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A feast for our class and culture

PETER LAZENBY says the vibrant spirit of Durham’s former coalmining communities is alive and well despite the efforts of Tory wreckers

Houghton Le Spring is a small town equidistant between Durham and Sunderland in north-east England.

Every October it celebrates a 10-day "feast" - a social, cultural and recreational event involving thousands of local townspeople, their organisations and others from surrounding communities.

There are pipe bands, a fun fair, sports tournaments, crafts, vintage cars and, as its name suggests, roasted ox to feast on.

Depending on which version of history you believe Houghton Le Spring's annual feast dates from either the 1500s or from Norman times.

The former is based on a story that the local rector had a wild boar slaughtered and roasted to feed the hungry poor. The latter relates to the religious festival of Michaelmas at the historic local church in the 1100s.

Either way the feast's origins are predated by coalmining in the region. Romans manning Hadrian's Wall further north used coal for under-floor central heating - in the officers' quarters of course.

And every year the union banner of Houghton Lodge of the Durham Miners' Association heads the march which launches the feast.

This is despite the fact that Houghton colliery closed in 1981, three years before the epic miners' strike against pit closures of 1984/5. It had been in operation for 152 years.

The Tory onslaught on the coalmining industry which followed the strike caused the closure of every other coalmine in the Durham area, with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, dealing hammer blows to the economies of the communities built around the pits.

But the spirit of the communities lives on, and one of the ways it exhibits itself is through the preservation and restoration of pit union banners.

A dozen of them are on display this week at an exhibition about the Durham area's coalmining industry as part of Houghton Le Spring's feast.

Billy Middleton, a Durham miner for 31 years, is one of those behind the determination to keep alive the spirit and culture of the mining communities through the banners.

"This is our heritage," he said.

"All we have got left up here is pit wheels and banners. That is why the banners are getting restored and put in the churches and schools. Others are being remade. We've got 60 now and another dozen in the pipeline."

Dozens of community-based banner support groups have sprung up, taking on responsibility not only for the physical maintenance of the banners but for ensuring that new generations learn about what they represent - the culture, the solidarity of mining communities, the importance of the union.

Schools are encouraged to display the local pit banner to that end.

Billy visits all the banner support groups and is treasurer for one of them.

He said some pit union banners simply disappeared after closures - and not just those which took place in the Tories' final vicious assault on the industry in the early 1990s.

Some are discovered years, even decades, later, in great need of attention, in store rooms or attics.

"Usually a banner will go to a professional in Stoke to be restored," Billy says. "But sometimes they are so far gone she won't look at them."

When that happens a three-strong team of volunteers, including Billy, takes on the restoration job.

"We have a seamstress. Jane Wilson from Houghton does the borders. Bob Ord from Thornley is the artist and does the painting."

Billy's role is to use fine nylon netting, almost invisible, to reinforce threadbare and torn fabric by delicately gluing it to the reverse of the banner.

He points to the Marsden Lodge banner at the exhibition, which dates from 1954, as an example of the team's work.

Even restored it will never be strong enough to be used on the streets. Instead it will hang in a school or community centre and be brought out for exhibitions like this.

Duplicates are being created to take the place of such fragile banners at rallies and marches.

Pat Simmons is another of the area's leading banner enthusiasts.

Her grandfather was a miner. She lived in mining communities as a child because her father was a local policeman.

Pat and a friend began to take an interest in Durham's coalmining heritage in 2003, a decade after the last closure.

They decided that the banner for Lambton colliery lodge should be recreated. They set about raising funds and the banner is now back in existence.

Pat also organises the annual exhibition at the feast.

"We got involved. Now we live and breathe it," she says.

The banners, along with thousands of people from the communities which support them, appear at the Durham Miners' Gala every July. And every year there are more of them.

Durham Miners' Association secretary Davey Hopper was among those at the exhibition on its opening day last Saturday.

"Davey won't be happy until every single community has got its banner back," Billy says.

The exhibition includes displays documenting the history of Durham's miners, their tragedies, their battles for justice.

There's a stall of mining memorabilia run by Ashley Bell and Helen Barker from Beamish Mining Museum.

During its existence Houghton colliery had seven union banners. One of them, restored by Billy and his team, dates from the 1930s and has pride of place in the Wild Boar, a Wetherspoon's pub nearby in the town.


The exhibition continues for the duration of the feast and ends on October 13


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