The transformation of Seaham is a vital part of County Durham’s economic and cultural resurgence. PETER BARRON assesses the impact of the sea change

BORN and bred on the East Durham coast, Andy Smith – the proud grandson of two pitmen – knows better than most how much the tide has changed.

Not so long ago the outside perception of Andy’s hometown of Seaham was of a neglected former colliery community…but not anymore.

Of late, waves of positivity have transformed this beautiful and historic part of County Durham.

These days Seaham is a vibrant seaside town with a harbour returned to former glories, an appealing café culture and a growing retail offering. It is a place reborn: a growing tourist destination and a thriving business location.

Seaham is a part of the wider regeneration of East Durham, and Andy glows with pride at playing his part as one of the partners in the creation of a family-friendly micro pub fittingly called The Coalface.

“There was always a deep sense of pride amongst local people that they came from Seaham but, until recently, when you told people from outside where you were from, it would be a case of ‘Oh, never mind’.

“Suddenly, it’s no longer a sleeper town – where people slept and worked and there was little inbetween. The change in recent years has been incredible, so now, when you tell people where you’re from, the response is ‘Lucky you – that’s a nice place’.”

This is just part of Durham County Council’s vision to bring about a sea change in the fortunes of a coastline rich in heritage and natural assets.

The metamorphosis includes huge investment in the 55-acre Jade Business Park, near Murton; the £175m Garden Village which will provide 1,500 homes at South Seaham, and a network of infrastructure projects to improve road, rail, sea and air connectivity.

Andy’s own piece in the jigsaw may be relatively small, but it symbolises how East Durham has been reinvented through passionate, adaptable local people who are proud of their heritage and supported by a local authority with an ambition to see beyond age-old horizons.

Indeed, he is yet another example of the validity of the council’s strategy to put the qualities of local people at the heart of its inward investment programme through the Powered by People movement.

On Easter weekend last year, Andy and business partner Mark Milroy opened The Coalface at the bottom of Seaham’s Church Street, an area which is benefitting from the county council securing £1.6m from the Seaham Townscape Heritage Programme.

The idea for The Coalface emerged when Andy popped into one of Mark’s other businesses, The Lookout coffee shop, on Seaham Harbour Marina. Over a coffee Andy talked about his dream of running a pub and the discussion led to an exploratory call to Durham County Council about potential premises.

At the time, the sole occupants of the three-storey building in Church Street were Derek’s Barber’s Shop and a single tenant in the upstairs flat.

With Derek on the verge of retirement, Andy and Mark took over the building and extensive renovations began to turn it into The Coalface.

The business was launched with the help of a regeneration grant from the county council. Andy is quick to acknowledge the value of the local authority’s support: “We couldn’t have done it without them,” he says. “We’ve found that by working hand-in-hand with the council you get your rewards because they only want good things for the area. Their help has been absolutely crucial.”

The pub – naturally featuring a coal fire – is steeped in mining history that’s being lovingly brought back to the surface. Before being a barber shop it was a second-hand furniture shop, a butcher’s and a bakery.

Since taking it over, Andy has discovered that part of it was once a hairdressing salon run by his Auntie Eileen, who emigrated to Australia in the 1970s.

It is built with stones that were once used as ships’ ballast, while parquet flooring from an old school has been repurposed as wall panels  and a glass floor has been installed to open up a forgotten cellar that was once used as a coal chute.

On the walls nearly 100 wooden plaques pay tribute to local miners, including Andy’s grandfathers John ‘Jack’ Smith who worked down Vane Tempest pit between 1929 and 1979, and John Teasdale who toiled at Dawdon Colliery from 1937 to 1970.

As The Coalface approaches its first anniversary, further plans are already unfolding for its future.

Later this year the third floor will be converted into a holiday apartment, complete with its own beer-line, while an area at the back of the pub will have a wood-fired pizza oven installed before it is let to a budding entrepreneur.

“Our family roots are in the area and we’re just so proud to be part of the area’s rebirth,” says Andy.

