Coal may be history, but industry never stands still

In summer 1973, a group of us descended to the coal face at Frickley Colliery, North West of Doncaster.

Sunday, 10th April 2016, 9:27 am
One of the old lime kilns at Beadnell

For those of us born in southern England it was an exciting, but sharp piece of social education.

The descent in the cage with a safety lamp was but the beginning. The journey on the train to the face came next.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visits Simpsons Malt

Finally, armed with knee pads, we crawled the 300 yards of a 3ft 6ins coal face. It involved tough-going over the footings of the jacks, which ran the length of the workings. On the right, the hungry coal cutter’s incisors devoured the black gold and tipped it onto the conveyor.

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It would be another four or five years before my father-in-law (he’d been an electrician in the pits) took me down into Ashington’s labyrinthine workings. This time we ourselves came out via the drift, on a conveyer belt to the surface.

All this is now history.

The last deep mine, at Kellingley, in South Yorkshire, closed a few months ago. Ashington is now an industrial park; Frickley a countryside park.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne visits Simpsons Malt

But this tough and yet romantic industry, immortalised in the film Brassed Off, touched the landscape of North Northumberland more than now seems imaginable.

Probably the last new pit to be sunk was Black Hill Colliery, on the road to Allerdean; you can still see the remains of the spoil heap, just past Unthank Farm. Black Hill was but one of a number of mine workings scattered around Scremerston.

Scremerston had its own pits and pitmens’ cottages survive. This now quiet and demure village was once a small industrial centre and the northernmost outpost of the Northumbrian coalfield.

The last surviving Northumberland pit was the vast Ellington Colliery, north of Ashington, which closed in 2005, and where coal extraction went well out under the sea.

But coal was, of course, not the only heavy industry of north Northumberland.

The production of lime for use in the rich agricultural lands of the north of the county is also still easily imagined from the abandoned kilns encountered in many locations.

Next door to the entrance to Lindisfarne Castle are abandoned lime kilns; the embankment supporting the railway which transported the lime is still clearly visible. It’s no distance from Gertrude Jekyll’s castle garden, planted as Edwin Lutyens refurbished the castle for Country Life publisher, Edward Hudson.

A few miles south, at Beadnell Harbour, there are more similar kilns. It was a key industry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Interestingly enough, it was the rapid growth of another heavy industry, that of the railways, which spelt doom for scattered lime kilns. Now large lime works could supply the whole region.

Plenty of evidence survives of the burgeoning of the railways.

The picturesque Alnwick to Coldstream route survived as a passenger route for only 40 years, from 1887-1930. Freight was transported over the whole route until 1948, when the bridge north of Ilderton was washed away in a storm. Even after that, freight was still carried from Wooler to Coldstream until 1965.

Tracing the line is an enjoyable and interesting excursion still.

The tunnel west of Alnwick is followed by a splendidly curved viaduct at Edlingham, and the line weaves its way alongside the A697 Morpeth to Coldstream road until it diverges near Kirknewton.

At Cornhill it joined the Kelso line, which made its gentle way via Norham and Velvet Hall to Tweedmouth Junction.

Norham Station remains a privately owned museum; Ilderton Station was briefly a restaurant, and Whittingham Station, with its island platform and sheds, is presently being renovated as a private house.

This gentle ramble through the former industrial activity of North Northumberland touches on a nostalgic past. Industry, however, continues.

Simpsons Maltings, in Tweedmouth, is but the latest manifestation of an industry long thriving in these parts: the recently converted maltings in Pier Road in Berwick are antecedents.

The East Coast mainline, carried over the Tweed on the glorious Royal Border Bridge, remains a key artery; it offers so much.

Quarrying remains an important industry, both for limestone and for gravel. Peat is still cut at Detchant, near Belford. Agriculture is a key industry.

More controversially, near Barmoor and also at Middle Moor near Alnwick, wind farms have sprouted and spread their limbs.

Industry and commerce never stand still.

Micro-breweries open daily: The Curfew in Berwick, the micro-brewery near Belford.

Craft workshops and potteries are a permanent feature of the landscape. There is locally ground coffee, and farm shops increasingly marketing local produce.

The geography of North Northumberland, with its excellent rail links and its access to ports, offers countless possibilities.

Industry and commerce – heavy and light, cottage and home-based, tourism-related and supportive of the local community – all offer countless possibilities for the new initiatives.

A glance into the past offers a glimpse of possible futures – what might we make of it using our imagination?