Tag Archives: Sunderland

Remembering the miners who gave their lives

DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining  history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.

West Stanley memorial
Memorial to the West Stanley Colliery explosion of 1909.

“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.

“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:

“Bye mam”.

“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.

The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.

All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.

The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:

“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”

The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.

Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery the scene of a disaster in 1812

In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.

Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.

Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.

Woodhorn Colliery museum
Woodhorn Colliery on the northern edge of Ashington is now a fabulous museum that celebrates and recreates the lives of miners. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.

This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.

Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.

Haswell disaster sculpture
Detail from sculpture commemorating the Haswell Colliery disaster of 1844. Photo David Simpson © 2018

However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of  148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.

The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.

This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.

Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.

Mine disaster memorial Stanley
West Stanley memorial. Photo © David Simpson 2018

If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in  February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.

There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.

Haswell Colliery Engine House
Remains of Haswell Colliery engine house and commemorative sculpture. Photo © David Simpson 2018

One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Felling Memorial Heworth
Plaque and one side of 1812 Felling memorial at Heworth churchyard : Photo © David Simpson

Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.

Hester Pit memorial Earsdon
Memorial to Hartley Colliery disaster Earsdon churchyard. Photo © David Simpson 2018

For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.

Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.

The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.

A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.

Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.

The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives

Hester Pit Memorial Garden
Hester Pit Memorial Garden. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.

Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.

Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.

The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.

Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.

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The Durham Mining Museum (online resource)

To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit.  The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/ 

Woodhorn Mining Museum

You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington

History Pages

About the history of the Easington area

About the history of the Stanley area

About the history of West Hartley and Seaton Delaval

The ancient ‘broken’ counties of Tyne, Wear and Tees

Why is the Wear an appendage of the Tyne? Why is the ‘North Humber Land’ of Northumberland  so far north of the Humber? Why is so much of the River Tees not even part of the ‘Tees Valley’?

In this blog, historian DAVID SIMPSON laments the loss of the straightforward traditional, easy to understand historic counties of the North East and Yorkshire.

traditional counties
The flags of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire

Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland are ancient counties with roots going back a thousand years or more but something changed in the 1970s that left communities confused and disembodied in a legacy that continues to this day.  It was during that decade that those long-lived county regions were broken into little pieces, redefined for economic or political purposes and given artificial names that were in some cases little more than marketing brands.

Take Yorkshire for instance. It was recorded as ‘Eoferwicscire’ as far back as 1055, though its roots are much older than that. It developed from the Viking Kingdom of York and its three ancient ‘Ridings’. Indeed it was the Vikings who divided Yorkshire into the three parts called ‘Ridings’ (North, West and East) from the Norse word ‘thrithing’ or ‘þriðjungr’ meaning ‘third part’.

Despite this ancient division the Vikings didn’t re-brand the three individual bits with cumbersome names. They kept things clear. Yorkshire or ‘York’ as it was often simply known remained intact and the ‘Ridings’ remained in place up until 1974.

It was in 1974 that London’s brutal battleaxe of bureaucratic boundary changes hit Yorkshire as it did many other places in Britain. A new county called ‘Humberside’ was hacked out of Yorkshire’s south eastern corner and it annexed rather a lot of Lincolnshire too. People from Hull, wherever they might venture, now had to justify that they were still in fact Yorkshiremen, maintaining their centuries old right.

In 1996 Humberside was of course ultimately abolished and quite rightly too. It was then that the East Riding of Yorkshire re-merged (now the only riding) and although Hull’s separate city status was acknowledged, its place in Yorkshire is clear.

It was in 1974 that Cleveland was created too.

Now, as a name Cleveland was not without precedent. Even the Vikings knew of it, calling it ‘Cliffland’ in their time. As an ancient district it was part of Yorkshire and exclusively part of Yorkshire, that is to say part of that giant historic county south of the Tees. This Cleveland – the real Cleveland – stretched as far west as the little town of Yarm, encompassed Middlesbrough (a monastic cell in medieval times) and stretched right down to the River Esk at Whitby taking in the Cleveland Hills and the beautiful Cleveland coast.

