When I read Elizabeth’s great new novel, “A Bird On Water Street,” about copper mining in the Appalachians, she was surprised when I said it really resonated with me, even though I live on the other side of the Atlantic in County Durham in Northern England. She asked me to tell you the story of our “Coppertown.” So here it is:
This story is about coal, not copper. But like Elizabeth’s book, it’s about environmental pollution caused by mining. County Durham has a strong tradition of mining. Whole communities grew up around the mines, and fathers followed sons down “the pit”. It was expected. But my story is about 6 pits on a 12 mile stretch of coast near where I live. And what happened in 1984 when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to close them down.
If you want to see how bad the pollution was before the pits stopped working, then look at the first few scenes of “Alien 3,” when Ripley’s ship crash-lands on a poisoned prison planet where nothing grows. That was filmed on this stretch of coastland (on Blast Beach to be precise) where the spoil from 6 deep mines had been dumped for a hundred years. It was a blackened, sterile, hellish landscape with nothing green anywhere and no birds or flowers or animals.
In 1984, the union called the miners out on strike. There was war in the coalfields. It lasted a year and was bitter and violent. Brother turned against brother, neighbour against neighbour. There was violence between pickets and scabs, and running street battles with riot police on horses (see the film “Billy Elliot”). Three men died. The miners were treated like terrorists and called “the enemy within.” With no wages coming in, soup kitchens were set up so families didn’t starve. In the end, the miners lost; the pits were closed. Mining communities were broken up, villages left to rot. There was widespread unemployment which lasts in those ex-mining communities to this day. But, if anything good could come out of this, one thing did. Amazingly, this stretch of blighted coast line was resurrected in a massive clean-up programme called “Turning the Tide” which finally finished in 2002. As in Elizabeth’s book, nature is slowly returning! The coastline won a “Natural Beauty Award.” It was runner–up for the “most transformed landscape in Europe.”
One day last year, when my husband and I were walking along these cliffs, we came across an old man sitting looking at the restored coastline and crying. He had been a miner in one of the pits; been down there, he said, all his working life until it closed. And he was crying, he said, because back in those days, he “could never imagine that it could be this beautiful.”
CLICK HERE to see photos of the “Turning the Tide” coastline (taken by my husband Phil, a naturalist and wildlife photographer).
The project to do this was called Project Neptune. You can watch a short video by the volunteers who helped clean it up here:
And read Elizabeth’s book “A Bird On Water Street” to see the many surprising similarities between the story of Coppertown and a coal mining coastline in Northern England!
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Here is the wonderful blurb Susan wrote for A BIRD ON WATER STREET:
" 'A Bird on Water Street' is a warm-hearted, lovingly researched story, full of rich detail. Thirteen year old Jack Hicks, who wants to bring the forest back to his home town, blighted by copper mining, is a truly engaging narrator."
GIVEAWAY! I am happy to give away a free e-version of A BIRD ON WATER STREET to one of my commenters. ABOWS is available via Kindle, iTunes, and will come soon to Nook, so I'll need to know which one you prefer. The winner will be chosen in a week. Enter below. (Must live in the US or Canada to be eligible.)
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