THE pitheap at Trimdon Grange was probably the largest in County Durham. It was 150ft high, and dominated the nearby terraces which were in its shadow to such an extent that they lost two hours of sunlight each day – an expensive loss in the days before central heating.

The heap, with its steep grey sides and flat surface without vegetation, was a unique environment. For children it was an illicit play area, particularly coming into its own in winter when snow transformed it into a pristine Alpine sledging run.

But this was no compensation for its dangers.

On November 19, 1926, when the miners were out on strike, Herbert Owens, 21, tunnelled into the pitheap in search of waste coal that he used to warm his home in Oswald Row – this was a common practice among striking Durham miners. Inevitably, the sides of his tunnel collapsed on him, and teams of Trimdon men worked ten hours, digging in the shifting heap and trying to shore it up with timber, to reach him.

He was, though, badly burned. He lost leg and eventually died.

Trimdon miners John Beattie and Joseph Clark received the Empire Gallantry Medal (the earlier version of the George Cross) for their efforts trying to save Herbert. They were presented with their medals by the king at Buckingham Palace – a far cry from the Trimdon heap.

The Northern Echo: Trimdon Grange pitheap dominating the houses in 1965

Trimdon Grange pitheap dominating the houses in 1965

In Memories 557 we mentioned how, two years before the Aberfan disaster in Wales when a pitheap slid onto a school and killed 166 people, Trimdon – which had its own primary school in its heap’s shadow - had had a narrow escape. A lake of rainwater formed on the top of the heap and then, like a broken dam, spilled down its sides, swamping houses in the Plantation Rows.

The Northern Echo: Trimdon Grange pitheap dominating the houses in 1964

Trimdon Grange pitheap dominating the houses in 1964

“The explanation that water had gathered naturally on the top doesn't hold water, if you’ll excuse the pun,” says Bob West in Dene Villas, Chilton, who used to cycle regularly past the Trimdon heap.

“The NCB bulldozed the top of the heaps flat and then pumped water from the pit onto them. The idea was for the water to soak down through the heap to prevent the spontaneous combustion of the leftover coal.

“But ponds formed on the top of many heaps. These were known locally as “dolly muck ponds”.

“Chilton pit heap was no exception and had its own Dolly Muck Pond with steep sides. It was a great play area for us youngsters, slinging stones in to see who could cause the biggest plop.

“My late good friend Davey “Jazz” Moody slithered down the side of the pond and into the muck I and another mate managed to drag him out with difficulty as his wellies had filled up. We took him to the workmen's hut on the heap and lit the pot belly stove, took his knee length woollen socks off and wrapped them around the vertical steel chimney to dry.

“After a while the smell was terrible.

“We tried to get his socks off the red hot chimney but they had virtually welded themselves on. Davey had an uncomfortable walk back home to Dene Bridge Row in his stockingless wellies. I don't know what the workmen would have thought the next morning when they arrived.”

READ MORE: How Norman Cornish captured a corner of the coalfield in Trimdon