Today was the longest day of the year (the 21st June) and I’d be marking it by doing the first section of a coastal walk that was now part of the (still unfinished) England Coast Path. This was one of the first sections to open and had opened a couple of months previously. So I was hoping to find on such a recently opened path that I would not have any problems with closed paths, diversions, obstructions or poor signage! Actually I did have some problems but they were of my own making.
I was doing this walk as another day trip from home. A couple of months earlier I had booked a single train ticket from London to Hartlepool for £25.60 and a ticket back from Sunderland to London for £16. However via some sort of special offer whose details I can’t recall now I got a £16 discount meaning I got the return tickets for only a little over £25, which was a good price (and why I was doing it as a day trip).
I took a train to London Waterloo, two tube trains from there to London Kings Cross and then a Grand Central train service direct to Hartlepool. This was busy as far as York but nearly deserted afterwards. It arrived on time at 11:23am. On my last walk I had got a little further than expected so then took a number 7 bus to Hartlepool Headland where I had got last time, to save repeating that bit.
I got off near a pub that overlooked the harbour and was called “The Harbour of Refuge” (though it seems it has since been renamed). This was where I got to last time and I could look back over the harbour to the docks beyond.
The first part of my walk was on the roads alongside the headland. I passed the eastern arm of the harbour mouth and continued on the road around the tip of the headland, soon passing a children’s paddling pool on the promenade below (which was even being used).
I was now rounding the corner, switching from heading east to heading back north and I soon passed the breakwater, as I turned the corner. Just past this on my left was a lovely square, with houses around it and a large green with a memorial in the centre, but the side facing the coast open, so I imagine most of these houses also had a view of the sea. It looked like a lovely place to live.
Just past here I spotted my first “England Coast Path” sign (though it was rather disappointingly just the Acorn symbol and the abbreviation “ECP”).
Just past the little square of houses was an old lighthouse, which I suspect is now disused, mounted a little back on the grass behind the promenade.
Rounding the corner I was now facing out onto the open sea, and could see I had countryside ahead, so was nearing the end of Hartlepool. The map showed rocks here, but it must have been close to high tide, because the waves were reaching right up to the base of the sea wall.
The map I was using was of course printed before the England Coast Path and so when the road ended at Throston there was no right of way marked on the map and I didn’t know where the new coast path went. Happily however I found the England Coast path signs pointing me up onto a new path right along the cliff top. This was very good news!
In fact as the houses ended, the sea wall also ended and so there was now a sandy beach ahead of me. It looked rather lovely.
So I head up onto the path. On my left it is clear there was once industry. Fence posts and a broken fence are off to my left, beyond which is a large area of waste ground. To my right, the beach is backed by a massive pile of bricks.
I’m not clear if these are the remains of the industry or if they were put here to try to reduce erosion (I suspect the former, since they don’t stretch for very far).
Ahead I can see what looks like a long pier. It is marked on the map as a pier, but with “Pipe Lines” also marked alongside it I suspect this was not a traditional pleasure pier for steamers but one for loading or unloading whatever materials were used in the industry that used to be here.
As I got closer, the bricks at the beach ended and were soon replaced by dunes. I decided as the tide was far enough out, I’d rather walk down on the beach rather than alongside former industrial sites.
On the beach there was little to suggest this was once an area of heavy industry. As I approached the pier, it was clear it was no longer used since there was a gap in it.
I suspect this had been made deliberately to deter people from trying to get on it, as I suspect if it was no longer maintained the planks might be rotten.
It was beautiful down on the beach. The sun had now come out, it was a lovely sandy beach backed by dunes and I had just the sound of the breaking waves alongside me.
I was soon approaching the old pier. It stretched for around 500 metres out to sea, so was impressively long. Where the gap had been made I could see the opening of pipes so suspect it was probably oil or gas that was piped along the pier to be loaded into boats that docked at the end of the pier.
Sadly my peaceful beach walk is soon shattered when I can hear engines and soon some idiots come down onto the beach on quad bikes, racing up and down and kicking up all the sand. I’m worried they are going to bother me (and quite possibly are riding their quad bikes on the coast path too), but within a few minutes they disappear up into the dunes and I don’t see them again (for which I’m very grateful!).
You can see the tyre tracks they had made riding around in circles on the sand at the back of the beach in the photo above. Peace soon resumed, I’m enjoying my walk along the beach.
However I am conscious that the tide looks to be coming in and I can now see cliffs ahead. Rather than quad bike riders there is now a horse rider which is a much nicer site to see (and hear!).
Continuing on the beach, I notice there is now a fence along the back of the beach with notices attached to it.
I go over to see what these say. They say “if you can read this notice you are too close”. What? Too close to what? Well the only reason I got closer was to read the notice!