A few miles south, at Dawdon, pioneering waste management company Biffa has also become part of the East Durham renaissance, establishing  a new plastics recycling plant at Foxcover Distribution Park and recruiting for 100 full-time jobs.

The company was originally given approval nearly a year ago for a £15m polymer processing plant, in a 130,000sq.ft unit, to recycle more than one billion plastic drinks bottles a year. By summer that investment had increased to £27.5m because the site was such a perfect fit.

Biffa, formerly Greenstar, had been established at the Wilton International site on Teesside since 2000. When it needed to expand, it looked at several locations. Its key requirements were a workforce with a skillset across a range of disciplines and a building with the right dimensions.

According to Owen Franklin, Biffa’s Business Director for Polymers, Durham County Council and its economic development arm, Business Durham, proved to be “unbelievably supportive.”

“Right from the start they understood what we needed and couldn’t do enough, not just in identifying the location, but pointing us in the right direction for our recruitment needs and training.

“We had 600 applications for 40 operator jobs. We were inundated with quality people coming forward. That’s not always the case but, in County Durham, we were spoilt for choice.

“Our key aim is to keep plastics recycling in this country, rather than exporting it abroad, and we see our partnership with Durham County Council growing – this is just the start.”

All of the regeneration taking place in the area adds up to what Kevin Shaw believes is a momentous period in East Durham’s history – and he should know. Kevin has lived in Dawdon throughout his 61 years and is one of two local ward councillors as well as the county council’s Portfolio Holder for Strategic Housing and Assets.

“Honestly, what is happening and the progress we have made is unbelievable,” says Cllr Shaw, who sees major improvements in infrastructure and connectivity as being fundamental to the area’s success story.

“Since becoming a unitary authority, the county council has expanded the vision to develop the A19 corridor,” he says.

Together with improved transport links to the docks and the region’s airports, work also began last May on a new £10.55m railway station at Horden which will link the local, regional and national rail network and support wider regeneration in the area. The council is funding the year-long project, working closely with Network Rail.

“Sorting out the infrastructure has made all the difference, along with placing heritage at the heart of it all, because it’s massively important to celebrate East Durham’s journey and never forget where we came from,” says Cllr Shaw.

“I have never been happier to live in my community. When the pits closed, we lived through the worst times and now we’re living through the best.”


The Northern Echo:


The inaugural Seaham Food Festival which attracted businesses and 15,000 visitors last year will return as a free event on June 13 and 14. This year it will feature more than 100 traders, celebrity chefs, workshops, fun activities for children and live music.


Dalton Park is the North-East’s biggest outlet and discount shopping centre, with more than 60 shops selling 200-plus brands and designer labels. It is benefitting from improvements on the A19 at Sheraton Park and linking to the new railway station at Horden.


Seaham Harbour Marina, which opened in 2013 and is pictured above, features an excellent water sports centre offering a programme of activities including kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding.


Tommy, Ray Lonsdale’s glorious statue of a First World War soldier, has become synonymous with Seaham. Positioned close to the war memorial on Terrace Green, Tommy weighs 1.2 tonnes and stands nine feet five inches tall.


Emerging from its industrial past, Durham has one of the finest coastlines in England. A coastal path leads walkers through an area of natural, geological and historical interest with dramatic views across the North Sea, bays, headlands, stretches of beach, magnesian limestone cliffs and abundant wildlife.


This restored Georgian country house – now a five-star hotel and spa destination in 37 acres of landscaped gardens on a clifftop location – has built a reputation as one of the most luxurious spa hotels in the country.


The Northern Echo:

JADE BUSINESS PARK: A flagship 55-acre enterprise zone employment site close to the A19. Sumitono Wiring Systems Europe, bringing 76 jobs, will become the park’s first tenants in April.

SEAHAM GARDEN VILLAGE: a collaboration between Durham County Council, Tolent Construction and the Coal Authority which is creating 1,500

new homes, half of which will be affordable. It is the UK’s first district heating scheme using mine water energy from nearby abandoned coal mines.

SEAHAM: One of the towns which will benefit from a £63m investment by the county council in leisure services, replacing outdated facilities with a purpose-built centre.