The Yorkshire town of Yarm lies within a loop of the River Tees
The Yorkshire town of Yarm lies within a loop of the River Tees. It was part of the Cleveland district of Yorkshire. It is part of Stockton-on-Tees Borough. Unlike Yarm, Stockton was historically a County Durham town.

However, the new 1974 County of Cleveland was something quite different to the old Cleveland district of Yorkshire. The new Cleveland still included Middlesbrough and Yarm and some of the Cleveland coastal towns but this county of Cleveland was, in historic terms, an awful anomaly.

For a start, Hartlepool, the ancient sea port of County Durham was annexed to Cleveland’s expanded realm along with the historic Durham towns of Stockton and Billingham and pretty villages like Egglescliffe and Norton. Yet south of the Tees much of the real, historic Cleveland was not included in the new county. So, bizarrely, most of the Cleveland Hills and the village of Carlton-in-Cleveland were not included in the new County of Cleveland.

The nonsense of ‘Cleveland the county’ eventually ended (as it did with Humberside) in 1996 after an existence of only 22 years but it was only to be replaced by a new kind of nonsense some twenty years later.

The so-called ‘Tees Valley Combined Authority’ (an awful mouthful it has to be said) began life as a ‘local enterprise partnership’ in 2011 but then became a combined authority in 2016. The new authority was more or less identical to the county of Cleveland, but now also included the historic County Durham town of Darlington which had long been the focal town for South Durham.

There was apparently much support for this new combined authority across that region with 65 per cent of people voting in its favour. In fact, on closer examination (according to Wikipedia) there were only over 1,900 responses to this question – that’s not very many when we consider the Tees Valley region has a population of 700,000.

The town of Barnard Castle remains in County Durham
The town of Barnard Castle stands on the banks of the Tees but remains in County Durham

What makes the term ‘Tees Valley’ really confusing is its geographical scope. For example, you can walk along the south bank of the River Tees opposite Darlington Borough and you are firmly in Yorkshire but for some reason you’re definitely not in the Tees Valley. Similarly up in the Dales you find that Barnard Castle and the surrounding countryside of Teesdale isn’t part of the ‘Tees Valley’ either.*

‘Barney’ as it is known to locals is the capital of Teesdale, on the north bank of the river and still in County Durham as it has been fro many centuries.

Then we have Hartlepool an historic town with an extraordinary history that was once one of Britain’s major sea ports is situated on the North Sea coast. Hartlepool was never a port on the River Tees but is included as part of the Tees Valley.

The reality is of course that Tees Valley is rather a nice marketing term for Teesside with Hartlepool and Darlington thrown in for good measure. It has no real historic meaning beyond that. If you think about it though Tees Valley has a quite a nice ring to it and it is a much more pleasing name than the now deeply ingrained and for some reason widely accepted term ‘Tyne and Wear’ which the American writer Paul Theroux compared to ‘Time and Wear’ (as in worn by time) but we’ll come to that ‘county’ in a  moment.

North of the Tees (and yes we do mean the Tees) the name Northumberland (or in Latin style ‘Northumbria’) survived the Viking annexation of Yorkshire. It was a reminder that the whole of the North was once the name of the ancient kingdom of everything English north of the Humber.  During the Viking era this remaining Northumbrian rump split into two parts with the land between the Tyne and Tees ultimately becoming County Durham, but the term Northumberland continued to be used north of the Tyne.

Durham developed as a kind of buffer state between Viking Yorkshire and the rest of Northumberland. Centred initially on Chester-le-Street (Conecaster) and then later Durham City it was focused on the revered shrine of St Cuthbert. ‘St Cuthbert’s Land’ as the fledgling County Durham was known was later called ‘Haliwerfolc’ (meaning Holy-man-people and certainly more northern than the ‘folc’ of Norfolk). It was recorded as Dunelmensisschira meaning Durham-Shire in 1100 but ‘shire’ or ‘folk’ never caught on as part of Durham’s name.

