Blackhall Rocks Nature Reserve in County Durham is well named.
From my vantage point on the cliff top, a great stretch of sand could be seen glistening black with sea coal. The beach has one very particular claim to fame. The climatic scenes from the classic 1971 film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine, were filmed here.
Shading my eyes against the sun, I took in more of the splendid views, of jagged rocks, draped with seaweed, standing in becalmed waters. ‘What a beautiful day,’ I thought.
My day’s 10 mile trek had started in Blackhall Colliery (the mine was in operation between 1909 and 1981). From here the morning’s route took me onto the Durham Coast Path. This popular walking trail can be followed from Sunderland to Hartlepool and takes in some of the most dramatic coastline in the North-East.
Wading through quaking grass, flower heads glowing like tiny lamps, through butterwort and delicate shell like plants called round leaved wintergreen, I spotted a butterfly and then another. There are over a dozen species to be found in the area, these including the splendid northern brown argus, its wings bright with orange pips.
I hadn’t gone much further before spying a cistus forester, a rare green moth that lives in these parts. There was plenty of birdlife too, with seagulls and skylarks, stonechat, reed bunting and meadow pipit. There was even a kestrel or two.
Long grass swished against my bare legs and bird’s-eye primrose caught the eye. The sun was very warm; in fact I could feel the heat melting through my hat and into my head.
What a glorious day for a walk!
On the left were caves and coves, bays and great pillars of rocks for which the coastline is famous. It is also noted for its wooded ravines or gorges, these known as gills. One was looming into view now, a huge green cleft in the Earth.
The coastal footpath skirts it, through masses of wild plants that included cowslip and greater knapweed. Bees and butterflies love this plant and so there were plenty of both along this trail. There were also rock-roses and grass-of-parnassus, the scent of all those plants perfuming a lazy summer’s air.
The rumbling of waves gradually receded as the path pushed further inland, through the thickly growing flowers. Their scent really was intoxicating and the buzzing bees only added to the morning’s sleepy ambience. At one point I stopped and peered over the side of the gill, down a sheer drop of maybe one hundred feet to dense woodland.
I came finally to a steep flight of wooden steps. These led down into the gorge and there was an equally steep climb up the other side. I took breath, pushing the hat back on my head and wiping my brow. Phew, that climb had got the heart pumping! An old chap out walking his dog gave me directions to some stairs that led to the beach. He added that it was great going down the steps but a heck of a climb back up them.
Never mind, I thought, it’ll be the perfect place for a cuppa. So I trooped on, along the top of the gill and to the stairs, descending them to the beach.
My boots crunched in shingle as I walked down to the water’s edge. A nearby rock provided the perfect seat and opportunity to press my flask of tea into service. The little secluded cove was a lovely spot. There was, once again, evidence of sea coal and great cliffs of red rock rose into the bluest of skies.
The waves rolled lazily onto the shore and birds bobbed up and down on a faint swell. The gentle, ceaseless movement of the sea, the warm sun, made this a very enjoyable tea break.
I yawned and stretched and then poured another cuppa. More people had come down the stairs with their dogs. The canines couldn’t wait to get into the water. I smiled, the dogs love the outdoor life.
I could have sat there all morning, enjoying the sunshine, but had the best part of a day’s walking ahead! On scrambling down from the rock something caught me eye. There were many brightly coloured seashells on the shore and I picked up a couple, turning them over in my hand.
The shells were exquisite, worn smooth by the waves. I held one up to my ear, smiling. It was years since I’d done that and of course you really can hear the sea!
Then I headed back to the stairs, boots crunching loudly in the stones. The old chap who had given me directions was right – it was a heck of a climb from the beach! But it was worth it.
Once back onto the cliff top I was able to rejoin the Durham Coast Path from where could be enjoyed splendid views of beach stretching several miles to Hartlepool. Nearer to hand was Crimdon Dene but that would have to wait for another day.
There just wasn’t enough time to fit in all the places I wanted to visit!
So I pushed on, following the path over the railway line and onto the Hart Nature Reserve Walking Trail. This part of the trek offered something of a contrast with the coastal terrain, a dismantled railway leading me through woodland and past fields of shining corn.
The railway in question was designed in the 1830s by non-other than George Stephenson and was used to transport coal from the Durham coalfields to Hartlepool.
At Monk Hesleden I took a minor road and followed this north. I hadn’t gone very far when a sound stopped me in my tracks. It was the clip clop of hooves, growing louder and nearer. A few moments later a horse drawn trap came into view.
A young couple sat up front, man at the reins. A Yorkshire terrier stood in the back. He had his paws on the side of the carriage, tongue lolling as he beamed out at the world. This was clearly, as far he was concerned, just the greatest adventure in the world.
The couple smiled me a greeting, the terrier barked and then the horse and trap had gone, clattering downhill and into the trees. I was still thinking about this colourful incident when another scene from a bygone age came into view.
A gypsy’s wagon was parked on the grass verge. It was one of the old kind, known as a Vardo. In the old Romani tongue this means living wagon. It was elaborately decorated, its bright colours, the ornate patterns, catching the sunlight brilliantly. The horse was grazing and from the Vardo came the delicious smell of frying bacon and the whistling of a boiling kettle. Then I heard water being poured into a tea pot, spoon making a chinking sound on its sides as the brew was stirred and left to mash.
I smiled and tramped on, up the hill and into the village of High Hesleden. My pint was enjoyed at the Ship Inn and the first thing I noticed on going inside was the number of model sailing ships, which were kept on shelves and wooden beams. The pub is known for this splendid collection. Having enjoyed a very leisurely lunch, I took once again to the walking trail. The day was still very warm, fields of corn and wooded gills basking under glorious sunshine.
High Hesleden is aptly named with great views of the coast. Lazily swinging a blade of grass, I strolled along, thinking of the day and deciding that it could be up for the Walk of the Season Award. It had everything, a spectacular coastline to enjoy and history to savour. The final stretch of my journey took me along Mickle Hill Road and back to Blackhall Colliery. Strolling along, I thought about the horse drawn trap and gypsy wagon: It was a vivid glimpse of a bygone age that actually, wasn’t so bygone!