Ashington was ghost-white, sat today on the edge of the sea mist, where it broke against the sunlit land and dissipated. The tide-line was half way down the main street. I was to find myself busking with tall, rolling clouds falling heavily down towards me from the left, breaking up and dispersing before they hit, and glorious sunshine streaming in from my right. The roundabout on the outskirts of town had a sculpture of a miner drawing back a bow; his arrow a shovel. Heading into town was a large shire horse, bare back ridden by a flame-haired young lady, in animated conversation on her phone.
Ashington is the world’s largest pit village, with a population of 27,000, it exists simply because of the coal mining industry. When the mines were working, 8 of every ten men in this place worked in them, and everyone else in the service industries that grew around them. It even has its own dialect, the famous Pitmatik, to mark it out from the Tynesiders and the rest of Northumberland. The lady in the coffee shop was from Essex though, and assured me she “Couldn’t speak posh, even if she had electrocution lessons.” She told me that Ashington is the butt of all the jokes from the rest of Northumberland. Meanwhile, Ashington folk make their jokes about the people of Newbiggin-By-The-Sea. I imagine there’s one poor sod in Newbiggin, sat in a shed, who’s drawn the short straw and is the final butt of Northumbrian jokes. The coffee shop staff liked the sound of my project, and said I could have it for free if I mentioned them. And so at Mojo coffee on the main street in Ashington, I began the long process of abandoning my artistic integrity. Thankfully the coffee was good, so it wasn’t all in vain. I started up with my fiddle outside the closed down greengrocers. The morning was warm. One young lad pretended to give me money each time he went down the street, making more and more extravagant gestures with each pass. By the end, I was quite looking forward to seeing what he’d do next.
Lunch came from the sandwich shop. A large cheese and ham roll and a high quality steak pie came to £2. I had a pocket full of silver, people had been generous. The locals were happy to chat. There was a new paint factory on the edge of town, which was providing a few jobs. They felt this was a step in the right direction, but nothing more, but everyone seemed fond of the place. It was, after all, home.
I picked a direction and walked. There were three Working Men’s Clubs in a row, the Hirst Progressive Social Club, the British Legion, and the New Hirst and District Social. In the mist, Ashington seemed endless, like walking between infinite mirrors. A grid system of miner’s houses, I passed alternate front and back rows, their repeating shapes fading into a focal point of chimney stacks and sturdy out-houses. The estate had CCTV every hundred yards. There was hardly a soul away from the centre. Against expectations, I reached the edge of town. The repeating houses gave way to a vast set of allotments, gone to seed, planted with pigeon lofts and portacabins. Each one a heirloom to be cherished.
I headed in a roundabout way back to the town centre. Above a front door, a large sign read “No religious or political lunatics welcome here!”. I wondered if anybody had ever self-identified as either of those things. There were very few people on the back streets. The place felt sad, sucked of energy. And no wonder, with the entire town’s prosperity bound up in the coal trade, the gradual demise of the numerous collieries had taken the town down. Ashington has been hammered, through no fault of its own.
The main mining museum is at the former Woodhorn colliery site, where most of the main colliery buildings still stand, including the winding gear for two shafts. It’s tidied up now, of course. In my experience around the world, a working colliery is a very busy and scruffy place, full of hum, and the tranquil and well ordered serenity of the site has a melancholy power through omission. Like the town, the colliery is sleeping, robbed of action.
Inside the new visitor centre, one can take a trip through a virtual coal mine. It’s well done, with sudden darkness, a superbly well designed soundscape, and the right amount of information and confusion. But for reasons of safety, they cannot replicate what it must really have felt like to be underground. When I was 13, I went to the coalface of a small pit in Northumberland, in what was definitely one of the most powerful and legally dubious experiences of my life. There’d been an extremely unofficial open day, and my father had taken me along, not realising that this involved a trip underground. The miner running it looked at me for a moment, and sorted out a helmet and lamp and made me promise not to tell anyone. This was a drift mine, so we walked into the hill, rather than down a shaft, and even at 13, I stooped my way down the tunnel for nearly two miles to where they were mining an 18 inch seam by hand. The miner in question had moved up from the potteries when his mine had closed, unwilling to give up the work he loved so much.
He’d told us that it wasn’t so much the ceiling coming down, as the floor coming up, that sometimes the pressures just caused big bits of coal to fire out of the coal face. Old roads led off to other workings, my imagination filling in the vast blackness. Darkness started where your lantern finished, and carried on beyond your reasoning. It’s an experience I value extremely highly, and consider myself incredibly lucky to have had.
In Woodhorn, the tour tries, but they can’t replicate the cold and wet air on your face that betrays the direction of ventilation. The uneven and treacherous floor, set with simple steel rails, endlessly pulled up and re-used, with the electric wire for the engine turned off to allow safe passage for walkers. The wooden beams splintering as the floor tries to reconnect with the ceiling. The need for composure and situational awareness in a labyrinth of miniature tunnels. The way the world smells like it’s just been created when you walk out of the hill after hours with your senses compressed to your skin.