Durham City
Durham City – the capital of the Prince Bishops

As a County Palatine ruled by Prince Bishops, the name County Durham later came into being as the Prince Bishops’ powers depleted. We should not forget that their influence was extensive across the region. I’m always amused by road signs telling yo that you’re entering the ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ on the A19 near Sheraton just north of Hartlepool or on the A1(M) south of Washington. The ‘Land of the Prince Bishops’ in fact begins at the Tees and ends at the Tyne not according to some modern make-shift administrative boundary. In fact it ends about a quarter of way across the Tyne on the Gateshead side.

The boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead were founded by the Prince Bishops marking the very beginning of those places as towns. Hartlepool was the Prince Bishop’s port, Stockton the site of one of their major castles. The Priors of Durham founded the port of South Shields.  And of course the links between Washington (Washingon CD for  County Durham) and the beginnings of the esteemed family of that nameis also directly linked to the Prince Bishops. Agreed that all of these events are a very long time ago but these places are still linked to the unique history of Durham. It’s part of what makes them special and interesting and different and part of their historic identity.

The seal of Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey who established the boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead
The seal of Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey who established the boroughs of Sunderland and Gateshead

Durham continued to act as a kind of buffer state in post Conquest times with its defensive focus now, like that of Northumberland, directed towards the constant inroads of invading Scots. In later times Durham’s rich medieval roots were eclipsed by a new era of industrialisation. It became an industrial powerhouse of shipbuilding and engineering and above all coal mining with a population straddling the banks of the three great rivers of the North East and the Durham coalfield itself stretching north to the banks of the Tyne.

County Durham of course shared the Tyne with the neighbouring county of Northumberland (and with Newcastle) and shared the Tees with Yorkshire. It’s true that some of the strongest regional identities developed in the riverside communities where the allegiance can be more to the river rather than the county but this isn’t adequately reflected in terms like Tees Valley or Tyne and Wear.

Tynesiders and Teessiders and Wearsiders all identify most closely with their riverside communities which unite each of the people in each of the three areas. I think it’s unlikely you’ll ever hear anyone identify themselves with Tyne and Wear or Tees Valley – unless they’re a politician.

The Wear is odd man out as far as the three great rivers go as it was never a shared river in terms of county allegiance. It was and undoubtedly still is the County Durham river, rising in the Durham fells before flowing through Weardale, the historic town of Bishop Auckland, the City of Durham and Chester-le-Street. The  it leaves the county without any apparent natural reason, eventually entering the sea at Sunderland in what is or was the largest and perhaps proudest of all the Durham towns – though now of course a city. It is to Sunderland to which this County Durham river is now most closely linked yet for the entire course of County Durham’s history up until 1974 it was entirely a County Durham river .

Historic view of Sunderland harbour at the mouth of the Wear in County Durham
Historic view of Sunderland harbour at the mouth of the Wear in County Durham

Today Sunderland is no longer in County Durham and any glance of the map shows that has become an appendage of the so-called ‘Tyne and Wear’.

Like Cleveland and Humberside ‘Tyne and Wear’ was established as a county in 1974 and despite its let’s be honest ugly name is still somehow going strong today, although now as a unified partnership of individual boroughs and cities linked by economic interests and an admittedly excellent integrated transport system.

Like ‘Tees Valley’ the Tyne and Wear makes much sense on an economic and business level but culturally and geographically there is something highly contrived about the term ‘Tyne and Wear’. In my view, any label given to a geographical entity that includes the doubtfully justifying word ‘and’ in its title must clearly have some kind of inherent disunity at some level. It might work for a business partnership but for political geography the term ‘and’ never really convinces.

Wearside, the City of Sunderland has a population of around 270,000 people that includes large, neighbouring towns, but in reality places like Washington and Houghton-le-Spring which may close relationships with Sunderland are really separate entities.

