You won’t know Durham until you go to the Gala

Durham is built on coal. Coal is in the blood: many families have a mining background and the realities of mining are still in living memory. Indeed, the last pit to close was Easington Colliery in 1993, and today there is a new open cast mine being worked in Crook.

Every July this rich and emotive heritage is celebrated with the Durham Miners Gala and Big Meeting.

I’m an incomer to Durham. I can’t hide it: my southern accent and natural tan give me away. In May 2010 Durham put on the first Mystery Plays since – well, since a long long time. We found ourselves sitting in Hill Island micro brewery in Fowlers Yard, chatting to an old Durham ex-pat who asked us if we’d been to the Miners Gala yet. We had to confess ‘no’. He told us that we could never really know Durham until we went to the Gala. I promised I would go that year.

On the second Saturday of July, every pit village parades their hand painted silk banner to the accompaniment of a brass band, first through their village and then through the streets of Durham. Everyone meets up on the Racecourse, an open area beside the river. Most people come for a picnic and to visit the fairground, but plenty of people turn up for the Big Meeting: a trade union/socialist rally, where everyone is ‘brother’, ‘sister’ and ‘comrade’.

I kept my promise and attended my first Gala in 2010. And you know what, he was right.

The banner parade is an amazing experience. The best word to describe it is ‘intimate’. There is no division between parader and public. Shoppers and Gala-goers weave in and out of the stop-start parade. You need to be careful not to be knocked in the head by a passing brass instrument. The banners are beautiful. The paraders beam with pride. Everyone – tourist, local and supporter alike – is part of the spectacle.

Eventually, the banners and their accompanying marching bands wind their way into the Racecourse. Banners are leaned up against railings, brass instruments left on the grass seemingly abandoned in front of them, and paraders, musicians and villagers get their picnics out and enjoy the July weather.

The Crookhall banner and brass instruments. It’s part of the vibe here that people can wander around at will, and no harm will come to the banners or equipment

The Big Meeting kicks off about lunchtime. If any Tories wistfully dream of Durham turning blue, they just need to turn up to a Big Meeting to see this is never going to happen. I find it very surreal listening to politicians who normally try to appear moderate addressing the crowd as ‘comrades’.

I’ve been to two Galas now. The Gala brings home that coal mining is the beating heart of Durham. It may be receding into history, but the people will never forget their mining heritage, and every year the bonds of community will be strengthened to the beat of the drums as each pit village proudly bears their banner and their memories through the streets of Durham.

Gala day brings out the inner Durham. It brings out the passion and the pride. Taking part in the parade (you cannot not take part – if you are there you are part of it) gives an insight into hardships, heartbreaks and bonds that have forged Durham and made it the amazing place it is today.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this year. There are more on flickr. (click on photo to view large).

Pride

Placing the banner

On guard

The Big Meeting: Tom Watson MP addresses the crowd

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About Yasmine

After working with horses for many years I came to my senses and got a 'proper job'. I now live in Weardale with My Taller Half, a mad border collie and 5 chickens. Still wishing I could spend all my time in the great outdoors
This entry was posted in Essays, Out and about, photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to You won’t know Durham until you go to the Gala

  1. Great post, Yasmine!

    I think you are dead right – you couldn’t become part of the community in Co.Durham without being part of ‘The Gala’. I’ve never been myself (I lived in Cumbria for 25 years) but I understand and identify with the working people who still support the event, long after the mines were sacrificed for political and economic expediency.

    Well done!

  2. Yasmine says:

    Thanks Paul. If you get a chance it’s well worth going to the Gala. It’s both a humbling and joyful experience. Probably a bit of a trek for you now though… 🙂

  3. Peter Loud says:

    Check out my photographs of miners’ banners at Saturday’s Gala at,
    http://www.peterloud.co.uk/photos/Miners_Banners/MB_2012-1.html
    They are not rubbishy snapshots 😉

  4. Love the pictures. We saw Billy Bragg at the Gala a few years ago. Such a humble lovely bloke.

  5. kevinallan says:

    A great set of images from the Gala

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