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.


 

 

 

No longer carrying coals to Newcastle*

Steph and I moved north to Newcastle upon Tyne at the beginning of October, leaving Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and the West Midlands far behind. Just under 230 miles behind, in fact.

We have a six month rental on a nice house in the Shiremoor district of the city (North Tyneside Council) while we wait for the purchase of our new home to go through. We were fortunate to find somewhere to buy very soon after we made the move. Let’s hope the whole transaction goes more smoothly than did the sale of our Bromsgrove house.


And already we are enjoying getting to know the immediate surrounding area, and a little further afield, although the current Covid-19 lockdown restrictions don’t permit us to travel very far. We are fortunate that one of the closest beaches, at Seaton Sluice, is just 10 minutes away by car, and we have already enjoyed several walks between there and Blyth (a couple of miles or so north along the beach), to Cresswell and Druridge Bay somewhat further north, part way along a wooded valley known as Holywell Dene, to Plessey Woods with the grandchildren and, a few weeks back (before the latest lockdown came into force), we revisited the National Trust’s Cragside, a magnificent Victorian mansion that was built on the open moors near Rothbury in Northumberland.


Since my retirement in 2010, I took to walking almost everyday, weather permitting, as a replacement for the badminton I used to play regularly in the previous decade in Los Baños in the Philippines. As I have written in many blog posts, Walking with my mobile, I explored Bromsgrove and the surrounding district. I tried to walk at least a couple of miles each time (sometimes further), but for a minimum of 45 minutes as recommended. Not that I always achieved that.

Anyway, I did wonder what the walking would be like here in the northeast, close to home. And I haven’t been disappointed. What a delight! There’s a rich legacy of an important industrial past, a heritage in fact.

Heavy industry, and the economic wellbeing of this area north and south of the River Tyne were, for centuries, dependent on the mining of coal (‘black gold’), and the various quays along the river became among the most important in the world for the export of coal, much of it going south to warm the houses of the metropolis, London. But also further afield.

The Northumberland and Durham Coalfields (north and south of the Tyne) are one and the same larger coalfield, often referred to as the Great Northern Coalfield. And the area northeast of Newcastle city center, where we are currently living, is dotted with former coal mines and spoil heaps. But they have, to all intents and purpose, disappeared from the landscape. Mines were closed up to 40 years ago, and the pithead infrastructure was mostly demolished. Only in a few places do any building survive. Spoil heaps were flattened, the landscape rehabilitated, and these open spaces allocated for building, or parks like the Silverlink Biodiversity Park that is just a mile from our home.

But what is more remarkable—and I’m going to have to do more research and blog more extensively in the future—is the network of paths, 150 miles of them in North Tyneside alone that have become not only an important recreation and leisure amenity for everyone to enjoy (walking, cycling, and horse riding) but they are important biodiversity corridors into the city with many bird species, and mammals such as deer, rabbits, and hares. I’ve not seen any deer or hares yet, but rabbits and many bird species are quite common.

So why all these paths? Well, they are the disused trackbeds of railways built to haul the coal from the collieries north of the River Tyne down to the coal wharfs (or staithes), where it was loaded on to waiting ships. These paths are called waggonways.

Each mine or colliery built its own. Originally coal trucks ran on wooden rails. With the development of steam power, engine houses were built to lower and raise sets of wagons to the river, attached to cables. At the beginning of the 20th century these were replaced by steam locomotives that ran up and down the waggonways with their full load to the staithes, and empty on the return journey back to the mines. These photos were taken along the Cramlington Waggonway, which is the closest to home, less than a quarter of a mile.

I need to find so much more about the waggonways and the history of coal mining in this area. That should keep me busy for quite some time. In the meantime, we shall enjoy exploring these unique routes through the city, and the biodiversity that they harbor.


Much as we are enjoying walking along the waggonways, I have to mention the wanton and I guess mostly lazy littering that we have noticed along the paths. But some quite deliberate as I saw a bag of household waste tossed into the bushes. Much of the litter comprises used beer cans or plastic water bottles, some plastic bags. But, in these Covid times, also an increasing number of disposable face masks.

Now whether littering on this scale is endemic in the ‘local culture’ so to speak or, because of the pandemic, North Tyneside Council is unable to deploy workers to clear up the litter, I have no idea. But it is a sad reflection on a certain section of the local community that they feel they can pollute these environments in the way they do.


* The saying ‘to carry coals to Newcastle’ means to do or bring something superfluous or unnecessary, and has been in use since at least the 1500s. So what is its basis? As a major coal-exporting town, it would have been a worthless endeavor to try and sell coal from outside the local coalfields in Newcastle itself. And so, the saying gained a wider currency signifying something unnecessary.