Tyneside by comparison is mostly a continuous almost homogeneous urban region (perhaps not an endearing description) straddling two sides of the Tyne. Tyneside has a much larger population than Wearside with around one million people – a point, incidentally, rarely taken into account when comparing the relative size of support for the rival Tyne-Wear football teams .

It would be interesting to know what people think of the old counties and if they still fell an affiliation to them within the Tyne and Wear and Tees Valley regions. I suspect older people, particularly in outlying towns and villages in boroughs and cities like Gateshead, Sunderland and Newcastle may still have a closer affiliation to traditional counties rather than the modern ones and those in the larger towns connect more closely with terms Tynesider (or Geordie), Wearsider/Mackem or Teessider.

On my travels I have certainly found an affinity with older people to the traditional counties such as County Durham in places like Houghton-le-Spring and Hetton-le-Hole. North of the Tyne Newcastle, Gosforth and particularly North Tyneside: Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and North Shields in particular certainly seem to me to have something very Northumbria in their nature and personality as much as they are ‘Geordie’ when compared to say Gateshead or South Shields to the south of the river.

Of course the Tyne (like the Tees) despite its different communities unites as much as it divides, whether it be in the form of the wider ‘Geordie’ culture or in sporting terms where Tyneside is mostly ‘United’ in Newcastle as its focal centre.

Bridges on the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead traditionally linked the counties of Northumberland and Durham
Bridges on the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead traditionally linked the counties of Northumberland and Durham

Yet in 2016 a vote on a region-wide North East devolution deal suggested that in another sense the traditional county divisions may still be strong.  Durham County, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside all voted against the devolution plan for a North East combined authority. In other words all the places in the old County of Durham. **

However places north of the Tyne: Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland all voted in favour. Subsequently a new deal was formulated solely focused on the region north of the Tyne – the Northumberland of old.

Historic identities dating back thousands of years are perhaps harder to shift than we realise despite the brutal machinations and manoeuvrings of London bureaucrats and local marketing men.

 

*Note confusingly 1974 also saw the annexation of that part of Teesdale south of the River Tees from Yorkshire into County Durham, moving places such as Romaldkirk and Mickleton into Durham. The administration of Teesdale is of course focused on Barnard Castle, historically a County Durham town on the north side of the river.

** The ‘Tees Valley’ counties were not included in the North East combined authority vote as they already had their own version of this.

 

Cyclist’s Paradise:  Keeping fit and enjoying the region’s landscapes

DAVID SIMPSON shares his passion for cycling as he explores old railway routes and scenery across the North East from the saddle of his trusty mountain bike

Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Lydgetts junction cycle hub near Consett. Photo: David Simpson

Cycling and especially mountain biking is one of the best ways to see our region. Taking in the wonderful varied scenery of our beloved North East from the cyclist’s saddle is one of life’s great pleasures.  Travel from village to village, town to town and watch the delightful changes in the region’s rolling scenery mile by mile. Head along rural riverside routes into industrial heartlands, take in lovely country roads or try out the course of a former railway route at your own leisurely pace. Simply marvellous!

Sure, you can do some of these things from the comfort of your car but can you take a break without the headache of finding a parking space and can you go ‘off road’, away from all the traffic? Cycling is great because you always feel that you’re part of the outdoors, rather than just passing through within the confines of a wheeled metal box. That feeling of being part of the scenery is something that you never quite get from inside the car, even when the window is wound right down.

Scenery near Sunderland
Scenery from a recent Durham to Sunderland cycle ride. Photo: David Simpson.

Best of all though, cycling keeps you fit, in both mind and body. Mentally, I’m at my sharpest and happiest when I’ve been doing lots of cycling and it’s really invigorating. Walking, running or team sports might work for you but it’s cycling for me. It works well with my lifestyle and interests: my love for history, for taking photographs and a passion for the region’s varied landscapes makes cycling the perfect fit.

