For many years in my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t really notice the sea. I never descended the crooked steps from the car park opposite Seaham Hall, down onto to the shore below. I never walked along the promenade, or past the old police station, down the steep bank to the old harbour with its few small fishing boats where as a boy my grandfather had rowed out baskets of provisions from the grocers’ shop to waiting ships.
The sea was there of course; like the town which owes its very existence to the sea, back then, I chose not to see it. As my horizons broadened, I had no time for Seaham, nor its coal-stained beaches. Like most teenagers, I longed for a different life and was sure that my home town held no future for me.
It was not always this way; as a child I spent countless hours playing on the beach, building sandcastles, filling brightly-coloured plastic buckets with sea water and pebbles, writing my name in the sand with a discarded lolly stick or a piece of driftwood, and partially-burying assorted relatives.
My memories of those days are refracted through the prism of time. The summer days seemed endless, the sea-shore always crammed with parents and grandparents sat on travel rugs or bath towels; if you were posh you brought deckchairs and striped windbreaks. Egg and tomato sandwiches were washed down with bottles of Sykes’ lemonade and dandelion and burdock, or a thermos flask of tea for the adults, and there was always sand in everything – in the cups, in the suncream, and especially in the sandwiches.
For some reason, in hot weather, it was considered perfectly acceptable for women to strip off down to their bras. Do that now and you’d probably get arrested. The dads were always bright pink, burned to a frazzle. Every half an hour or so each family would shuffle back a few yards to avoid the incoming tide. On the way home, if you were lucky, you might be treated to an ice cream from Valente’s.
We children clambered among the rock pools, slipping on seaweed, hunting for jelly fish and empty crab shells as our fathers mined the coal seams hundreds of feet beneath our feet. And we plodged. Only people from north east of England plodge. I have plodged everywhere from Nova Scotia to the South Pacific. If you haven’t plodged, you haven’t lived. To plodge, you must remove your socks and shoes, roll up your trouser legs to your knees, wade into the sea past your ankles, and preferably stamp up and down and splash around for a bit. It’s usually accompanied with shrieking or an “ooshyabuggerthatscold”. You cannot plodge in swimwear. That’s bathing. There’s a difference.
The weather seemed always to be hot, but the sea water was always icy cold. It wasn’t clean either, but that sort of thing didn’t concern us. I don’t think water quality tests had been invented back then. You could lie on the beach and get sunstroke (as I did) but on the same afternoon you could go for a swim and you would emerge from the water, shivering, numbed, lips the colour of death. I loved to collect smooth flat pebbles which I would take home and paint with designs of flowers. I would then give these homemade “paperweights” to my grandad Jim who worked in the Time Office at the Vane Tempest, and to my dad who worked as shift charge engineer at the same colliery. Quite why they needed paperweights , or what they actually did with them, was never revealed.
I would collect bucketfuls of seaglass. In those days the beach was littered with these brightly coloured gems. Most would simply be discarded – momentarily attractive but ultimately worthless. Every house in Seaham must have a few little seaglass pebbles somewhere – perhaps in the back of a drawer, or in a jar on a shelf in the garage.
Today, if you walk along the shore as the tide goes out, revealing barnacle-encrusted rocks draped with seaweed and glittering rock pools, you will spot folk shuffling slowly, eyes fixed on the sand beneath their feet, hands grasping plastic bags, occasionally bending to pick through the shingle, searching for sea glass.
Once the waste products of John Candlish’s bottleworks, cast into the sea at the end of each working day, these pebbles of turquoise, emerald green, opal white, medicine-bottle blue and occasionally citron and ruby are now prized and exported to jewellery makers and craftsmen the world over. Just off the sea front, behind a cafe, there is a tiny shop tucked away where a local craftsman sells beautiful sea glass jewellery .
Seaham’s relationship with the sea has not always been a positive one. For decades sludge and slurry from Dawdon Colliery was tipped off the cliffs at Nose’s Point onto the beach below, creating “Chemical Beach”, the very embodiment of an industrial apocalyptic landscape, famously used as a film location in one of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movies. Today Nose’s Point is a popular and pretty nature reserve, transformed by the Turning the Tide project.
During the First World War, the merchant vessels and colliers which transported coal from the north east pits to London and the major ports were under almost constant attack. Many were torpedoed and sunk, with great loss of life, including ships belonging to the Londonderry fleet, carrying coal from the Marquis’ County Durham collieries from Seaham Harbour.
