Seaham Beach draws crowds on even the drabbest of autumn days. Unperturbed by drizzly clouds rolling in off the slate-grey North Sea, dozens of people are scattered between the high-tide mark and the pounding surf, strolling with their heads down, scouring the shore.
The more committed are raking and sifting the shingle, hoping to strike it lucky. All are armed with plastic buckets and zip-lock bags for collecting their finds. Clearly this is no everyday seaside walk.
Besides being an attractive shoreline backed by cave-pocked limestone cliffs, Seaham Beach’s big draw is its wealth of colourful sea glass: indeed, this is one of the world’s best locations for finding these wave-polished gems. It doesn’t take me long to start spotting fragments among the pebbles, catching the light with the gleam of uncut jewels. Each luminescent piece glistens in milky whites, greens and (more rarely and thus highly prized) shades of amber or soft, ocean blue.
With their edges smoothed and rounded over time by the sea’s endless motion, what were formerly bits of rubbish have become things of unique beauty that are as valued as real gemstones by the people who’ve come here to seek them.
“I’ve no idea what I’m going to do with all this,” says one lady with a particularly fine haul, “but it’s just so satisfying picking it up.”
History explains why this beach has such abundant trash-to-treasure riches. Back in Victorian times, Seaham was home to Britain’s largest glassworks, producing over 20,000 clear and coloured bottles each day. Waste glass from the process was dumped directly into the sea, from where storms and tides deposit it – after a century or more of tumbling and shaping – on the beach.
Other industries hereabouts were rather more transformative. Even before production took off in the 18th century, this part of County Durham’s coast was synonymous with coal mining, joined in the 1850s by coal-fuelled pig-iron, lime and chemical works. Though the closure of the pits in the 1990s plunged the area into deprivation, their wealth can still be seen in Seaham’s municipal architecture, and especially at Seaham Hall: a grand country house (now a spa and hotel) within a stone’s throw of the beach.
The flipside to all this industry was unimaginable pollution. Millions of tonnes of spoil from the mines were dumped over the cliffs, turning the beaches black and forming a metres-thick, solid layer. It was so inhospitable that the closing scene from the 1971 film Get Carter was shot at then-active Blackhall Colliery, while desolate Blast Beach was a location for Alien 3.
Though a layer of this mining waste still remains on Blast and other beaches (despite great chunks of it being washed away when October’s Storm Babet hammered the northeast), vast amounts were removed as part of a massive restoration programme that has transformed the area’s fortunes, turning its post-industrial wasteland into the nature-rich Durham Heritage Coast.
“It’s hard to imagine that this was once an environmental disaster zone,” says the SeaScapes project’s Michael Burn, who joins me next day for a walk across grassy clifftops to wild-looking coves. “For years, nobody visited these beaches as the mining waste was unsightly and sulphurous; but we’ve cleaned it up, improved access and put in miles of bike and footpaths.”
As we hike along a portion of the all-new England Coast Path, Michael explains how underfoot are former, re-landscaped spoil heaps that were capped and seeded to create a species-rich community of limestone-loving plants. Few are in flower at this time of year, but were we here in season there would be scabious, rock rose and bee orchids, with unusual butterflies such as northern brown argus fluttering among them.
“As well as limestone grasslands, we’ve encouraged a mosaic of habitats to maximise biodiversity,” Michael continues as we watch a hovering kestrel hunting for lunch. Further along, a plaintive squeal draws our attention to a stoat wrestling a rabbit, finally dispatching it with a bite to the back of the neck. It’s a wildlife drama that illustrates this back-to-nature project’s success.
“And with much less spoil now clouding the water, sea life has also recovered,” Michael adds, noting that wreck-dives and dolphin-watching have joined Seaham’s recreational repertoire. “The whole coastline has bounced back to life.”
Similarly on the up is Seaham itself, where our coast-walk ends. Though parts of town still feel down on their luck, there’s heaps of appeal in the bistros and bars along waterfront North Terrace. A nearby shop, Seaham Waves, catches my eye with its sea glass jewellery.
“We collect it all ourselves,” says owner Gavin Hardy as I compliment him on the colourful pieces he’s turned into pendants and bracelets. “When I started in 2011, it would often just be me on the beach; but since word got out to the huge online community of sea glass fans, people now come from all over. It’s a huge part of Seaham’s renaissance.”
Sea glass even makes an appearance at Seaham Hall’s Serenity Spa, in whose thermal suite I head to warm up after spending all day outdoors. Its signature treatment incorporates a facial using a piece of sea glass, the smooth curves lending themselves to gentle, sensitive-skin massages. Detoxifying seaweed scrubs reinforce the coastal theme. It’s so relaxing that no-one thinks twice about dining at the spa’s Ozone restaurant in slippers and fluffy robes.
Early the next morning, I pop to the beach to see what the waves have revealed overnight, enjoying the fresh sea air and picking up sea glass as I go. When it’s time to head back for breakfast, I pause to admire my handful of kaleidoscopic treasures. I decide to keep the nicest one as a shiny souvenir, then throw the rest in the sea for someone else to find tomorrow.
How to do it
B&B stays at Seaham Hall start from £295 per night in a Junior Suite. The hotel is 25 minutes’ drive from Durham, which sits on the London-to-Edinburgh East Coast Main Line served by LNER trains. Seaham’s local station is on the Newcastle-to-Middlesbrough Durham Coast Line. For more information, see thisisdurham.com and durhamheritagecoast.org.