Katrina Porteous undertook a writing residency on the Durham coast with poet Phoebe Power, as part of the People’s Landscape project, co-commissioned by the National Trust.
I love the Durham coast for its deep contrasts. In my childhood, the pit villages and ‘black beaches’ seemed starkly at odds with the natural beauty of the landscape, its ancient lanes of cow-parsley and hawthorn, its skylark grasslands, secret green denes and cliffs scattered with brown Argus butterflies, rockrose and orchids. Half a century later, this two day ‘mini-residency’ confronted me with a different set of contradictions.
The National Trust is rightly extremely proud of the breathtaking Magnesian Limestone landscape which it maintains for us all. The former ‘black beaches’ have undergone the most remarkable transformation. I first wrote about them in 1999, during the massive environmental restoration project ‘Turning the Tide’, which removed millions of tons of pit waste. Now they are cleaner than they have been since World War II, and many species of shore life and birds are re-establishing themselves. There are glow-worms in Warren House Dene and, as I walked along the cliff tops, I saw rare Grass of Parnassus, hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies, and one of Britain’s most endangered birds, the Little Tern, as it plummeted like a pebble from the sky into the shining water. Nevertheless, down on the beaches the legacy of coal mining remains, in sulphurous shale ledges, lurid pools and strange ochre stones. The coast path, with its glorious views and restored grassland, tells one story, and the beaches another.
This mental disconnection is reflected elsewhere. The coastal communities suffered massively from the 1984-85 miners’ strike and the pit closures which followed. Many are still beset by high rates of unemployment, poverty, areas of bad housing, mental health problems, addiction and crime. But as I walked around Horden with fellow poet Phoebe Power, we saw more rows of neat houses with tidy gardens than we did boarded up windows and back yards stuffed with rubbish. Later, as I listened to people telling me their stories, I reflected on Post Traumatic Stress. The former pit villages have endured a loss of identity comparable to wartime. Parts have recovered remarkably, others have not.
How could I write a poem true to what people told me of the rich and complicated contrasts within and between the villages? I chose to concentrate on real encounters and true stories, while changing all the names and details so that no one in my poems is identifiable. In particular, I focused on young people’s relationship to their landscape, asking them: what matters to you in your place, where do you play, how do you see its future, and your own?
Easington Brownies and Guides gave me their answers as we celebrated Hawthorn Dene Heritage Project at the Barn Arts Centre, Easington. This fantastic project, run by Nicola Balfour, Ellin Hare and photographer Sharon Bailey, put cameras into the children’s hands, and sent them into Hawthorn Dene to look closely and discover its history and ecology for themselves. In Horden, Phoebe and I helped make a banner for the Miners’ Picnic with Michelle Harland’s Creative Youth Opportunities group while we listened to the children’s stories. Later, the lovely Cotsford Junior School welcomed me warmly, and children from Years 5 and 6 wrote movingly about what local places and nature meant to them. I translated their lines, at times verbatim, into one of my poems.
In all our conversations, I was fascinated by the complicated interplay between nature, language, age and gender. Girls and boys, men and women, old and young, responded very differently. Two themes emerged. First, that the old dialect names for birds and plants are disappearing. Why does that matter? Of course, in order to connect with one another we need a common language, understood by the wider world. But at the same time, local variations in language are deeply bound up with identity, our relations with both community and nature. Our definition of ‘community’ is changing, as we extend ‘connectivity’ through the internet. But we lose physical connectivity with nature at our peril. Although older people might lament its decline, Easington Colliery and Horden each retain a strong sense of genuine community, rooted in the particularity of place.
Secondly, many – particularly girls and women – still perceive the beach as somewhat dangerous and dirty; ‘not a proper beach’. In direct contrast, there is a powerful sense that the coast connects us to a deep spirituality. I lost count of the number of small shrines I saw along the way, places where people come to remember lost loved ones amid the consolations of nature.
Durham’s mining heritage is a local case study of the most pressing global concern. It exemplifies some of the worst environmental legacy of the 20th century’s fossil fuel economy. It took 300 million years and three mass extinctions to reach the point in history where human beings spent a single century extracting Durham’s deep-mine coal and burning it. Now, as a result of digital technology, a younger generation is connecting globally in revolt against the results of fossil fuel dependence: our impact upon climate change, ubiquitous plastic pollution, population pressure, loss of biodiversity, and the threats to our own species. In this global movement, local commitment matters. The passionate love of place and sense of community among the young people I met on this coast is inspiring, and gives me hope.