Now let’s be clear, I’m not one of the Lycra brigade. No, no, no, when I’m out cycling, I prefer skinny, stretchy jeans, old trainers, a long-sleeved shirt plus a jumper or fleece in the backpack just in case it gets too chilly. That’s more my scene. Purists might frown on this but that doesn’t bother me, though I should say a helmet is always a must. Taking something high-viz too if you’re going to be out in the twilight could also be wise and don’t forget a spare bottle of water or squash and a snack to keep you going if you feel peckish en route.

C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson
The C2C Cycle route. Photo: David Simpson

No, it’s not about the streamlined look or the speed for me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the thrill of the racing bike fraternity whizzing through the blurry countryside constantly improving on their best times, clocking up mile after mile on twisty roads and climbing hills with endless motor cars for company. There’s plenty of great scope for that activity across the region and I am sure the exertion is exhilarating but it’s not really for me.

I’ll often ride more than thirty or forty miles a time on the mountain bike but sometimes I’ll just go for twenty or a modest ten or perhaps even six or seven miles just to get out of the house. The more miles you do though the easier the distances become. I don’t mind cycling on the road some of the time but more often than not I head off along one of those superb off-the-road cycle paths that crisscross our region.

Many of these routes are the legacy of Dr Beeching, the man who closed so many railways back in the sixties, but that was due to the burgeoning growth of the motorists. I don’t suppose Beeching ever envisaged the growth in popularity of cycling though many of the cycle ways he has unwittingly created, from old railway routes, provide ideal and relatively easy going paths that often stretch for many miles. It all makes sense: those routes were designed for steam locomotives that wanted to avoid steep hills and take the easiest routes. All good news for leisurely cyclists like me.

Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson
Former railway station at Lanchester in County Durham. Photo: David Simpson

Old railway routes converted into long-distance paths are one of the great gems of our region’s countryside and are great ways to get out and about in the North East. In recent rides I’ve headed out in various directions using a village near Durham City as a base. The other week I cycled from Durham into Sunderland through lovely countryside with views of the sea along the way.

Surprisingly, much of the track through Sunderland itself encompasses fields, trees, parks and even a lake. Except for the occasional glimpse of a block of flats nearby, you barely notice you’re in an urban environment until you eventually emerge in the city centre and then after crossing a couple of main roads at pedestrian crossings you head over the Wearmouth Bridge and back into the countryside along the banks of the River Wear – though I took a brief diversion to the river mouth first just to see the sea.

Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Cycling by the River Wear at Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

In County Durham there are pathway ‘hubs’ that provide good centres for exploring various walking and cycle routes where railways once ran. Broompark, just west of Durham City is one such hub. There’s parking there and a picnic area too, so you can take your bike along on the car then make your way by bike along a choice of three routes. I’ve tried all three. One heads along the pretty wooded valley of the little River Deerness to Esh Winning and on towards a place called Stanley Crook and another heads north along the Browney valley to Lanchester and then on towards Consett. The third heads south to Bishop Auckland culminating in a good view of the Bishop of Durham’s home town that can be reached across the Newton Cap Viaduct.

Perhaps the major hub for cyclists in the North East is Lydgetts Junction at Consett, arguably the central hub for all North East cycle paths. Here routes head out to Newcastle and Tynemouth, south into Durham, east to Sunderland and west all the way to Cumbria via the splendid Hownsgill viaduct.

Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson
Sculpture on C2C Cycle route near Lydgetts Junction, Consett. Photo: David Simpson

It’s always good to combine parts of routes and even improvise with a bit of research beforehand. Recently, I headed out from my village base east of Durham City to join the Deerness route at Broompark but then left its course at Esh Winning to make the steep climb by local roads through Quebec and Cornsay Colliery to lovely Lanchester. There, joining the Lanchester Valley route to Consett I joined  the C2C route at Lydgetts Junction –  with its impressive art installation sculptures along the way – as I continued through Leadgate, Stanley, Beamish and Pelton where I improvised in a descent into Chester-le-Street on my way back to my village base completing about 44 miles.

