Seaham. Where to begin? How is it possible to describe with objectivity the town where I grew up and have lived almost my entire life? I have loved and hated this place, in equal measure. A small former mining town of some 22,000 souls, it clings to the Durham coastline, battered by the North Sea, surrounded by farm land and bordered by the two ancient villages of Seaton (known locally as, simply, “the Village”) to the north west and Dalton-le-Dale to the south east.
I have longed to escape this town. I have yearned to return. Wherever I travel in the world it calls me back like a fretful lover. In my younger days I was desperate to get away. As a child and then a teenager, I despised its shabby, run-down main street, the endless brick-built terraces and sprawling council estates, the town’s three collieries, which were its lifeblood, the coal-stained beaches, the small-town mentality and its narrow-minded people.
As an adult, my perceptions have changed. And so has my town. Today, Seaham is a busy, thriving, pleasant place , a town which its people are proud to call home, a location outsiders want to visit. Visitors flock to the town, perhaps whiling away a few hours on the sandy beach, investigating the rock pools, hunting for sea glass, having their photograph taken with the now-famous statue of the WWI soldier “Tommy”, or people-watching sitting at one of the seafront cafes, maybe visiting the lifeboat museum and the pretty little marina.
There is now no sign of the coal industry which created the town and which provided employment for thousands of its sons for one hundred and fifty years. There is no clue left behind of Seaham’s industrial heritage, save for the occasional smudge of coal dust in the sand and in the lungs of those who remember some other life.
For those whose forefathers have not laboured at the coal face and who have no knowledge or understanding of the heavy price that the coal industry took upon the lives of those who toiled, it is difficult to put into words the desperately hard lives of the miners and their families and the conditions in which they worked and lived. Labour was cheap and so were lives. Some five hundred and twenty seven men and boys perished in little under a century and half of coal mining in this small town, with fatalities occurring as recently as the late 1980s.
Where there were once pit shafts and spoil heaps and railway tracks, there are now executive houses, nature reserves, cliff-top walks, rare orchids and picnic spots. The town even boasts a five star hotel with a luxury spa, beloved of footballers and visiting popstars. This miraculous transformation has occurred in a single generation.
I have fallen in love with the very place I detested and with its warm-hearted and generous people. Shame has been usurped by pride. It’s not just the town that has changed. I have too.
For two decades I have lived in a house overlooking the pretty village green and the Manor House in Seaton. The Village predates the main town of Seaham by centuries. There has been a settlement here probably since Roman times – a hoard of roman coins was unearthed in the village stream a century or more ago – but the village itself has existed for perhaps a thousand years.
In many ways Seaton is the archetypal English north country village, with its white-washed houses and farmsteads clustered around the small green, and overlooking it all, the village pub, the Dun Cow. For 140 years the Dun Cow has been the centre of village life.
Officially voted the best country pub in County Durham by CAMRA in 2016, unofficially it’s the best pub in the world. Log fires, real ales, live music, no food, no jukebox. It’s the kind of pub where you have to step over several dogs to get to the bar, where every patron will announce his arrival to those already present with the standard greeting in these parts – “Alreet?” Strangers don’t remain strangers for long – within ten minutes of crossing the threshold and ordering a pint of Northumbrian Blonde, you can expect to be interrogated by locals who will extract your entire life story and declare that you must in some way be related.
Although the village has changed significantly in the last thirty to forty years with new houses on the periphery and where farmyards and barns once stood, it has never lost its character . Or its characters. And there are plenty of those. There are still farmers in the village, but it’s now largely populated by teachers, solicitors, doctors, policemen, businessmen and the occasional premiership footballer.
My own house stands on the site of the barns which formed part of Village Farm; the close of houses of which it is a part follows the layout of the old farmyard. The Village Farmhouse is still there, yards from the pub, a 6-bar-gate’s width from my own home, and still occupied after 250 years or so.
