County Durham’s prosperity was founded on coalmining. Coal has been mined here for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the industry was established on a commercial basis. When the railways came along in the 1840s, the industry prospered creating great wealth for the landowners, and occasionally great misery for the miners. An explosion in Trimdon Grange Colliery in 1882 claimed the lives of 74 miners – some of them no more than boys. And in May 1951, an underground explosion in Easington Colliery killed 81 men.
Now that the industry has all but disappeared, the scars it created are being swept away. Spoil heaps have been cleared or grassed over, pit heads demolished and old industrial sites tidied up. The colliery villages such as Pity Me, Shiney Row, Bearpark, Sunniside and Quebec still exist – tight-knit communities that retain an old-style sense of belonging and sharing, and even in the most unprepossessing of villages there are delightful surprises to be discovered, such as the near perfect Saxon church at Escomb.
Coal may have been king, but County Durham’s countryside has always supported an important farming industry, and Central and South Durham still retains a gentle landscape of fields, woodland, streams and narrow country lanes. This area stretches from the east coast to the Pennines in the west, and from the old border with Yorkshire in the south to the edge of the Tyne and the Wear conurbations in the north. Within this area there are picturesque villages, cottages, grand houses, museums, snug pubs, old churches and castles aplenty.
The coastline, too, has been cleaned up. An 11-mile coastal footpath snakes through the district of Easington from Seaham Hall Beach in the north to Crimdon Park in the south. Much of it is along clifftops with spectacular views down onto the beaches. This coastal area has recently been designated a National
Nature Reserve. Travelling around the region, the visitor is
constantly reminded of its rich social, industrial and Christian heritage. The Romans marched along Dere Street in County Durham, and in the 9th and 10th centuries holy men carried the body of St Cuthbert with them as they sought a place of refuge from the marauding Vikings. More recently, the railways were born in the county in 1825, with the opening of the famous Stockton and Darlington Railway.
Dominating the whole area is the city of Durham – one of Europe’s finest small cities. It was here, in 1832, that England’s third great university was established.
The towns of Darlington, Stockton-on- Tees, Redcar, Hartlepool and Bishop Auckland are all worthy of exploration. At one time all falling within the borders of Durham County, local government reorganisation placed Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees in the county of Cleveland. Now that Cleveland itself is no more, they, along with Darlington, are unitary authorities and, strictly speaking, not part of County Durham at all, but old loyalties still exist.
To the west, County Durham sweeps up to the Northern Pennines – a hauntingly beautiful area of moorland, high fells and deep, green dales. Officially designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1988, the North Pennines covers almost 2,000 square kilometres. It is one of the most remote and unspoiled places in the country and has been called England’s last wilderness.