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 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).