the council’s cabinet member for economic regeneration, says: “Local Nature Reserves are a great place for families to enjoy and to interact with the natural environment.

“By formally declaring the site as a nature reserve we would be protecting it in the long term and providing an accessible recreational facility in Easington as well as allowing local groups to help offer environmental learning and health-based events for the whole community.”

As well as highlighting the area’s natural qualities, confirming the site as a LNR will also help attract future funding to further improve public access and nature conservation.

The Easington Colliery Regeneration Partnership asked that the site be designated as a LNR.

Consultation in the community by the Regeneration Partnership demonstrated strong support for the idea with many local people interested in becoming involved.

Among those wishing to raise the profile of the site is Healthworks, the NHS service provider in Easington.

Healthworks has secured funding for a series of short educational courses and is currently forming a “friends of” group with local volunteers.

Natural England has written to the council to say: “Natural England is delighted to support the declaration of the site as a LNR.

“Protecting this site and its habitats will allow it to continue to be used and valued by local people for recreation and enjoyment of the natural environment.

“It is amazing how much it has changed over the years and we are delighted that there is so much support from the local community.”

Former Easington Colliery site
Former Easington Colliery site
 

Gary Shears, senior ecologist with the county council, says: “ We have quite a few local people signed up to help manage the site, from which the views on a clear day are stunning right along the coast.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer