Spick and span: how we’re caring for the Durham Heritage Coast

It was recently announced that a neighbourhood watch scheme was being launched on the Durham Heritage Coast. Local residents, police, and landowners, including the National Trust, will club together to help reduce environmental crime on this stunning stretch of coastline. Kate Horne, the National Trust’s Communications and Engagement Officer for the area, tells us about the history of the Trust on the Durham coast, what we’re doing to help, and why it’s important that we get involved.

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the closure of the last colliery on the Durham Coast, at Easington. There can be few stretches of British coastline which have undergone such dramatic changes over the last century. For decades, five collieries dumped coal waste directly onto what became known as the ‘black beaches’. At the peak of the Durham mining industry, up to two and a half million tonnes of waste was legally dumped each year, piling up to ten metres high in the worst spots and extending seven kilometres out to sea. This environmental disaster posed a massive threat to the delicate ecosystem of an extremely rare habitat, the magnesian limestone outcrop which characterises this coastline and which forms much of the Durham Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The Durham Coast was once blackened by coal spoilings, but is now recovering.

The Durham Coast was once blackened by coal spoilings, but is now recovering. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

The local authority took responsibility for leading the massive clean up operation following the final pit closure. Backed by Millennium Project funding from the National Lottery, a partnership of interested parties and landowners – including the National Trust – was formed and the Turning the Tide project was born. At the heart of the project was the objective of cleaning up the beaches, removing coal spoil and derelict mine apparatus. In turn, this would lead to the improvement of nature conservation (via cleaner beaches and coastal slopes) plus a reduction in intensive farming and the restoration of natural habitats, particularly clifftop grasslands.

The bulldozers moved in during the summer of 1997, taking over six months to remove the worst of the waste, with the tide slowly removing the rest. In the meantime, public consultation led to improved access and recreation facilities, including a network of footpaths and cycleways, for local communities who had turned their backs on this decimated coastline for decades.

Weathered pebbles on the beach near Fox Holes on the Durham coast. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Weathered pebbles on the beach near Fox Holes on the Durham coast. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

A key figure in the project was National Trust Property Manager at the time, Denis Rooney. An ex-coalminer with a passion for the area, its people, and its wildlife, he was perfectly placed to help regenerate the coast. Working closely with the local community from the outset, he encouraged local residents to take a sense of pride in their surroundings. While in post he stated: “I’m not just a coastal warden. I’ve been community worker, policeman and rubbish collector!”. Slowly but surely he saw the cases of fly-tipping, off-road motorbiking and wildlife crime decrease, while numbers of visitors and National Trust volunteers grew.

In 2003, the coast was awarded Heritage Coast status, and a new partnership emerged to continue the legacy of Turning the Tide. Ten years on, the National Trust remains a key player, with the local property team working closely with Durham Heritage Coast partners to improve land management, nature conservation and public access.

Easington Colliery Beach between Fox Holes and Beacon Point on the Durham coast, Northumbria. ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Easington Colliery Beach between Fox Holes and Beacon Point on the Durham coast, Northumbria.
©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

The latest scheme is ‘Durham Coast Watch’, a neighbourhood watch style venture which unites residents, visitors, the police, Durham County Council and local landowners, including the Trust. Under this banner, Trust Rangers are planning to install features to discourage offroad bikers in some particularly vulnerable areas. One of the most valuable weapons against anti-social behaviour is getting local people behind the cause, so Rangers are also handing out leaflets encouraging supporters to report such offences.

Meanwhile, the Trust team is also involved in the development of an increasingly broad and engaging programme of events along the coast. These range from family fun days organised by the Heritage Coast partnership, such as Low Tide Day and Celebrating Our Coast, to wildlife walks and kids’ summer holiday activities. The latest, and one of the most exciting, has been the first ever Durham Coast Half Marathon, which took place on Sunday 9 June this year. Over 200 runners from across the region took part, many bringing friends and family along to cheer them on. On the day several participants commented that they had never visited this part of the coast before, and would certainly be coming back in the near future. With a wealth of beautiful beaches, dramatic clifftop views and wildlife-rich wooded denes (stream-carved coastal valleys) to explore, they won’t be disappointed.

  • A survey carried out by Seasearch in August 2009 discovered that, thanks to the coastal clean-up operation, the Durham Heritage Coast has enjoyed a significant recovery since 1991, and that species diversity has increased greatly.

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