When I moved to live in the village of Sunniside, near Tow Law, in 1992 with my two young children I wondered why there was no school next to the school-master’s house on Front Street. The latter had been turned into a private property and a horse grazed in what would have been the school playground.
Other villages, some of them less populated, still had their schools and their football fields, and their play-parks seemed to have more and better equipment. All we had in Sunniside was a set of rusty swings which were so dilapidated they collapsed one day almost killing one of my neighbour’s children.
Category D villages
I often heard the other mums say, “No-one cares about us”, or words to that effect. It was several years before I realised the full extent of a deliberate policy of disinvestment which had branded my village and more than 125 others across County Durham as Category D, effectively leaving them to die. Meanwhile, new public housing developments popped up in places like Woodhouse Close (on the outskirts of Bishop Auckland), Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe, tempting families away from their close-knit communities to enjoy benefits of inside toilets, decent bus services, brand new schools and modern doctors’ surgeries. The administration that introduced this disastrous policy failed to understand the family and community bonds that had sustained these villages for decades through unemployment, poverty and war. Many villages fought back and some disappeared completely, such as Hamsteels near Esh Winning and Addison near Ryton, before the County Council relented and ditched the policy more than a quarter of a century later.
In the lead up to the millennium I began to undertake research for a comprehensive history of Sunniside which resulted in me spending every Wednesday night poring over records in the County Archives. It was then I began to learn about Durham County Council’s ill-advised categorisation of pit villages that would leave deep scars in the psyche of communities for generations to come. Two decades after the publication of my book and more than 70 years on from the introduction of the failed policy, the Category D villages have come under the spotlight with a flurry of creative projects aimed at telling the story.
A way home
I saw Christina Castling’s play A Way Home in a packed village hall in Witton Park where the audience had long memories. The play focuses on the generational divisions and tensions in one County Durham family grappling with the implications of a Category D designation. All the action takes place around the kitchen table as the characters come and go, filling the room with chatter, gossip, disagreements, chastisements, ultimatums, fond memories, words of affection, good news and bad. Castling has a keen ear for the vernacular and the quick-fire dialogue conjures an authentic picture of a close-knit, working-class family where women rule the roost.
I loved the opening scene, set on the day of the village carnival with Frank, the man of the house, pleased as punch at his success in winning the ‘Greasy Pole’ challenge, much to the annoyance of his wife, Bet. But there’s more trouble in store than a ruined pair of trousers when a man from the council comes knocking on the door to assess whether or not the family home is up to scratch. That fateful visit is the beginning of the end for the extended family living in close proximity and for the village as a whole.
The main body of the play is taken up with the ultimately doomed campaign to save the village, with Bet taking a leading role alongside the local vicar. But as more and more families succumb to the Council’s tempting offer of new homes with modern facilities Bet is left increasingly isolated, a lone voice raging against officialdom. Jacqueline Phillips inhabits the character of Bet perfectly, taking us on a roller-coaster emotional journey. For her, the house is much more than bricks and mortar. It also holds the memories of loved ones lost and still mourned. Leaving the house and the village means dealing with almost unbearable grief.
Phillips is joined by David Raynor playing the part of Frank who has an almost spiritual relationship with his pigeons. Jude Nelson is the bright-eyed daughter who can hardly wait to move out and set up home with her husband Joe, played by Luke Maddison. Jackie Lye and Lawrence Neale complete the excellent cast.
Whilst I was glad to see Castling tackling this complex and important story, I felt there was almost too much drama going on towards the end of the play with a pregnancy and a pit accident to contend with on top of everything else. Castling had a great team around her however and she’s definitely a name to watch in the future.
Meanwhile the inimitable Jacqueline Phillips turned up in another project inspired by the lives of County Durham women, this time in Janet, a short film created by the multi-talented performance artist Hannah Thompson (AKA Cirq Motif) who was born and bred in Tow Law. Janet is a cinematic monologue compiled from conversations with women trapped by tradition and circumstances whose wings were forever clipped. Phillips is a rare breed of actress. She allows the camera to zoom in on her face capturing all her imperfections as she details the drudgery of an unfulfilled life. The combination of raw testimony and close-up film is both moving and painful to watch. Janet is a project in process and I look forward to the next phase.
Firm as a rock we stand
The Category D scandal also caught the attention of Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, who hails from Marsden, West Yorkshire. Originally a student of geography, Armitage became obsessed with finding out what had happened to the village of Marsden in the North East and thus began a poetic and musical odyssey which culminated in Durham Cathedral on 15 July when he gave voice to an elegy for all the Category D communities. “Firm as a Rock We Stand” are the words emblazoned on the Whitburn Colliery banner which the people of Marsden would have marched behind at the Miners’ Gala, and this is the title of Armitage’s project, commissioned by Durham Brass Festival with the support of Durham County Council, Durham Miners Association, Redhills (Durham Miners Hall), Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Armitage appeared with his musical accomplices from LYR playing alongside Easington Colliery Band and demonstrated the kind of insightful solidarity with hard-pressed forgotten and impoverished communities that is often lacking from those at the top of their game. His ability to combine exquisite lyricism with political sensibilities and tub-thumping angry punk poetry made for an extraordinary evening. His homage to the shameful policy of erasure began with ‘Addison Drifts’, a melancholic personification of the village of Addison as a woman.
"...Some say she left on her own, no goodbyes, set off with a stone in her shoe and an anthracite heart..."
There followed two ‘list poems’, a format that lends itself well to spoken word. ‘Alchemy’ is a paean to the tradition of brass music in mining communities, from the immense human effort that goes into forging metal to the iconography of a rough and ready but proud working class.
"...And out of the brass came medals. And out of the brass came booze. And out of the brass came banners. And out of the brass came spires..."
Armitage then gave vent to the anger and shame conferred by the Category D designation with an unrelenting list of negative associations with the letter D, from bad school marks to words beginning with D that ‘Destroy’, ‘Deplete’, ‘Defeat’, ‘Discard’, ‘Damage’, ‘Dismiss’, ‘Debase’, ‘Demolish’, ‘Distress’, ‘Demoralise’, ‘Downgrade’, ‘Demean’, ‘Devastate’, ‘Diminish’, ‘Denounce’ and so on. You get the picture.
"...I got a D I got categorised I got marginalised I got bastardised I got a D for declassified..."
The final piece of the evening transported us to ‘Marsden By The Sea’ with Armitage populating the now vacant site with metaphors from the natural world, keenly observing how ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. Here Armitage demonstrates his ability to bridge many worlds, past, present and future, mixing memories with the keen observation of an ornithologist. He understands the weather, the changing seasons, the ebb and flow of the tide, and the burning injustice of poor public policy-making.
A special mention must go to Easington Colliery Band who set the tone for the evening with a friendly welcome and a glorious set of tunes, rooting us firmly in the tradition of the pit villages. Credit also to the staff of Durham Cathedral who continue to open up the building for a wide range of public events. We are truly blessed to have the UNESCO designated cathedral and castle on our doorstep. Hopefully the nearby Miners Hall at Redhills will soon also bear the UNESCO mark as part of an international initiative to recognise the unique heritage of workers’ assembly halls. Watch this space!