If you don’t want people going close to the cliffs why not put it in a bigger font, so it can be read from a distance! More irritatingly a dog walker had helpfully attached a bag of their dogs “deposits” on the fence! I never did find out what the fence was for. I suspect it might have been birds nesting in the dunes or something – it would be nice to have been told!
Anyway I could see there were plenty of people on the beach ahead and the tide was far enough out I could get there without needing to get into the dunes, so the fenced off part didn’t bother me. The map shows “Hart Warren Dunes Nature Reserve” so that was probably the part fenced off.
The cliffs begin as I reach Crimdon so I’m not sure what I should do. I’m enjoying being on the beach and would like to continue. However I suspect the official coast path is still on the cliff top, which is now harder to get to now the dunes are replaced by solid cliffs. I know there is access up here, but I can also see some concrete steps in the cliffs ahead. There is a large caravan park ahead marked on the map and I can see some of them on the cliff top. So I’m hopeful the steps I can see will provide access to the caravan park and coast path should I find the route on the beach becomes impossible.
So I decide to continue on the beach for now until I reach the steps. This area was once an area of many coal mines and I can see what I think is coal still in the face of the cliffs here.
At the back of the beach the sand is becoming more shingly, but nearer the shore there is some nice firm sand I can walk on.
However soon the beach is becoming rougher so I decide that I will definitely leave the beach for now at the steps.
However as I get closer, I can see a notice attached to them. This time it’s not to tell me I shouldn’t have got so close, but to tell me the steps are closed due to a landslide. Blast.
Another couple are also standing at the bottom of the steps with a dog, I suspect debating like me whether to go up. From what I can see the steps look fine and seem intact and being made of concrete are quite solid so I decide to give them a try (as I’d otherwise likely have to re-trace my steps back to the start of the cliffs to rejoin the proper path). A low barrier is put up across the steps to deter you using them so I climb over this. This sets the dog of the other couple off who climbs up and starts barking around my feet. Not ideal, and they make no effort to call it back.
I climbed the steps fine to start with but later up the steps have been covered by mud from the landslip. However it is dry today and there are footholds that have been made by others climbing up here. It is a bit awkward but it is only a short section and then I’m back on the proper steps again to reach the top. Unfortunately at the top there is a rather more sturdy barrier that will be tricky to get over, so instead I climb over the wooden fence into the caravan park alongside which is easier to get over.
As I do so another couple walk past going the other way. I wonder if they are going to tell me off for using the closed steps. However they are friendly and instead ask me what the stairs are like (I tell them) and then go on to comment that it is a shame they are closed now and that no one has fixed them! I quite agree.
They go on to tell me that ahead there is another lovely beach that you can still get down too and that it’s lovely. This is good to know (and of course means I realise I probably could have continued on the beach and got up later, avoiding the closed steps, but I didn’t know that then).
Looking back down the steps the other couple have now come part way up, presumably having seen that I made it up OK, but have stopped just below the landslip, presumably deciding whether to continue or not. I leave them to make up their mind and continue on the coast path. I was relieved to find it does indeed go through the edge of the caravan site!
Soon I spot the steps back down to the beach the other couple told me about. So I go back down it (it’s a long way!).
It’s a nice beach but not that much different to the beach further back. However having made it down, I can see there are cliffs ahead and it looks like the sea reaches them. I walk around a bit and take a few photos of the beach, but I don’t know if there is any more access points to the beach ahead, so rather than walk to the end and have to come back up I decide to go straight back up to the cliff top again!
Back up on the cliff top coast path I follow this north and almost straight away come to a deep valley, which the coast path goes around. These deep valleys seem to be a feature of this bit of the coast and remind me a bit of some of the “Chines” you see on the south coast and Isle of Wight.
I’m really enjoying this section. The new coast path is indeed very good, a nice path on short mowed grass with fine views of the cliffs below. The coast now reminds me a bit of some of the gentler parts of North Yorkshire, with low cliffs topped with grass.
The path winds it’s way along the cliff tops for about a mile more. Inland there is just grass between me and the railway line a couple of hundred metres away, though I can see houses beyond that. These are the houses of Blackhall Rocks. Below, the beaches are lovely and unspoilt, backed by these quite grassy cliffs.
However I can see some oddly discoloured areas of sand and rocks at the back of the beaches ahead.
The reason for this is that I’m now approaching the village of Blackhall Colliery. Given the name you don’t need me to tell you what used to happen here – coal mining of course.
This caused a massive amount of pollution because the waste from the nearby coal mines was dumped directly onto the beaches and into the sea here from six nearby coal mines, including this one. In many cases this was done via sort of “aerial ropeway”, a conveyor system where the waste material was loaded into large buckets at the mine. These buckets then travelled down on the conveyor system which then simply dumped the contents on the beaches or in the sea. As a result the beaches along this part of the coast all the way between Hartlepool and Sunderland were all black and so dubbed the black beaches. This 12 mile stretch of coast was once declared an ecological disaster zone. 1.5 million tonnes of waste were tipped onto the beaches here each year.
