Community's 'worst fears realised', 25 years after closure of last deep pit on Durham coalfield

Easington Colliery. Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

“A very difficult place to live.”

“A ghost town.”

“Everything’s gone.”

Words from some of the people I’ve spoken to in Easington Colliery over the last few days.

It’s 25 years since the village’s colliery became the last deep pit on the Durham coalfield to close.

1,500 miners lost their livelihoods - adding to thousands of others around the North East who had suffered the same fate.

The signs of decay are clear. More than half of the shops in the main street are closed down. There used to be bank branches, and three cinemas here. Now it’s mainly takeaways, and two Boots pharmacies - I’m told that’s where many recovering drug users go to get methadone every day as part of their treatment.

The former colliery houses surrounding the pit were sold off after it closed, in May 1993. Locals say many are owned by absentee landlords. We counted 61 now boarded up. Some have rubbish filling back courtyards, and notices from the police and council pinned to the front door, warning them to clean up. Two and three-bedroom terraced houses are on sale for just £30,000.

The council has demolished some of the old streets because they were under-occupied, creating open spaces. But it doesn’t have the money to buy and clear more. We see teams of council workers clearing litter from gardens.

The old colliery site itself has been redeveloped, as a nature reserve, with a children’s play area. The coastline too has been cleared of coal spoil. The Healthworks building in the village, bringing together different care facilities, is another example of investment. But locals say most of the money has gone elsewhere, to places like Seaham.

The current government told us that 16,000 affordable homes have been built in the North East, unemployment in the region has fallen by 48% since 2010, and its welfare reforms are helping people become better-off.

People in Easington Colliery, though, talk instead about the closure, last year, of another significant employer - the Walkers crisps factory in Peterlee, and the recent introduction of Universal Credit meaning some claimants have had to go weeks without benefits. Things appear to be getting worse, in many ways, rather than better.

Alan Cummings is from the village, worked at the pit for 30 years, and continues to live here, and work supporting retired pitmen with Durham Miners’ Association. He told me:

The number of food parcels given out here by charity the East Durham Trust continues to rise. There are high levels of joblessness, obesity and long-term illness - as well as prescriptions for painkillers and antidepressants. One young man who came to his door to ask why we were filming said he was off work with depression, but didn’t want to talk any more about it. It would be wrong to link any or every case of mental ill-health with living here, but these are common symptoms of post-industrial life.

There will naturally always be sadness here, too, because of the deaths of 83 people after an underground explosion at Easington Colliery in May 1951. It’s not hard to find people who lost loved ones that day.

It is perhaps less common to hear people speaking now of this village’s claim-to-fame, as the backdrop to Billy Elliot, filmed here at the turn of the millennium. It was set, of course, 15 years earlier, during the miners’ strike.

The name of the miners’ nemesis, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is still a curse here. There were celebrations, on the day of her funeral, five years ago.

Colliery traditions live on here, such as a Monday afternoon social at the Leather Cap - the former mine officials club. We were welcomed in with our camera to see former pitmen sing. One even insisted on showing us - off camera - the miner’s lamp tattoo on his leg.

There are also plenty of positive examples of community spirit here - and of local people supporting themselves and one another.

At ‘the Welly’ - Easington Social Welfare Centre - there’s everything from tea dances to jobs clubs, and advice for victims of domestic violence.

A local church charity also runs the CAFE Together project every Thursday, providing lunch for £1 thanks to a team of volunteers. There are dozens who come in for a hearty meal and to socialise.

I do think it’s important to say this is not about ‘doing down’ Easington Colliery or its people, but rather highlighting what the vast majority of people tell me: that they feel they have been forgotten, and their village is in need of a lot more support.

Where the village stands was still farmland until the mine shafts were sunk at the start of the twentieth century, and the houses were built for its workers. Easington Colliery is a true pit village, without a pit.

That has of course been true for 25 years now. You could say, then, that this is a place stuck in the past, re-fighting old battles.

I would suggest, instead, that, while proud of their history, people here are desperately trying to find a meaningful future.