There are reminders of the north-east’s coal mining heritage strung all along this route from Seaham to Hartlepool.
A gangster bludgeons his brother’s killer to death then hauls him into a coal spoil skip and watches, smirking, as it creeks along an aerial ropeway and empties out to sea. The final scene of the gritty 1971 thriller, Get Carter, starring Michael Caine was shot in east Durham and depicts a desecrated coastline utterly at odds with the sort of environmental controls that exist today. Waste from coal mining turned the sea black and created a thick crust on the shore which has taken a long time to clear. Regenerating the region is just as challenging but already well underway as I find out on this journey close to one of the UK’s least visited shorelines. The tourism authority call it “the heritage coast”. It could equally be “the forgotten coast” but never again the Get Carter coast.
I catch the train from Hartlepool to Seaham to allow for a one-way linear ride. Once at the heart of the Durham coal mining industry, Seaham looks pretty spick and span these days with Seaham Hall leading the way. Today a five star hotel, it was once the 18th century home of the third Marquis of Londonderry who built the giant harbour for the shipping of coal from collieries owned by his wife near Durham city. A new housing estate on the site of a colliery (the last in Seaham to close in 1993) looks like an artists impression come to life and includes 30 cast iron sculptures inspired by single cell organisms that symbolise the start of new life and the town’s regeneration. Other evocations of Seaham’s industrial past include sculptures depicting the Vane Tempest colliery and three miners.
An old statue of the sixth Marquess stands on the now trim green in front of the Londonderry Institute. There’s a new shopping centre and, on my way out of town, I pass the new premises for Durham County Council as well as many shiny commercial and industrial units with plenty of offices still to let. I divert to have a look at Nose’s Point. This used to be where spoil from the former Dawdon colliery immediately behind was dumped into the sea. Bizarrely, an affect of the disposal has been to protect the cliffs, the only place in Britain where magnesian limestone and the unique grassland habitat it supports meets the sea.
From here it is a steady but gentle climb away from the coast. I avoid the main road by taking a bridleway that runs parallel. Another diversion takes me to Kinley Tower, a mid-18th century mock medieval look-out house built as a folly eye-catcher and now a holiday cottage. My last sign of Seaham is a mobile phone mast that in these parts could easily be mistaken for the last pithead wheel.
I then join a cycle track that runs along the former course of the railway opened in 1833 to transport coal to Seaham harbour from South Hetton. The route wends it way below electricity pylons and over a moonscape of low rounded mounds that are all that remain of the Hawthorn mine that saw South Hetton’s population soar, gold rush style, from 263 in 1831 to 4,000 just 10 years later. Despite being part of the National Cycle Network navigation is something of a challenge. I’m lost at the end of a road to nowhere in a Bermuda triangle of roundabouts which were presumably built in anticipation of development that is still waiting to happen. It feels like I’m in some sort of science fiction movie.
At Haswell I switch tracks to follow the old mainline south. Opened in 1835, the route was built by George Stephenson to transport coal to the newly opened West Hartlepool docks but never stretched further than Haswell because of cost restrictions. It closed in 1980. The village is the birthplace of Tommy Simpson, the first British rider to make his mark in professional European cycling. Riding for the Peugeot team in the 1960s, “Mr Tom”, as he was known, won the world championship road race and was the first Englishman to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.
I don’t quite match Tommy’s pace but from this point my speed picks up considerably. Ah, this is more like it – and much more similar to the sort of old railway lines I’m used to. I initially cycle through tunnels of arching trees and bushes and then along a novel boardwalk across the long Tuthill Pond which was created by the removal of railway tracks. Crested newts, water voles and the carniverous water beetles all thrive in the algae covered waters. I pass the old platform at Shotton Colliery but there are few other obvious cues that tell me that I’m on an old railway or, because most of the line is in a cutting, where I am at all. A bridge formed of grand columns over the track nearing Crimdon catches the eye, though.
All that remains of Hart station is its footbridge which, with a trough for bicycles wheels running beside the steps and leading to a winding path, is the perfect access to Crimdon. I’m glad I make the diversion as Crimdon is the highlight of the route, a stretch of coastline as appealing as the sands of Durham’s neighbouring counties, North Yorkshire and Northumberland. I can see why the spot was so popular with miners and their families in the inter-war period. The tide is right out and sun makes its final shy appearance of the day, sending shafts of light across the dunes. Southwards I gaze towards the long pier at Hartlepool and I make a mental note to walk to it from here another day.
Once back over the bridge it’s a straight-forward matter of following the National Cycle Network signs through the suburbs of Hartlepool. To finish I have a quick look around the marina and, beside it, Hartlepool’s Maritime Experience billed as “the north’s premier maritime attraction” complete with the oldest British warship afloat in the world. This is regeneration with a capital ‘R’. The Seaham area may never be able to compete as a tourist destination but has more than enough to interest and exercise the curious cyclist.
Distance: 22 miles.
Time: 3 hours.
From Seaham station cross over the rails then turn left on a lane signed to Seaham Hall. Turn sharp right to pick up a new cyclepath through an estate, crossing a minor road. Emerge at the coast road, the A182. Turn right to pass the harbour and Byron Place shopping centre. When the road bears away from the coast fork left down a track signed to Nose’s Point. Return to the road and turn left and up. Continue ahead at new roundabout for the Spectrum Business Park. Just before the next roundabout turn left onto a signed bridleway which bears sharp right past a farm. Follow the bridleway parallel to the main road. Pass through another farm and emerge at the Pemberton Arms. Cross the road and go up a short, steep cycle path to the roundabout with the A19. Cross above the A19 and, at the next roundabout turn right. After 100 yards turn left onto the signed National Cycle Network Route 1. After a mile at a t-junction of tracks turn left. At another t-junction with an unused road turn right, right at the roundabout and then, before reaching a second roundabout, turn left (easy to miss) back onto the cycle track. Pass between gorse bushes then turn left into South Hetton. Emerging beside The Grey Horse convenience store turn left then, after 100 yards, right to rejoin NCN Route 1. After 1½ miles at a wood turn left to join another railway track still on Route 1. Just after some stables cross over the A181 at Wingate (staying on Route 1) and, shortly afterwards, fork right to join Route 14. At the end of the line at Hart push bike over the railway footbridge then cycle along narrow path (bikes permitted) to Crimdon. Return to the footbridge, cross back over and, at the road, turn left to follow the Route 1 signs into Hartlepool town centre. Just before reaching the A1048 turn right, still on Route 1. Pass the football club and Morrisons, go over at the lights and then turn left to the station.
Getting there: Park at Hartlepool station for £2.50 per day. A single fare from Hartlepool to Seaham is £4.50. Trains go roughly on the hour at weekends and journey time is 15 mins. Each service takes two bikes but you can’t book spaces. Board at the door marked with the bike logo.
Pubs and grub:
Lickity Split Creamery & Juice Bar, 13 North Terrace, Seaham, SR7 7EU. 0800 917 5531 and lickety-split.co.uk. Renowned 1950s-style ice cream parlour serving 15 different flavours.
Pemberton Arms, Stockton Rd, Cold Hesledon, SR7 8RN. 01915 812791. Route passes right by.
Lots of choice in Seaham and central Hartlepool.