On the Durham mining museum website, which includes the Northumberland coalfield, they’re trying to compile lists of those who died in each mine, when, and why. Each major pit has a list that runs to several pages. I don’t know how a museum could ever capture the claustrophobia and constant fear of coal mining. Mines are fascinating and horrible places. Each with a roll of honour, now just a tomb sealed with a concrete cap, all other traces removed, spoil tips taken away for roadstone, buildings levelled.
Just a few miles down the road, at the Hartley colliery, the 1862 disaster was so disgustingly avoidable it caused a change in the law. To save money, only a single way into and out of the pit was sunk. When the beam on the pumping engine failed and fell into the shaft, it sealed the miners in. To make matters worse, it happened on a shift change, so both shifts were inside at the time. 204 men and boys suffocated, leaving just 55 employees of the mine alive. Being the only employer in the village, it left virtually every household bereaved, often several times over, and with no prospect of future earnings. Had there been a second exit, almost every victim would simply have walked away.
It was against such disregard for human life that the unions grew. They were more than just organisations to act for your conditions at work. They were an organisation to demand you be treated as a human being. Each of the collieries in Northumberland had a NUM branch, who had their own banner, a vast piece of cloth, ornately decorated with artwork and slogans that symbolised who they were and where they wanted to go. The banner was with you in life, would attend your funeral, a validation. In Woodhorn, the retired banners are preserved. Of 200 banners that were carried in the Northumberland coalfield, just 22 are still active. The remainder are stored here, rolled up in darkness to protect them. At any one time, five hang from the ceiling of the main corridor. One might have thought that starved of direct context, the power would go out of them, but far from it. They are muscular and angry. Looming, brooding presences. “Conveys Our Aims Literally – COAL” “Let the lessons of the past serve the future!”. It would be a cliché to say they felt alive, but that’s how they were. Eyes on your back, cloth deeply infused with the essence of a community that had to fight for the most basic rights.
In the museum itself, the miner’s strike is covered. Woodhorn closed in 1981, 4 years before this began. Indeed, a number of the Ashington collieries were already closed before this traumatic event even started. When viewed against the decline of the coal industry that was already well underway by 1985, the miner’s strike was less about protecting the coal industry, and more of a last desperate gambit to change the direction of travel. On opposing walls, giant pictures of Thatcher and Scargill face off. Thatcher is merely known as ‘Her’ around here. Tasked with the impossibility of being both balanced in their views, and true to the deep hurt towards the Conservative government that did this to them, the museum doesn’t try to run through either side’s arguments, instead focussing on the suffering experienced by the mining communities in this time. The starvation, the cold, the hopelessness, finally the defeat and the acceleration of the closures. It is the right decision, and makes the point so much more effectively than through direct argument.
The museum is largely staffed by young people. There are fewer of the old miners and their families left around now. The coal industry now sits on the border between contemporary reality and historical interest. The town has never remotely recovered from the loss of its entire industry. In common with most places so lazily labelled ‘Crap Towns’ it is, and it is not remotely its fault that it is. The lack of political interest in helping these places through the end of industry is still a giant cannonball round their necks. More than three decades on from the strike, the town has barely begun to shake off the effects. Down the coast in Durham, the council tried to wipe these doomed villages out with the dreaded ‘Category D’ rating, which forbade all development. I plan to visit them next week to see how that worked out.
The thing that most upsets is that these places are written off for no good reason. They are full of polite, friendly, intelligent people, who are ready to work. If just a bit more thought had been given to re-training and partnerships, it wouldn’t have to be like this. Ashington is potential unfulfilled. At a time when it most needed support, it lost its railway station.
Elsewhere in the museum is the Pitmen Painters exhibition. I had arranged to be given a guided tour, and it was excellent. What started off as an art class in the 1930s turned into a full-blown artistic movement. The coal companies were keen to support betterment for the miners, on the strict condition that they were not taught anything that could help them into alternative employment. I’m no expert on art at all, but the exhibition is first class. In broadly date order, you can see the development from the very naive first paintings, to the growth of a style both unique and powerful. They were the first British artists to have an exhibition in the People’s Republic of China. Given opportunity, they learned how to produce something exceptional. When will Ashington next be given that opportunity?
In the cafe, there’s a series of 20 large pages on the wall, telling the story of a young lad’s first day down the mine. Drawn in the manga style by Nina Wakabayashi, it’s worth the admission fee alone.
It was nearly the end of the day. I drove to Newbiggin-By-The-Sea. The fog was thick. A man on a bicycle lurched out of the mist with a giant netted bag full of horse carrots and a lump hammer. The beach nearly all washed away a few years ago, so a breakwater was built and 600,000 tons of sand brought up the coast from Skegness. The fog was so dense, I could hear the sea but not see it. A row of Coble fishing boats, flat-bottomed and high bowed, were at rest above the tide line. I drove to my accommodation via North Blyth, 8 rows of houses on a spit of land, children’s swings where the land gets too narrow. A huge undersea cable laying vessel was hidden in the gloom. The fog leant the whole day a strange and sorrowful air. I decided I would like to come back here in sunshine and see it again.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to my account
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!