In fact if you’ve ever seen the film Get Carter (which was released in 1971), it’s final scene was filmed here where a murder takes place and the victims body dumped into one of these buckets, which then dumps him into the sea, along with the coal waste. It is a very gritty film (with an 18 certificate) and although not especially enjoying the plot I watched it after doing this walk. I found it utterly fascinating to see just how much this part of the North East has changed in 40 years or so (not just here but in Newcastle, Sunderland and Blyth, also used as locations).
However since the mines closed in the 1970s and 1980s the dumping of waste stopped. In the early 2000s around £10,000,000 was spent cleaning up the beaches and removing the old conveyor systems that dumped the waste here. The result is quite dramatic. In truth as I was to see, the clean up is not quite complete, but it’s a vast improvement on what it was like before.
It’s well worth searching or images of “Blackhall Beach” online where you can find some old pictures of the beach here all black and with the conveyor built onto it. Indeed if you can stomach the violence the closing scene of Get Carter is on youtube, showing the conveyor in use I found very interesting.
So all this pollution in the past accounts for the slightly odd colouring of the sand, but at least it is returning to nature after years of horrific pollution.
Soon I had reached the south end of Blackhall Beach. Here you can see how the level of the beach has been raised by all the dumped material, causing the back of the beach to start to grass over, whilst there is a distinctive line of colour on the parts of the beach washed by the tide and that beyond that the tide rarely reaches.
Part way along the beach I reached another valley. This is Blue House GIll and the path goes right around it.
The valley is now pleasantly green and wooded but it wasn’t always this way I suspect it is actually man made and also black with pollution in the past.
Having rounded the valley I continued on the cliff top where the concrete base of the old waste dumping conveyor was still visible in the grass.
The cliff are still scarred with areas where vegetation doesn’t grow and the beach still has pools of water and bits of old coal waste at the back. As I say, not entirely cleaned up, but surely a vast improvement on what it looked like just 20 years ago.
Having rounded the valley ahead I’m now beside Dene Mouth beach. This too shows evidence of the pollution with still some of the old material at the back of the beach, and pools of water forming behind it.
Ahead I soon came to another deep valley. This is Castle Eden Dene and again I’m sure was once black and polluted but quite beautiful now. Inland a rather grand and elegant viaduct carries the Durham Coast railway line over the valley too.
I was now approaching Horden, another mining town. Here there were numerous coal mines too and so the beaches here were also badly polluted. They are all closed now of course but I could see the cliffs ahead had numerous valleys which I’d have to get around. However the beach was longer and it seemed from the map I could walk along the beach (avoiding going around these valleys) and follow a footpath in the last of these valleys (Warren House Gill) to get back to the cliff tops. This would be shorter and closer to the sea.
So I headed down to the beach. Here the pollution was much more obvious. A line of the old coal waste was at the back of the beach and you could see where the sea has since eroded some of this softer material, leaving a shelf with the more natural beach to the right and the shelf of dumped old mine waste on the left.
I walked along the sands and the shelf of mining waste to Warren House Gill (or so I thought). Unfortunately, when I reached what I thought was Warren House GIll, there is no sign of the public footpath that is marked in the map. I can see the steps of the official coast path near the top, but no path heading up. This is a problem. However the alternative was to go back which I also didn’t want to do. So I headed over the old platform of coal waste. What looked like grass at the back turned out to be marshy with water collecting underneath and the grass was so long I couldn’t really see what I was standing on. I made it through that (just) with dry feet, but then had a lot of brambles etc to get through to reach the base of the cliffs. Here there wasn’t a proper path but a few foot holds in the dried up mud etc, and I was able to follow this with difficulty to rejoin the proper coast path, as the cliffs are gently sloping here, not sheer. In hindsight, it would have been better to stick to the coast path, even if it would mean going around all the various valleys.
Now safely back on the coast path I could look ahead to the fine beach ahead, still part of the same wide bay. The coast path now was actually a sort of tarmac with a thin layer of gravel stuck on top. There were various pieces of artwork beside it, such as this sea bird, that I quite liked.
Of course it was only now I had reached the top I realised that I hadn’t actually come up Warren House Gill. Oops. In fact I had come up an earlier valley and now I head reached Warren House Gill.
This time the path crossed near the mouth of the valley which was very green. Here too steps provided access back to the beach (exactly as I thought there should be, if only I hadn’t got the wrong valley earlier!).
So I briefly returned to the beach.
I planned to end the walk at Easington Colliery which was not far ahead of me and I had plenty of time before my train home to stop for a while here. Again there was a ledge of old mining waste at the back but it was smaller and nearer the shore the beach was nice, with a mixture of shingle, pebbles and some fine sand.
Not sure I’d want to swim in it, though.
