Phoebe Power on the People’s Landscape commission
During my residency at the Durham coast I spoke to children, ex-miners, artists, cyclists, rockpoolers and rangers. I walked the coastal path, took part in a beach clean, and was lucky enough to stay for a couple of nights in a lighthouse. Because of its complex history and geology, shaped by millions of years of rock formation and two centuries of coal mining by humans, this coast is an exceptionally rich, challenging and sometimes mysterious space in which to respond creatively. I wonder how you’ll sum it all up? I was asked on my first day here.
It is a coast of sharp contrasts, where the forces of change are clear. At Blast Beach near Seaham, I walked on ground that is part colliery spoil, part exquisite pebbles, as the sea gradually scours away the waste that still clings to the shoreline. While the removal of spoil is necessary for the survival of marine life, it also leaves the cliffs more exposed to erosion. In this complicated, contradictory space, children with grab-sticks enthusiastically prise away plastic litter from in between pebbles, while below, abandoned machinery bleeds underground like much of our waste: of sight, out of mind. I went for a walk with a couple of ex-miners whose relationship with the land had been re-aligned, their intimacy with an underground earthscape replaced by strolls along coastal grasslands, now pleasantly waymarked and maintained. Theirs had been a life of two halves, of different careers before and after the pit closures; these are stories of adaptation and resilience, of looking backwards and forwards at the same time.
colliery waste and pebbles at Blast Beach
North-east people are among the most generous, hospitable, chatty and cheery that I know. It was in places where people gathered for meetings and activities where I discovered the most excitement, energy and creativity during my residency. Whether it was diverse strangers in high-vis cleaning the beach, pensioners practising computer skills, kids meeting starfish at the rockpools, or a couple of old friends going for a walk, this coast is brimming with connections and a sense of re-making. Perhaps it’s something about the beach which encourages mingling and flow, crossings of paths, wandering as well as wondering – or maybe it’s the fresh air, keeping everybody awake and open to opportunity, but the Durham coast I explored felt rich with potential, despite the challenges of deprivation present in some of its communities.
Spending just a few days there, I haven’t attempted to ‘sum it up’, but rather to join in for a while in an ongoing, collaborative process of representation as the coast continues to change and develop. In this age of climate change, it is impossible not to view coal as a symbol of our society’s ongoing, lethal dependence on fossil fuels. But, with imported coal still lying in piles at Seaham’s harbour, it is not yet clear how the world will de-carbonise. The strange, shifting landscapes of the Durham coast confront us with the realities of our polluting economies, as well as opening a space for something new, for interactions with the earth that are kinder and more connected to habitats, the atmosphere and ourselves.