Why is Horden Beach one of writer Patrick Barkham’s favourite places?
Under the railway line beyond the old mining village of Horden is a grassy clifftop field and then an impressive sweep of beach. Below slumping limestone cliffs, the sand is dotted with vividly-coloured stones – umber, clay and, most spectacularly, a sulphurous yellow.
These are not natural hues but stains of iron oxide constantly washed and rolled by the North Sea. The alien-looking colours are a consequence of a century of coal mining beneath the beautiful, neglected and continually overlooked coastline of Durham.
As late as the 1980s, British Coal continued to dump on Durham's beaches waste from the mines that followed seams far under the North Sea: 40 million tonnes of toxic sludge and mine tailings were deposited on this coast in total.
Beaches like Horden's became black with coal. Some locals collected it; others remember as children turning black with pollution after daring to swim in these waters.
After the last mines closed here in the 1990s, it was forecast to take at least half a century for these beaches to be washed clean again. But nature – assisted by Heritage Lottery funds – can repair our damage more quickly than expected and barely 25 years on they are stunning and virtually clean.
Local people say good fishing has returned and the main evidence of beach pollution – a miniature cliff of compacted “mine stone” of many colours – looks to the untrained eye like a rather attractive ancient geological deposit.
The mining towns were built turning their backs on the seaside. Today many visitors follow their lead – ignoring the great secret that is the Durham coast for the more predictable attractions of the North Yorkshire or Northumberland coast.
It may have been spoilt by the 20th century but in the 21st century, Durham's beaches now meet every criteria for “unspoilt” coast – peaceful, free of human intrusion, and blessed with flower-rich Magnesian limestone grassland. And even the North Sea can be a surprisingly cobalt blue on a sunny day.
Patrick Barkham is the author of Coastlines – The Story of Our Shore, published by Granta