The Dyed Coast: an artist’s exploration of Seaham’s Blast beach in County Durham, UK

Seaham, as we know the town today was built on its coal seams and expanded with its three collieries and the mining of its black, subterranean harvest.

Dawdon Colliery was perched on the cliff at Nose’s Point, the northernmost end of the Blast beach. For almost a century its mine waste was tipped ceaselessly into the North Sea, tumbled and deposited by successive tides onto the shore, along with the discard of previous incursions by the iron, glass and chemical industries. For decades all shore life was lost under the choking black cloak of slurry and shale.

The Blast was less than a mile from my childhood home, and while I became familiar with the pit yard on weekly visits to the pay office with my mother to collect my father’s wages, I never equated the blackened beach with his work below the ground or the coal that heated our house.

As an adult it’s easy to condemn a century of coastal despoilation and profess indignation as to why the waste was allowed to pollute Durham’s beaches, but those were different times and the twin spectres of ‘jobs or dole’ were never too far away. Phrases like ‘carbon footprint’, ‘global warming’, and ‘green energy’ were more likely to be associated with scripts from science fiction films, not the place where we lived and worked. How ironic that local lad, Ridley Scott found the Blast beach to be a perfect facsimile for an ‘Alien’ planet, such was the level of pollution.

The offending industries are long gone. The Blast continues to be transformed by the power of the sea. The sheltered bay is still embraced by the magnificent Magnesian Limestone cliffs, but is now recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and worthy of protection.
It’s not until you walk the shore that you notice the rocks have acquired an acid yellow stain, and some bleed rust as if wounded. Then you become aware of an acrid tang, at once metallic and sulphurous that catches in your throat.  Blood red pools under the cliff confirm your suspicions - something devastating and unnatural happened here. Limpets and seaweed do populate the rocks again, but cohabit with rusted mining paraphernalia, fossilised in the colliery slag, waiting for the tide to set it free.

The work on this page forms part of Jac’s Dyed Coast exploration and addresses that uncomfortable collision where nature was overcome by industry, and her daily struggle to reassert her dominance. It re-presents the detritus that clogged the Blast for decades. It scatters clues as to what went on there and asks you to notice what is uncovered by successive tides in the manner of an industrial archaeologist, to wonder at matter which rightly belongs deep in the earth and consider what happens when it is flung instead onto the shoreline.

It is hoped that you will see a certain beauty in this examination of decay and share the artist’s joy in witnessing the transformative action of the sea as it simultaneously reveals and deals with the ‘Dyed Coast’ along this particular Anthropocene shore.

Jac Seery Howard
August 2022

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