A couple of months ago, I posted the a blog about my trip through the Durham countryside, visiting several of the Category D villages, before heading to Easington Colliery. It was my most read blog by some margin, achieving nearly twice as many readers as previous efforts. However, it began to attract criticism, specifically from residents of Easington Colliery itself.
Once one person found it, they quickly tagged a few more in, and I soon found myself on the end of a minor internet backlash. Well, fair enough. Writing about people and place is always going to be a contested area. I was initially surprised by the strength of feeling about it. After all, reading back, I hadn’t criticised anyone, or blamed the situation on the residents. But when I got into the detail of what had upset people, the majority of the criticism was along the lines that I had failed to present a full picture of Easington Colliery, focussing on what was superficially obviously troubled about the place, not getting to get to know the community and failing to report on the positives and the efforts to improve things, and most importantly, not giving the place enough of a voice of its own. The criticism was sharp, but not abusive. One lady, Heather Wood, made an offer to show me round and introduce me to people if I’d come back. With such strong feeling about the place and what I’d written, I felt I had to go back and take up the offer.
You can read the original piece here for context.
I drove up the A1 early one morning, full of nerves. It’s a scary thing to drive across the country to meet a group of strangers who are cross with you, but I’ve tried never to shy away from things like this in life. If you’re upset people, you should front up about it. I was mainly worried that we wouldn’t get on, we wouldn’t agree, and that what I’d write about it wouldn’t make things any better. I wondered what I could do if this was the case, deciding that I’d be best explaining the difference and providing space for a full right of reply.
Afraid of being late, I set off first thing and actually arrived two and a half hours early, giving me time to explore Easington village, the older half of the settlement further up the hill. I parked by the entrance to a new housing estate being built, and wandered for a bit. What had historically been the main street for the village was down to the last few shops, the centre of activity having moved to Easington Colliery half a mile away when it had been built. A foundation block read “This stone was laid by” with the lower two lines of text obliterated by 150 years of dog pee.
The church stands on the highest ground and overlooks the village. The stained glass windows are covered in rough Perspex sheets to protect them from stones. In the graveyard, an angel had lost its head, trumpet hanging by its side, redundant. Across the road is Seaton Holme rectory, now a municipal building, but once home to Bishops apparently including Nicholas Breakspear who went on to be England’s only pope, operating under the name of Adrian IV. A good story, although there appears to be no solid evidence of his presence here. Outside, a colliery tub had been turned into a decorative planter.
I drove through both halves of Easington and down to the park where the colliery itself had stood. On top of the now landscaped spoil tip, the colliery cage has been placed, as far from the car park across land as it once went down to let the miners out under the sea. Striking in the distance, hard to assign perspective, it cuts a melancholy shape up close up, where the starkness of the riveted sheets of steel is set off by a series of ribbons tied to it. From a distance, it is mysterious and powerful, all incongruous shape. Up close it is lost and confused, a singularly functional object shorn of purpose. “Why am I here?” It asks.
My meeting was due. Heather had arranged for me to meet a local councillor, and a local business owner in the Welfare. I walked in, wondering how this would go. In the small office off the main reception, they were waiting for me, and found a fourth chair. It seemed that they were as nervous as me. They hadn’t expected me to accept the offer to visit again, and even when I said I would, were still unsure if I would actually show up. People like me don’t normally come back.
“One man came from the Guardian. Walked up and down the main street, went back to London and wrote this horrible piece. Wouldn’t reply to any messages! We have his picture on CCTV if he ever comes back.”
Yikes. But it wasn’t a threat. It was a passionate need to get a voice heard, a voice that they felt was routinely ignored in any appraisal of their village. It was the basic mistake I’d made.
I got out my notepad and starting writing down what they were telling me. The business owner was called Ellin and was particularly direct to explain what had upset her.
“What made me so angry was the lack of meeting people.”
