Our challenging coast

Logo: Durham Heritage Coast

The Durham Coast won the UK Landscape Award in 2010 and went on to represent the UK in the Council of Europe Landscape Awards 2011 and was awarded a Special Mention. The Council of Europe Landscape Awards support the implementation of the European Landscape Convention.

So what is behind such accolades? There is much more to the Durham Coast than fine awards.

Easington Colliery 1992
Easington Colliery 1992

In the North East of England the Durham Coast was known in the past for its scarred black beaches, being used as the dumping ground for the waste arising from its six coastal coal mines. This negative image was reinforced as this coast appeared in the opening sequence of 'Aliens' and formed the back drop to the final scenes of 'Get Carter' with Michael Caine. What was an alien brutal landscape has now shaken off that particular legacy and is now much more widely known for its fantastic natural history and dramatic coastal path.

Easington Colliery 2012 (Mike Smith)
Easington Colliery 2012 (Mike Smith)

Looking at marine life we are now seeing fantastic evidence of recovery from its nadir in the early 1990s. A Seasearch volunteer survey from 1992 was short and to the point, noting 'little marine life was encountered' in the near shore area and went on to thank the volunteer divers for 'diving where they never thought they would'.   From this black murk we move forward to 2009 when 94 species were recorded by Seasearch. The images captured by these volunteers provide wonderfully clear evidence of this recovery that inspires. We can continue to improve our coastal waters by continuing to reduce our impacts, in particular marine litter. In Durham we are adopting the Dorset Coastal Forum message of a 'Litter Free Coast and Sea'; encouraging local involvement in direct action individually and corporately.

On our shores we are also seeing dramatic change, with kelp expanding rapidly southwards. It is now visible along most parts of the Durham Coast where 10 years ago it was extremely difficult to find. Kelp beds are the tropical rainforests of our coastal waters, hosting a wide variety of life including the small but fascinating blue rayed limpet.   With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Big Sea Survey project recruited and trained local people across the North East of England as recorders encouraging a closer involvement with their shoreline but also critically building evidence of the recovering biodiversity.

Terrestrially, the coastal slopes host paramaritime magnesian limestone grassland. The coast between the River Tyne and the River Tees is the only marine exposure of the underlying magnesian limestone geology which means that the grassland that it supports is truly unique.  This grassland hosts northern species at their southern limit and southern species at their northern limits adding to its interest not only in its own right but as an indicator of change.  This is an incredibly rich and diverse habitat that is under severe threat from classic 'coastal squeeze'. For over a century large swathes of this grassland has been protected from erosion by the colliery spoil acting as a soft defence.

Dead Man’s fingers polyps (Paula Lightfoot – Seasearch NE)
Dead Man’s fingers polyps (Paula Lightfoot – Seasearch NE)

Now, as that spoil disappears the coastal cliffs are exposed and the natural processes 'restart', leading to an accelerated loss of grassland on the coastal slopes. During the successful Millennium project 'Turning the Tide' in the late 1990s some 250 hectares of land immediately behind was secured for habitat re-creation and efforts continue to ensure that this becomes as species diverse as possible. Following initial establishment grazing is being re-introduced as the most effective management option. However all is not good news, over the past couple of years considerable areas of grassland on the coastal slopes have succumbed to the sea’s embrace. Serious consideration is being given to increasing direct intervention to ensure that we do not fail in our responsibility to ensure the future for this amazing grassland.

Coastal grassland under threat (Mike Smith)
Coastal grassland under threat (Mike Smith)

Heritage Coast status was granted to this coastline in 2001 following the hugely successful £10.5 million 'Turning the Tide' Millennium project. Over the past decade the Partnership has managed to lever in a further £7million for physical improvements to access and habitats; with a significant proportion for maintenance, engagement and awareness raising.

Heritage Coast is a voluntary non statutory planning definition with key objectives relating to protecting and enhancing landscape quality and nature conservation interest and importantly participation. For the Durham coast the status has been absolutely fundamental to providing a clear vision, local support and external recognition.  

Participation is embedded in the operation of the Partnership. At the strategic level each of the local communities has representation on the Partnership’s Steering Group. For project delivery the management team strive to involve all those who have an interest locally. This has not been without its hard lessons and this learning along with the continuity of presence that the partnership has been able to provide has resulted in a robust local network, which is able to provide an 'expert' focus as well as en effective network and a good delivery record.

The coast now has its key gateway sites, each provided with interpretation and signage. There is a coastal path with its own guide. The section of coast through Sunderland, Durham and Hartlepool is one of the lead areas for the creation of Natural England’s Coastal Trail that will eventually see a footpath around England. Locally it is expected that his will be delivered in 2014.

There is still more to do. Prioritisation means that the easiest tasks are done first, which is good at the time, however it does mean that the hardest tasks are left until last. These are the one’s that are incredibly difficult to fund or have hard procedural hurdles. These are also the one’s that will ensure that the coast is truly connected, physically and to its local communities and its visitors.

This coast is changing, we have more and more people visiting our coast from further and further away. Visitor numbers have increased 24% in the past two years and with a new marina locally this will continue to increase. This is now the new challenge; securing the future for our natural environment whilst allowing as many as wish to learn about this coast’s unique wildlife and history.

Durham Heritage Coast Partnership is one of many coastal partnerships around the UK. Whilst each partnership is unique in addressing its own local issues they all have common roles in encouraging participation and awareness raising. In England the Coastal Partnerships Network exists to encourage the exchange of information and debate between Coastal Partnership Officers and to establish links with other coastal stakeholders. More information on coastal partnerships and the role of the Coastal Partnerships Network can be found on their website:

Niall Benson, Heritage Coast Officer, Durham Heritage Coast Partnership, c/o Durham County Council, County Hall, Durham, DH1 5UQ T: 03000 268130 M: 07825 202581 W:

First published in CJS Focus on Water in association with Canal & River Trust on 29 October 2012