First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Thirty years ago only fools or psychogeographers would have set out to walk the coast of County Durham. This was ‘Get Carter’ country, a dozen miles of grim coastline massively polluted by coal mining and pit waste tipping.
After the last of Durham’s coastal pits closed in 1993, a remarkable operation named ‘Turning the Tide’ saw a clean-up of the cliffs, the beaches and the steep wooded valleys called ‘denes’. Following the clifftop path south from Seaham Harbour on a fine windy morning, we couldn’t believe this was the same colliery coast that we’d once known.
Down on Blast Beach the sea is slowly eroding the minestone. Blast Beach got its name from the blast furnaces of the adjacent ironworks which covered the beach with a thick layer of grease and sludge. Mixed with coal waste from Dawdon Colliery, this scab of industrial slag was dubbed ‘minestone’ by locals. It’s a remarkable sight, a flat shelf of pale grey and orange that extends seaward from the feet of the pale magnesian limestone cliffs, to form its own miniature cliff at the high water mark.
We walked Blast Beach, marvelling at the contrast between the barren layer of minestone and the rich flora that has developed under the cliffs – buttery yellow bird’s-foot trefoil, intensely purple bloody cranesbill. Fulmars planed along the cliffs, and nesting kittiwakes looked down on us with eyes as soft and black as pandas.
Up on the cliffs again, we strolled the grassy meadows where bee orchids grew in clumps. On the sheltered beach of Hawthorn Hive a man was collecting waste coal into a sack. ‘Sea coalers’ were a common phenomenon hereabouts when the collieries were in full swing, but there’s little sea coal left today.
Easington Colliery’s beach was once a wasteland where a gaunt gantry dropped a continuous stream of mine filth into a blackened sea. Now it’s a beautiful sweep of pale pebbles on which the waves break in white foam.
Horden Beach was a three-mile swathe of stones and sands, its minestone ledge now sea-nibbled halfway back to the cliffs. From here we struck up the path into Castle Eden Dene, and walked up into Peterlee through a green canopied cleft full of ferns and water-sculpted rocks. Goldcrests squeaked in the treetops, and the underworld below the trees was hazed and smoky with bluebells.
Start: Seaham Harbour, Co Durham SR7 7DR (OS ref NZ 431494)
Getting there: Bus X6, X7 (Peterlee-Sunderland)
Road: Seaham is on B1404, signed from A19, just south of Sunderland.
Chevron Taxis (Peterlee-Seaham, about £12): 0191-586-0222/0555.
Walk (10 miles, moderate coastal walk, OS Explorer 308): From Seaham Harbour walk south along coast path beside A182 (occasional brown ‘England Coast Path’ waymark). In 1 mile at Nose’s Point (437478), descend to Blast Beach (steep, slippery descent). Cross beach; steps up to coast path are beside the prominent rock stack near the far end (439469). In ⅔ mile at Hawthorn Dene (440461) either take steep steps down to cross beach, or cross railway line into woods and follow ‘Heritage Coast Footpath’ yellow arrows across dene and on.
In another 4¼ miles at Hartlepool Point, at foot of dene mouth with reedbeds (455407), pass end of path that goes inland past tank traps, and take next path from beach inland up Castle Eden Dene. Under railway (451405) and across A1086 (448405) ; on along footpath. In 1 mile, fork right after Garden of Eden bridge (438399), with Castle Eden Burn on right, up waymarked Yew Tree Trail for nearly 1 mile to Visitor Centre (427393). Ahead up Stanhope Chase to cross Durham Way; path ahead to edge of playing field (426397). Right for 150m, left up right side of playing field, then path ahead through North Blunts woodland to Peterlee bus station (428407).
Conditions: Paths in Castle Eden Dene can be slippery after rain.
Lunch: Picnic on the cliffs or beaches