Souter Lighthouse
Souter Lighthouse is one of the many beautiful features on the coastal route between the Tyne and Wear. Photo: David Simpson

Many routes link in with the longer-distance coast-to-coast cycle paths like the C2C (sea to sea) route I have mentioned. This route links the coastal Cumbrian towns of Whitehaven, Workington and St Bees to Sunderland, South Shields and Tynemouth. An alternative cross-Pennine route is the W2W (Walney to Wear) route linking Walney in southern Cumbria to Sunderland, part of which we followed on our recent ride from Durham to Sunderland.

The great thing is, you don’t have to stray far from the cities to enjoy great cycle rides. There are good cycle rides around Stockton and Hartlepool into the fringes of the County Durham countryside for example and in Tyne and Wear there’s a particularly enjoyable coastal ride from the mouth of the Tyne to the mouth of the Wear – and back.

You can cycle along the bank of the River Tyne all the way to Wylam and then back along the other side of the river and once you’re back at the beginning there’s no extra charge for taking cycles across the Shields ferry to reach the other side.

Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson
Bicycles are welcome on the Shields Ferry. Photo: David Simpson

Superb cycling can be found in Northumberland too, often with the Cheviots serving as a wonderful backdrop with some routes taking in coastal areas and castles. A cycling friend of mine recently tried out a circular route from Wooler across to Holy Island which looks appealing.

In North Yorkshire the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray around Thirsk and Northallerton offer relatively gentle cycling with gradual climbs into the Yorkshire Dales to the west or challenging cycling in the North York Moors to the east.

Sustrans provide a useful zoomable map of all the major cycle routes in the region (see the links below) but it’s also worth checking out the region’s woods and forests that can appeal to thrill-seekers or those who just want to take a cycling stroll. Hamsterley and Kielder for example have superb mountain biking trails to explore.

Out and about. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson
Out and about on the bike. Scenery near Sunderland. Photo: David Simpson

Whatever kind of cycling you do, it’s always enjoyable to keep a record of your routes, speeds and distances mile by mile, to see how much you’ve ascended and descended and how many calories you’ve burned. It’s a satisfying way to round off a good cycle ride. You can post the details on social media too and it’s a good way to log your progress and share with others.

That’s all part of the fun and can be facilitated by downloading great route-tracking GPS apps like Endomondo, Strava or Mapmyride to your mobile phone. It’s always good to review your times and distances, when you get back to base, and to check your best and slowest lap, though often, I find, I’ve lost more than an hour or so stopping to take photos or admire the beautiful views along the way. I’m certainly not going to complain about that.

Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson
Tyne Bridge. Photo: David Simpson

Update!

We’ve been out on the bike again (the day after this blog) this time from Consett to Newcastle and back (38 miles) taking in the Derwent valley and Tyne riverside with Lydgett’s junction as our starting base. Another lovely route. Check out our sunny day of cycling photos of the Derwent Valley here and of Newcastle-Gateshead here.

Useful links

Railway-paths in County Durham  (for cyclists, walkers, runners, horse riders and wheelchair users) with downloadable pdfs of maps and route features.

Sustrans C2C Cycle Route  and other routes throughout the North East of England.

Cycle Routes in Northumberland from Cycle Northumberland

Cycle friendly cafes: englandsnortheast.co.uk/2016/08/21/many-reasons-get-yer-bike/ a blog by Helen Gildersleeve

www.cycle-route.com Has an astonishing  choice of suggested cycle routes. Select by nation and county for an extensive list of routes with map details.

Kielder Forest Mountain Bike Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/OverviewA0panel.pdf/$file/OverviewA0panel.pdf

Hamsterley Forest Cycle Trails: www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf/$file/nee-hamsterley-cycle-trails.pdf

Cyclists on the Shields ferry: www.nexus.org.uk/ferry/guide-ferry  Large groups of cyclists should contact the ferry in advance.

GPS Cycling apps

Endomondo: www.endomondo.com/

Strava: www.strava.com/

Mapmyride: www.mapmyride.com/app/