Over the course of an hour I was firmly given the stories I’d missed, the undercurrents, the society. Being naturally genial people, periodically they’d forget they were supposed to be bollocking me and would revert to their natural state of good humoured chat and anecdotes. When the subject moved onto allotments, something County Durham is particularly notable for, the local councillor Steve Fergus recounted being given a bunch of prize carrots from his father’s allotment to take into school for the Harvest festival when he was 8. Being hungry, he’d nibbled the tips off, something that was spotted by the master. Upon being questioned, he’d immediately replied “It must’ve been hungry pit ponies”, an answer quick enough that he’d avoided punishment.
The atmosphere in the room had lifted a great deal. A man with a small an impossibly friendly dog dropped by for a natter and a tail-wag, and the already strong Durham accents became much stronger, almost to the point of impenetrability for me.
We talked about some of the things I’d written about in my first piece. Housing was a hot topic. The majority of the housing in the village was low quality miner’s terraces, some of it unoccupied, and much of it in a poor state of repair. In the view of the room, the dense streets should have all been demolished and replaced by more modern housing, incorporating more open spaces. Instead it had largely been sold to a small number of private absentee landlords. One of these landlords had then done a deal with Durham prison to provide accommodation for families of those imprisoned there, and housing for the recently released. This had placed a huge burden on the community.
“I’d say people with problems rather than problem people. Our difficulty is that we haven’t also been given the budget to help them integrate.” said Heather. Lots of issues to deal with and no resources.
“We’re being used a social experiment. I’ve even had the ministerial aide tell me to my face.” said Steve. ” The next village got housing co-operatives which weren’t much better, but we got total sell off of the housing to absentee landlords who make millions on contracts with the council. We get a huge influx of people straight out of jail from all over and no budget to support them. They don’t integrate and it leaves the community divided.”
Only one of the prison incomers had made any real effort to integrate into the community.
“That canoe man, who faked his death, John Darwin was it? He ended up here, and he was a character. Used to come down the welfare, great sense of humour!”
What about the school?
“Everyone always goes on about the school. It’s the first thing they see. ”
The old school had closed in 1998, and had stood abandoned ever since.
“Biggest pigeon nest in the North” said Steve
Subsequent efforts to demolish and regenerate the site had failed owing to it also passing into the hands of a property developer and being listed by Historic England, twin inertias that had left it rotting and derelict, a symbol of the village’s inability to force the regeneration it needed. It’s an eyesore and the first thing that visitors see, an immense frustration to the locals.
“So people who come here see that, they see the housing, and all we get is a bad press. But I know how hard people are working to sustain this place. The community raised £30,000 to save the church. The Methodists run ‘Cafe Together’ where you can get a £1 meal.”
“We didn’t lose the strike. We won. We’re still here. We met in the Welfare. We built it with our wages. They took the jobs away but we still have the welfare and the sports grounds.”
“It’s an informal network – who needs what, who can provide a skill when needed? We have benefits champions to help others, winter champions to keep the roads clear.”
“Mining’s not dead. Children are taught about it. We had that problem with Durham university?” A couple of years ago, a Durham student society attracted anger for having a Miner’s strike themed fancy dress event. “Now they’re making their own banner. It’s a big improvement on disengagement.”
The strike was still foremost in the collective minds of the village. It had been the central event in the modern history of Easington colliery, as with so many towns, perhaps even eclipsing the closure of the colliery. It was where the community had bound tightest and burned brightest.
“We went on strike for jobs, not money or victory.” Said Steve
“After it ended, we didn’t think we were defeated. We asked ‘What’s our learnings?’ So we got elected. Onto councils and unions. We opposed the opencast. When the mine shut, 40% signed up for education the next day. I was kept on at quarter wage for a year when they mothballed the pit.”
I was invited by Ellin to see the business she’d set up beyond the edge of town. A camping venue called ‘The Barn’ which included some luxurious camping pods, a full campsite, and a wedding or events venue. It was the future, as they saw it. The countryside is beautiful in Durham, and over the ridge from the village, you’d not have known of the row of coal mines that once stretched down the coast towards Hartlepool. The beach has been cleared of colliery waste, and the colliery site was being transformed into a nature reserve. Ellin was a film maker who’d moved up here after falling in love with the area.
