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Travel: Discovering Britain’s forgotten coast

The ruins of the 7th century priory at Tynemouth

The ruins of the 7th century priory at Tynemouth

  • by Adrian Darbyshire
 

It was the grim setting for the climax of the 1971 cult crime thriller Get Carter.

In the movie’s final scenes, the hit man played by Michael Caine takes brutal revenge for his brother’s death on a filthy coal-blackened beach, as a creaking aerial ropeway dumps tub-loads of colliery waste into the sea.

Now 40 years on, the Black Beaches of County Durham have been transformed beyond all recognition - as we found out during a weekend break to the North East.

We had flown to Newcastle the previous afternoon with Citywing, the hour-long flight from Ronaldsway in cloudless skies providing unrivalled views over the Lake District.

Having collected our hire car at the airport, we set off for Tynemouth for the opening night of the Mouth of the Tyne Festival, set in the spectacular surroundings of the ruins of the Medieval castle and 7th century priory.

Relaxed and family friendly, the festival gave my daughter a chance to get a closer than expected view of one of her favourite bands, Lawson.

We travelled south the next morning via the Tyne Tunnel into Co Durham.

Here, a forgotten stretch of the English coastline, once declared an ecological disaster zone, has been rebranded the Durham Heritage Coast, thanks to an award-winning £10m clean-up operation.

The whole stretch of coast from Seaham in the north to Crimdon in the south is now a superb 11 mile clifftop footpath.

We took a stroll to Denemouth where the gorge of Castle Eden Dene meets the sea.

It’s only a couple of miles up the coast from the site of Blackhall Colliery, where those scenes from Get Carter were filmed. Just to the north other aerial ropeways dumped waste from Horden and Easington collieries. At the height of their operation, 2.5 million tonnes of waste were tipped each year.

There were 234 collieries in Co Durham when the coal industry was nationalised in 1947. Now there are none, Easington - later to be the setting for the film Billy Elliot – being one of the last to close in 1993.

With the success of the Turning the Tide project, 1.3 million tonnes of spoil have been removed and golden sand has largely replaced the black sludge on the beaches, the magnesian limestone cliffs now a haven for wildlife including flowers and rare butterflies.

Passing under a huge railway viaduct, you climb the deep ravine of Castle Eden Dene itself, a craggy glen of ancient yews and oaks that’s said to be a survivor of ‘the wildwood’ that once covered much of Britain.

Having explored Castle Eden Dene, we headed inland to Beamish Open Air Museum.

Set in 300 acres of beautiful countryside, Beamish recreates life in the North of England as it was in the early 1820s, 1900s and 1940s when coal was still king.

The award-winning museum attracts some 600,000 visitors each year, its staff sporting period costumes as tram drivers, shop keepers, enginemen and pitmen’s wives.

Many of the buildings here, including schools, factories, shops and cottages, have been brought here and rebuilt brick by brick.

Vintage trams and buses trundle around a circuit of the site, allowing you to hop off or hop on at the Town, the pit village, the manor house or the 1825 Pockerley Waggonway, where you can take a ride behind working replicas of the Puffing Billy or the wonderfully-named Steam Elephant.

Highlight of the Town, which represents a typical North Eastern market town in the years leading up to the First World War, is the traditional sweet shop where you watch old-fashioned confectionery being made and buy a bag or two of goodies to take home.

New for 2014 is the 1940s Farm, which provides a snapshot of life on the Home Front during the Second World War, and tells the everyday stories of the Land Girls, evacuees and the Home Guard.

Reluctantly we left to head north, along the spectacular Northumberland Coast to the little harbour town of Amble, at one time a busy port shipping coal brought in by rail from the nearby collieries.

The pits, the railways and the ships are now all long gone, leaving Amble a picturesque and surprisingly busy little tourist town.

After lunch at The Harbour tearoom, accompanied to the sound of raucous seagulls, we took a stroll onto the quayside to board a popular Puffin Cruise operated by Dave Gray.

We hadn’t booked a place and it was lucky there were two seats left on the former Eastbourne lifeboat the RNLB Beryl Tollemache.

Last time we had boarded a similar puffin trip, to the Farne Islands a decade ago, the combination of choppy waters and pre-cruise chocolate cake had not been a happy one.

This time round, with the sun beating down and the sea flat calm, there were to be no such problems.

The boat takes visitors a mile out to sea to view the seabird sanctuary of Coquet Island, which is home to thousands of puffins and terns.

As we approached, puffins flapped desperately away from the boat while parties of terns plunge-dived into the water, emerging with beaks full of sand eels.

You can’t actually land on the island but the boats get in close enough to give you good views.

Back on dry land after our hour-long boat trip, we drove up to Warkworth castle whose imposing ruins can be seen from the harbour at Amble.

Next morning the weather had taken a decided turn for the worse and the rain was lashing down by the time we had driven the short distance to the historic town of Alnwick.

We took shelter from the downpour in Barter Books, one of the largest secondhand book shops in the UK. Housed in the town’s old Victorian railway station and boasting some 350,000 titles, you could easily spend half a day here wandering the aisles.

With the rainstorm reduced to heavy drizzle we left for our next appointment at Alnwick Castle. First port of call was The Alnwick Garden, a multi-million pound tourist attraction that’s the brainchild of Jane Percy, current Duchess of Northumberland.

Opened in October 2001, the contemporary gardens span out from a central water cascade complete with fountains and water jets designed to give the unwary a bit of a soaking.

The garden also boasts one of the largest treehouses in the world, complete with wobbly rope bridges, wooden walkways and a treetop restaurant.

Being the first visitors of the day, and many others deterred by the heavy rain, we had the rope bridges to ourselves for a time.

Another fun and thoroughly toxic attraction is the Poison Garden. Behind locked gates, with a skull and crossbone warning that ‘These Plants can Kill’, are grown some of the world’s most dangerous plants.

Visitors are given a guided tour of the garden containing about 100 species, many kept for visual effect behind cages, including cannabis - ‘Keep off the Grass’ reads the sign!

Here too, you’ll find opium poppies, atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), strychnos nux-vomica (used to make strychnine), hemlock and the plant ricinus communis, the seeds from which can be derived deadly ricin.

With the rain setting in again, we strolled round the Castle itself, an imposing pile that was a stand-in for Hogwarts in the early Harry Potter movies and more recently has been used for filming of Downton Abbey.

With its origins in Norman times, Alnwick Castle was originally built as a border defence. Some 45 years after its purchase by the Percy family in 1309, it was transformed from a fortification into a palace for the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Seven hundred years on, it is still the family’s home.

The Duke retains mining rights in the area dating back 200 years but property, development and tourism have replaced coal as the estate’s major source of income.

King Coal may be dead but it has left a lasting heritage legacy in Northumbria and in Co Durham where a once forgotten part of the British coast is now very much ready to be explored.

 

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