We called them the ‘Cobridge Alps’ . . .

Not any more. Just take a look at Google Maps Streetview either side of the A53 Leek New Road from around Norton Lane west into Hanley in The Potteries of North Staffordshire. I wrote about that transformation in a blog post in September 2013.

A typical North Staffordshire coalfield landscape, at Longton in The Potteries.

Where once there were towering slag heaps from the adjacent collieries, now there is an undulating landscape that has been converted to parks and nature reserves, like the Whitfield Valley Nature Reserve and, of course, reclaimed for housing. Once where there was a huge slag heap that had spontaneously combusted surrounded by black—very black—desolation, now there is greenery and wildlife. Incidentally, that particular slag heap was on fire when I traveled daily in the 1960s past it on my way to school in The Potteries from my home in Leek 14 miles to the northeast. It took decades to bring that fire under control.

The railway lines that fed the collieries have been ripped up and to some extent part of our industrial heritage has been lost as well. Nevertheless, it is good to see the reclamation of these disused landscapes that are now providing innumerable benefits for local communities.


I left the grime of The Potteries behind almost 55 years ago when I moved away to university. And having retired in 2010, it took another decade to finally make the decision to move from our home in northeast Worcestershire to the northeast of England, another area that has a fine industrial past, also based on coal.

We moved to Newcastle upon Tyne, and have settled near the village of Backworth to the northeast of the city center, and just a handful of miles from the North Sea coast, and mile upon mile of the most fantastic beaches you could ever want to walk along. No swimming for me, though. The North Sea is far too cold. And, in any case, I have been spoiled by too many years in the Tropics, and almost two decades of scuba diving in the warm waters surrounding the Philippines in the Far East.

There’s a housing boom in Newcastle, that has been going on for forty years or more. Once the last of the coal mines was closed in the 1980s (and before), parts of mining villages were bulldozed to make way for better housing. And land reclaimed from the collieries has been developed for new housing. Everywhere you look there are new housing developments, and where Steph and I chose to settle is no different.

The Backworth collieries were part of the Northumberland coalfield, and among the deepest. The Maude Pit, sunk in 1872 had coal seams reached by shafts almost 1400 feet (more than 400 m) deep. In looking into the history of the area, I’ve not yet been able to find a map of the present day landscape with all the abandoned pits marked thereon. And another confusing aspect is that the names of the pits changed over the years.

What I can say is that within a mile or so of where I’m now living there must have been almost a couple dozen pits. By the 1980s all had been closed (some much earlier) and the process to erase them from the landscape begun.

The Maude Pit at Backworth Colliery (looking south), with the colliery workshops along the road, and about half a mile (as the crow flies) from where I now live.

The colliery site today, looking northwest towards the old colliery workshops, and the capped mine shafts.

But not entirely, however. It’s quite a feat to landscape the thousands and thousands (millions probably) of tons of waste that accompanied coal mining.

The remains of the Seghill slag heap, north of Backworth.

And, in contrast to the situation in The Potteries, the coal mining legacy of North Tyneside can be seen in the miles of waggonways that criss-cross the area: the routes of the railways that carried coal from the mines down to special wharfs (known as staithes) on the River Tyne from where it was exported worldwide. The photos below (courtesy of Debbie Twiddy on Facebook) show coal trains crossing the area close to home, a landscape that has long been lost.

This landscape has changed in other ways, apart from the various housing developments in the area. New roads have been pushed through like the A186 bypass to the village of Shiremoor, so that it’s not easy to entirely reconcile old photos with the reality on the ground today. Also, and unlike The Potteries, many of the industrial sites have been allowed to re-wild. After 40 to 50 years of growth there is now an impressive cover of mature trees, brush and scrub that has become a haven for wildlife, big and small. Just the other day we saw a fine pair of roe deer just a short distance from home. The waggonways are important wildlife corridors that connect different sites across North Tyneside.

This is what it looks like today.

I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of Backworth’s coal mining heritage, and there must be lots more to uncover. This is a useful website that I have yet to mine in detail.

Without appreciating it before we moved north 14 months back, we have now settled in a remarkable and fascinating landscape that we will take great pleasure in exploring and uncovering more interesting facts about its heritage.


