Which do you like best: skylarks or racing pigeons? Coal-stained “black beaches” or white sandy ones? Kebabs or haute cuisine?
On the new coast path between Hartlepool, County Durham, and Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, the great thing is that you don’t have to choose. The route, which starts in North Gare beach by the mouth of the Tees and ends 34 miles to the north on the other side of the Wear, is either the ultimate in post-industrial flaneuring, or psycho-geographical “edgelanding” (exploring the boundaries where urban meets rural) – in other words going for a walk in the kind of landscape many of us grew up in.
“Eventually, this path will be part of a 4,500km [2,796 miles] England Coast Path,” said Andrew Best of Natural England, joining me and a friend for the walk. “We chose this area for the first stretch because the local authorities were really up for it – and it’s fascinating but under-explored.”
We set off on a glorious day from a car park at North Gare. Before facing north to follow the new ECP signs along the coast, we looked back towards EDF’s two nuclear power stations, the Seal Sands oil terminal and a landfill site. There’s still plenty of working industry in the north-east, but when we turned around we were looking over recovering grasslands, with redshanks, blackcaps and butterflies flickering all about. Every few metres a skylark ascended, emitting its busy call.
The walk into Hartlepool was flat and easy. Seaton Carew looked like a seaside town stuck somewhere between a quaint past and a future with potential. A new promenade was busy with pram-pushers, mobility scooters and dog-walkers.
Everyone smiled and said hello. An old deco-style lido was crying out for a posh cafe and a spot of gentrification.
At Hartlepool railway station we stopped for refreshment at the Rat Race, a lovely micro pub serving real ales (“924 beers since November 2009”), Belgian beers, and posh crisps. Skirting the pleasant harbour – and some less pleasant strip malls and dual carriageways – we came to a suburb called Headland, which lives up to its name geographically, and is the site of a statue commemorating much-loved sexist, beer-swilling comic-strip layabout Andy Capp.
Beside him stands Saint Andrew’s church, converted into the beautiful Mary Rowntree restaurant in 2012, and serving thinly battered fish and thrice-fried chips, with fine wines and even finer mushy peas.
After Headland we were on Durham’s Heritage Coast, established in the late 1990s after the closure of the collieries to beautify the area and protect the magnesian limestone cliffs, unique to the region. The official path currently meanders through development land so we opted to walk via North Sands beach – easy enough at low tide – and enjoy a plodge (paddle) on the way. Wood-framed Steetley Pier sticks far out, a remnant of the magnesite industry that is now used by fishermen brave enough to clamber up its rotting legs. A little farther along was a fenced-in nesting area for little terns, a rare breed on these shores. Just beneath it a ringed plover was scouring a stream for food.
The next day took us past a string of former colliery towns, including Blackhall, Horden and Easington – the last pit to be closed hereabouts, and the setting for the film Billy Elliot. As the son of a miner, I lament the passing of the work and the communities it gave rise to, but it has to be said that the landscape now is glorious. Where once stood pit-heads, scars of wasteland and mountains of slack, meadows are enlivened by orchids, and poppies bob at the edges of fields of rapeseed and wheat.
Some of the beaches are still stained coal-black. For years, tons of waste was simply tipped over the cliffs and allowed to wash out to sea – or not.
By Easington it had begun to drizzle. In a public garden a pithead wheel had been laid flat, part of a memorial to miners both living and those “taken from the darkness of their toil”, between 1899 and 1993.
We looked in vain for a coffee shop, before continuing in the rain to Seaham, our first proper town since Hartlepool. Here there was coffee, curry, a grand B&B – and the stunning steel sculpture of a first world war soldier by local artist Ray Lonsdale.
We were back with the skylarks for the final furlongs, tramping through coastal heathland atop high cliffs of soft sandstone. I had to dip my head to avoid a team of manic racing pigeons, far too energetic to be feral urbanites. Our calves got a workout on the frequent, steep-sided denes – glacial valleys once riven by glaciers, most now filled with ancient ash trees.
And so to Sunderland, through repurposed factories, warehouses and estates of tower blocks and redbrick terraces. We were sleeping in the suburb of Seaburn, a couple of miles north, but crossing the majestic Wearmouth Bridge felt like the arrival. Compton Mackenzie, the Hartlepool-born author, once said: “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie. Never walk when you can ride.” That thought, probably once shared by rich and poor alike, belongs to an era when Durham folk trudged to work, slogged their guts out, and trudged home – mostly in the dark.
Their landscape has been reborn, and reclaimed, for the rest of us. Walkers of England, unite! You have nothing to lose but your weight.
By: Chris Moss