“It was all fully booked right through the summer.” She told me, pointing across the camp site.
The land sloped down to the sea, folding into the wooded burn. Heather told me that one evening last summer, the sun setting over the ridge had been so spectacular that the event in the barn had spontaneously stopped, with everyone just heading outside to enjoy the moment in peace. It was a lovely spot.
Perhaps the best insight of the day for me came towards the end, as we walked back up towards the farmhouse from the barn. Heather was telling me that every village had its own clear identity, and were constantly scrapping with each other, with clear dividing lines only visible to the locals. As soon as an outsider came, they’d instantly band together and present a united front.
“So they’re your fights to fight.”
And there in a nutshell was the problem with my first article.
Easington Colliery is in a tough place. In some regards the situation here was even worse than I’d first realised, but it’s theirs, they take ownership of it, all of it, and it needs to be their voice that tells the world about it. Me turning up and scribbling about it without that voice misses the point at the most basic level. Easington won’t be helped by outsiders making ill-informed decisions over their heads. It needs support, lots of it, but that support needs to be designed and coordinated by the residents. Good or bad, it’s their story and patronisingly I’d made it mine. I’d taken away the one thing they still had after others had taken away the work and the funding.
The community spirit was clearly key to taking the place forward. How could they pass that spirit onto the next generation, now there wasn’t the industry to bind them together?
“It’s hard, trying to help the youths and I worry about it.” Said Heather. Ellin continued; “But negative press really doesn’t help. I worry about them internalising the outside negative narrative.”
I shook hands with Ellin and Heather. It had been a draining day, probably for all of us. I’d learned a lot. Not least about the power that being a writer, albeit a self-proclaimed one brings. I’d thought of myself as some dude with a fiddle writing a few words in a harmless sort of way. I hadn’t appreciated how significant those words can be, and how wounding and frustrating they can be. My underestimation of the power of my writing had meant I’d failed to consider the responsibility that comes with it.
I’d also failed to appreciate the powerful connection between people and place. If someone came and wrote something negative about my town, I doubt it would bother me much. My relationship with my town is entirely different. Maybe that’s because I left and moved to the city. Maybe it’s because I never had to stand and fight for it. Indeed, when I wrote the first piece, the response from people who’d grown up in County Durham and left was entirely different to those who’d stayed. I need to be much more attuned to how people feel about their place, instead of assuming they’d think like me.
The criticism I’d received was justified. I’ll try to do better. I think Heather deserves particular credit for being brave enough to invite me back. She didn’t have to do that, and it was a generous olive branch. I’m grateful for it, as well as for the time that Steve and Ellin gave me.
As for Easington Colliery. It’s one of the hardest up places I’ve ever been. Having lost its employment, it was left to rot by an uncaring system, ultimately being used as a social experiment by the powers that be. A test bed for a means of dumping crap housing off the public balance sheet, and a handy place to put large numbers of vulnerable people out of the way. Meanwhile, networks of residents, forged together through common industry and struggle are scrapping hard to hold their battered community together and give it a future. When the policy makers look at their experiment and say ‘Huh, it didn’t go too badly’ they’ll think it was because the policy sort of worked, not because a network of people fought like hell to stop it wrecking the place still further. Imagine if this energy and passion were harnessed to taking the community forward rather than last ditch fire-fighting?
Easington Colliery is not a hopeless case, but is in danger of being turned into one through outside abandonment. The Barn points the way for the sort of place it could become, but it will take a significant change in sentiment and political will to give it a decent chance. For myself, I see why the first article was such a problem. For that change to happen, there needs to be a much wider understanding of what goes on under the surface of such a place, and to ignore it as a writer re-enforces the narrative of hopelessness, making it more likely to come true.
“We were always that bit more rebellious here. An academic said we had the strongest women we’d ever met.” Heather reminisced at the end of the day.
I couldn’t argue with that. In a sense, I’m now glad that the first article received the criticism it did. It opened my eyes to a strength of connection between people and place that I hadn’t really understood before.
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