The modern town of Seaham is in fact made up of a number of older villages – Old Seaham, the original ancient hamlet, of which nothing remains save the beautiful Saxon church of St Mary the Virgin, its vicarage and Seaham Hall, now a luxurious hotel; half a mile to the south, Seaham Harbour, constructed to export coal from the Marquis of Londonderry’s County Durham coal mines at Rainton; New Seaham, a mile or so inland, the mining village which sprung up around Seaton (later Seaham) Colliery, and the two agricultural villages of Seaton and Dalton le Dale which due to their respective locations ( on top of a hill and in a small valley) have retained their separate identities.
Old Seaham had existed for at least a thousand years when Sir Ralph Milbanke constructed Seaham Hall on the site of Seaham Cottage in 1792. The tiny Saxon church, with its flag of St George permanently aflutter in the stiff sea breeze is overlooked by so many passersby, yet is well worth a visit.
The churchyard is filled with the bones and the names of parishioners from Seaton Village, for which it served as parish church long after Old Seaham disappeared – Thompsons, Gregsons, Bolands. When I was a child I visited the tiny graveyard around the church, searching for the Pirate’s grave , so-called because it was carved with a skull and cross bones. Whether it ever actually belonged to a pirate is highly unlikely, but it certainly captured my imagination.
Seaham Hall itself is an imposing white Georgian pile, perched on the cliff tops overlooking the north sea, surrounded by lawns where the old village once stood, with terraced gardens sloping down to the wooded dene on its southern aspect. It is perhaps most famous for being the location of the wedding of the famous poet and infamous society dandy George Gordon, Lord Byron to Anne Isabella ( known as Annabella) Milbanke, in 1815, and the couple lived there for a short time after their wedding.
I’ve always been quite entertained by the fact that the civic authorities in Seaham have done so much to try to preserve the memory of its most illustrious resident. Over the years we’ve been blessed with a Lord Byron’s Walk, a Byron Terrace, a Byron Terrace School, a Byron Lodge Estate , and most latterly , Byron Place, a small, ugly, soulless shopping centre constructed of steel and glass, overlooking the busy docks and the grey North Sea beyond.
Byron lived here less than a year and is rumoured to have absolutely detested the place. It couldn’t have been further from his debauched high society celebrity lifestyle, his numerous lovers and his fancy London literary friends, and he couldn’t escape from the place fast enough. It appears he also detested Annabella, having married for money rather than love, and their marriage lasted barely a year, although it did produce a daughter, Ada. Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was something of a prodigy and became a famous mathematician. Byron died aged 34 of fever at Missolonghi in 1824, having left England to fight in the Greek war of Independence.
I like to think that he’s spinning in his grave at the thought of the local populace celebrating his memory by popping into Greggs in Byron Place for a steak bake and a cheese pastie. Serves the bugger right. Byron, a man who devoted his entire life to the pursuit of pleasure, would have however been more impressed by the fact that his former home is now a luxury 5 star hotel, complete with oriental spa and outdoor hot tubs.
There’s a delicious irony in the fact that guests at the hotel can trample at will over his most famous works. Quotes from his poems are woven into the very fabric of the carpet which sweeps along the upper corridors and down the grand staircase …
“She walks in beauty like the night …. Upstairs, to the right, and into the ladies’ powder room”.
After his new son in law had worked his way through a fair proportion of the family cash, Sir Ralph Milbanke was forced to sell his estates. In 1821 Seaham Hall and the surrounding land was sold off to Lord Charles William Vane, Baron Stewart at that time British Ambassador to Vienna, who would shortly become the Third Marquis of Londonderry, mine-owner and industrialist. The fate of the hamlet was sealed, the industrial revolution finally arrived and Old Seaham was changed forever. Coal was king.
But that, as they say, is another story….
You can read 5 other articles about Seaham, its history and its people on this blog. Read part 2 here.
My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter, about a Seaham girl who travels to Australia alone in 1886, was published in 2017. Read more here.
My new book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story, will be published in July 2020, and is now available to pre-order. This book tells the true story of a Seaham family, the Clydes, in the Second World War, and details the fight for survival of 19 year old RAF wireless operator Jack Clyde and his bomber crew.