After a short break now I headed back along the coast path to reach the impressive wooded valley at Fox Holes Dene.
Here the path headed through woodlands either side of the valley, emerging back on the cliff top on the north side of the valley.
I ended here and followed the path along the north side of the valley where a path went under the railway line and to the road beyond.
This took me to the old mining town of Easington Colliery, the hub of the miners strike of the mid 1980s. This town too was an eye opener. The road runs alongside terraced streets but some of the streets have been demolished and returned to grass, leaving gaps where once there were roads of houses. After the mine here closed in 1992 I presume that many of the people that worked in the mines left to seek work elsewhere leaving many of the houses empty and were subsequently demolished. I also later found out that Easington Colliery was the location for many of the scenes in the film Billy Elliot, if you’ve ever seen that.
I continued along the road to reach a bus stop, where I was to take a bus onto Sunderland (oddly although the railway line goes through Easington Colliery, there isn’t a station there). Whilst I was waiting for the bus I looked in a nearby estate agents window. I was really surprised what I saw. It is possible to buy a 2 bedroom terrace house here for £30,000. I did this walk about 5 years ago now but even today I see a good number of houses for sale here with prices in the region of £30,000 to £40,000. We hear a lot these days about a “housing crisis” so it is interesting to find it is still possible to buy property so cheaply. I could probably sell my small terraced house in Surrey and buy half a dozen larger terraced houses here!
Yes of course the prices are low because it is a depressed area. But it’s right by the sea (which is now quite nice) and it’s not a long commute to Newcastle or Sunderland where there are more jobs. It doesn’t seem that bad an area to live to me.
Anyway having ended the walk my bus soon arrived. It took around 35 minutes to reach Sunderland. I’d never been to Sunderland before and for now was only here to catch the train home (I’d reach Sunderland on my next walk). The bus stopped at the interchange next to the railway station. The latter was a horrible station, in a really ugly 1970s prefab type building. The single platform was underground and dimly lit and unusually the same platform is I believe also used by the Tyne and Wear metro system.
The screens informed me that my train was on time, but also that the incoming train from London was late and only due to arrive 2 minutes before it was due to leave again. I doubted it would leave on time. In fact it did arrive 2 minutes before departure, but I was expecting it to leave late. My experiencing of commuting by train is that my local company would never cut the turn around time at London very much so if the train only arrived 2 minutes before departure it would always leave late. However I was impressed that the company managed to turn around the train in just 2 minutes, with the guard and driver swapping ends to set off back for London.
The guard announced that due to the late arrival, he still had not put the reservation coupons out and would come round to do that, but if anyone had set in a reserved seat we’d have plenty of time to find another free seat. However I already had my reserved seat number on my ticket so sat in that knowing I would not get turfed out. The guard was also very apologetic that the train was late arriving and that this was because of a broken rail on the Durham Coast line that meant that route had had to close for emergency repairs since I travelled along it this morning. As a result the train had had to divert onto a different line to get to Sunderland and so arrived late. The same was true on the return journey meaning the train would not be stopping at Hartlepool. I was glad therefore I’d opted to take the train home from Sunderland rather than Hartlepool (the bus from Easington Colliery went to both places). However despite the disruption I was impressed. My experience is that most companies faced with this would simply cancel the train on the part of the route and (if you’re lucky) provide a bus replacement, But Grand Central had diverted their train to a different route to make it to Sunderland, rather than just give up and turn it around earlier and I was impressed.
The route of the diversion was soon clear and surprising to me – the train diverted along the route of the Tyne and Wear Metro line. I didn’t even know that was possible and it seemed funny to be going through these metro stations non-stop on a large train when passengers waiting at them were expecting to see a stopping metro approaching! We then reached Newcastle station where I got fine views of the Tyne bridge and went through non-stop and then from there south on the East Coast mainline.
The diversion meant I also got to enjoy unexpected views of Durham from the train as we passed through.
The train was only a few minutes late into London, despite the extra distance covered.
All in all it had been an excellent day. This part of the coast had been fascinating to me, because it had changed so much just in my lifetime. From black polluted to mostly clean sandy beaches topped with grassy cliffs with paths along the top – a huge contrast to the black polluted waste lands they were 40 years ago. It was nice too to find the first part of the England Coast Path. Even though I had chosen not to follow it in parts (partly because it wasn’t on the map so I didn’t know where it went). In hindsight I made things harder for myself not doing that, but still found it a very enjoyable walk despite my slightly eccentric route!
Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk:-
Arriva bus service 23 : Hartlepool – Blackhall Colliery – Horden – Peterlee – Easington Colliery – Easington – Dalton Park – Seaham – Ryhope – Sunderland. The bus runs twice an hour Monday – Saturday. There is no service on Sundays. It takes around 35 minutes to travel between Easington Colliery and Hartlepool.