 

 

 

A cielo abierto . . .

Have you read—or even heard of—a novella called The Little Prince? No? Me neither. The Little Prince was first published in English and French in 1943. Remarkably it is one of the best selling and most translated books ever. In fact I knew nothing about it or its author (French impoverished aristocrat, pioneer aviator, and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) until just the other day when I began a book, The Prince of the Skies, a historical novel by Spanish author Antonio Iturbe, and published in English earlier this year, in a translation by Melbourne-based Dr Lilit Žekulin Thwaites.

The Prince of the Skies first appeared in 2017 as A Cielo Abierto (not to be confused with the 2000 Spanish movie of that name), and tells the story of three French pioneer aviators from 1922 to their deaths in the 1930s and 1940s, but from the perspective of Saint-Exupéry.

Besides Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), the other two aviators were Jean Mermoz (1901-1936), and Henri Guillaumet (1902-1940).

L-R: Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, and Guillaumet

The book opens in 1922 with Saint-Exupéry, a sublieutenant in the French air force, taking to the sky over Paris in primitive biplane. He dreamed of being as free as a bird, and indeed much of the book reflects the freedom that he and the other aviators felt once they were airborne.

All three took positions with a company that carried the mail between southern France and Spain, and on to North Africa, following the desert and coast south to Senegal. Flying was hazardous, particularly over the Pyrenees, arduous, and not without considerable danger. The death toll among pilots was not inconsiderable. The companies they worked for were the forerunners of Air France and Aerolineas Argentinas, among others.

But Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, and Guillaumet led, for a while, charmed lives but not without aviation upsets.

All three were posted to Argentina to open up air mail routes between Brazil and Buenos Aires, and south through Patagonia. Saint-Exupéry was charged with opening a route between Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, flying high over the Andes at the limits of aviation in those early years. In 1930 Guillaumet crashed at over 3000 m on his 92nd flight on this route, and extraordinarily took a week to climb and walk out of the mountains.

Mermoz set about establishing a non-stop service between Dakar in Senegal and Natal in northeast Brazil, the shortest crossing of the South Atlantic, but not without its challenges as the route crosses the Intertropical Convergence Zone, well known (and respected) for its turbulent weather. The crossing from Dakar would take 15 hours or more, with just one pilot. Initially flown by seaplanes, aviation technology soon developed to permit land-based aircraft to make the trip. But it was on what would be his last flight in December 1936 that Mermoz’s plane disappeared fours hours after departing from Dakar. He and his mechanic were never found.

Henri Guillaumet joined the Free French Air Force at the outbreak of war in 1939, and was shot down and killed over the eastern Mediterranean in 1940.

Saint-Exupéry was a dreamer and a reluctant writer who agonized, it seems, over every word and paragraph. Nevertheless his work was spotted by influential writers and publishers, and his books won prestigious prizes.

His personal life was complicated. Originally engaged to society beauty and writer Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, he never got over the breakdown in their relationship having been cast aside, not deemed worthy enough by her family. He married Salvadoran writer and artist Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval in Buenos Aires in 1930 and their somewhat turbulent marriage did survive until his death.

Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin (L) and Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval (R)

After spending a couple of years in the USA from 1940, Saint-Exupéry joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa. He crashed in mysterious circumstances off the coast of the South of France in 1944. His body was never recovered.

The Little Prince was eventually published posthumously in France after the liberation in August 1944. Saint-Exupéry’s books had been banned in Vichy France.

I enjoyed this book, which I selected on spec from our local public library. Iturbe has really brought the chief protagonists to life, and has certainly shown how much we—who take aviation for granted as we criss-cross the globe (pandemic permitting nowadays)—owe to the early aviators who trail-blazed air routes across the continents in the flimsiest and often unreliable (as well as uncomfortable) aircraft. All three aviators are celebrated today in various memorials in France, in literature, and cinema.

Obviously I haven’t read the book in its original Spanish, but translator Žekulin Thwaites has a neat turn of phrase throughout which makes for an easy and enjoyable read.

The Prince of the Skies is published by Macmillan (ISBN 978-1-5290-6333-2).