The trawler Helvetia was sunk in 1916, and the cargo vessel Vianna was lost in 1918 – its wreck still lies 4 miles east off the Seaham coast. One of the boats carrying bottles from John Candlish’s glass works hit a mine in 1917 and exploded, with the loss of 4 lives. Another of the Londonderry fleet, the SS Stewart’s Court was torpedoed within sight of Seaham – 13 of her crew were saved by the Seaham lifeboat, the Elliot Galer. The German U-Boats wrought havoc up and down the eastern coast of England, but it wasn’t just shipping that was targeted – they also possessed the capability to attack targets on land, as the residents of Seaham Colliery found to their cost.
On the evening of 11th July 1916, New Seaham was shelled by a German U-Boat, the infamous UB-39. An estimated 39 shells fell in the fields around Dalton le Dale and Mount Pleasant, and around the Mill Inn, but some hit the village directly, fatally injuring Mrs Mary Slaughter as she walked through the pit yard with her friend. At 14 Doctor Street, the home of Danish miner Carl Mortenson and his family, a shell came straight through the back wall, through the kitchen where Mrs Mortenson was standing, and landed by the front door; miraculously the shell failed to detonate, and the Mortenson family, including the children sleeping upstairs, were saved. All escaped injury.
A photograph still exists of the crew of UB39 standing next to the guns on the deck, grinning at the camera. This photograph was taken on 12th July 1916, the day after the attack on Seaham, and appears in the memoirs of UB39’s captain, Werner Fuerbringer, one of the German Navy’s greatest UBoat commanders. By the end of the war in 1918 he had sunk 102 merchant ships and was awarded the Iron Cross, the highest German military honour.
In his memoirs, published in 1933, he describes in detail the attack on Seaham – he thought he was reigning shells upon the ironworks. “I was assuming that the factory would have only a skeleton staff on the premises at night” he recalled. “My objective was the destruction of war materials and not people”. In fact he had targeted the pit, a mile or so inland.
Like many seafaring towns, Seaham has lost so many of its sons to the brutal North Sea – sailors, fishermen, and poor desperate souls who could see no life ahead. Down on the marina, as the old harbour is now called, there is a little heritage centre and lifeboat museum. Seaham had lifeboats for 109 years, until 1979, saving over 180 lives. Inside, you will discover the beautifully restored George Elmy and learn the story of one of the darkest days in the town’s history.
On 17th November 1962, the George Elmy was launched to rescue the crew of a fishing cobble, the Economy, which had got into difficulties in appalling weather. The crew of four included included a father and his 9 year old son. With the rescue having successfully been completed, the lifeboat was on its way back to the harbour when it was flipped by a “monstrous wave”. The entire lifeboat crew was lost; the only survivor was a member of the crew of the fishing boat. On the cliff tops, opposite what were the coastguards cottages at the end of North Road, there is a small memorial to the 8 men and the child who perished.
Today the relationship between the people of Seaham and the sea has been reinvigorated and renewed. Next to the new marina development, which houses cafes and a gift shop and a beauty salon, a new water sports centre is under construction. There’s even a jet ski club. Jet skiing. In Seaham. No, really. Whatever the weather, you will find people on the beach or walking along the seafront, perhaps pausing at Lickety-Split for an ice cream, just as generations of children used to call into Valente’s, or thawing out in the Black Truffle cafe with a cup of hot chocolate.
My own relationship with the sea was renewed too, as the result of the purchase of a Springer Spaniel called Alfie, who loved to swim the length of the beach and ride the waves back to the shore. His successor Merry prefers to chase stones and seagulls. All sorts of people are drawn to the sea – families with young children, the VIPs and rockstars who stay at Seaham Hall, old men in twos and threes, who recall their days as colleagues, brothers in arms, in the town’s long-gone coal mines.
There is a simple joy to be had in sitting in a car in a cliff top car park on a cold winter’s day, watching the waves batter the little lighthouse, scoffing a parcel of fish and chips. Groups of giggling teenagers, courting couples, runners – you’ll find them all here. Some come to celebrate, to laugh, to love; others to mourn, to remember, to despair over broken dreams, or to mend hearts shattered into myriad shards – like sea glass.
You can read more about Seaham, its history and its people on this blog.
My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (published in 2017) tells the true story of a young Seaham woman who emigrated to Australia by herself in 1886, and tells the story of Seaham from its earliest days to the outbreak of the Second World War. You can read more here.
My new book Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story will be published in summer 2020, and is now available to pre-order. The book tells the story of the Clydes, a Seaham family during the Second World War, and in particular the fight for survival of 19 year old RAF wireless operator Jack Clyde and his bomber crew. You can read more here.