THOUSANDS of people visit one of the region's most popular outdoor attractions every year but few will know it was once home to a government labour scheme.

Archaeologists now hope to paint a picture of life at the Hamsterley Forest work camp as part of a wider project to study how the North-East's landscape was shaped by the Great Depression.

A team from Durham University spent the week exploring the area around the visitor centre and main car park where the forestry instructional centre was established in 1934.

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The camp was one of a series set up by the Ministry of Labour during a time of extreme poverty and unemployment to improve the skills and fitness of out-of-work men in return for the dole. It later became a Second World War prisoner of war camp.

A series of corrugated iron huts were used as dormitories, a cook house, latrines and recreational facilities and remains including concrete foundations can still be seen.

Fieldwork included scouring the land for surviving masonry and 80-year-old rubbish and ground penetrating radar was used to explore underground. The team may look to do a small excavation in future, subject to the continued support of landowners the Forestry Commission.

Project director David Petts said: "We're trying to find evidence of the site itself and anything left behind to tell us what life was like, it will show what they were consuming like beer bottles even though drinking was banned.

"We're going into the forest to see how the depression and the camp shaped it, we think bridges would have been built by them to help the forestry work."

Dr Petts hopes to trace photographs of the site and hear from people with information or memories of it, most likely from the 1940s and 50s when some buildings still stood.

He said: "It would have been hard work but also a real community, we know one guy used to play jazz music on loudspeakers to get people up first thing and there were concerts and parties. We're really keen to track down more of these memories or stories people may have been told."

The team will also study the Bishop Auckland area and planning records in Durham County Council's archives show while many people struggled and some small settlements disappeared, others did well.

"We're studying the Great Depression, but there was another story as some people were moving loos inside and building garages for their new cars," said Dr Petts.

Email him at d.a.petts@durham.ac.uk

The Leverhulme Trust funded project uses maps, records and site exploration to explore the impact of the Great Depression on the region's landscape and built environment.

It will also look at the Heartbreak Hill allotment scheme in East Cleveland, Swarland model village in Northumberland and the Team Valley Industrial Estate on Tyneside.